Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.
37 nations will feature in Friday’s draw for Qatar 2022 as we look ahead to the first ever winter World Cup, although with the tournament’s expansion held off until 2026 this field will be whittled down to 32 teams in the summer.
However, there are three slots split across the eight play-off hopefuls. One of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine will be the final European qualifier. June will see either Australia or the UAE clash with Peru for a place, while Costa Rica meet New Zealand in the other intercontinental clash.
That leaves a lot to keep on top of, but we’ve put together an essential guide to the draw. Hopefully you’ve had a crack at our 2022 World Cup qualifiers quiz first, as we’re about to go team-by-team through the sides in the hat for Friday’s group stage draw.
Manager: Felix Sanchez
Star player: Almoez Ali
The tournament hosts and World Cup debutants won the Asian Cup in 2019, when prolific striker Almoez Ali scored a brilliant overhead kick in a 3-1 victory against Japan in the final.
Qatar have built up their tournament experience with guest appearances at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup and 2019 Copa America, where they competed well in group games against Paraguay, Colombia and Argentina, but this is a step up for the novices.
Star player: Vinicius Junior
Brazil are the most successful nation in World Cup history with five titles but they haven’t reached the final since 2002 and were beaten 2-1 by Belgium in the quarter-finals at Russia 2018.
Tite was kept on as head coach and steered the Samba Stars to Copa America success in 2019, but his team may struggle to match high expectations in Qatar.
Manager: Lionel Scaloni
Star player: Lionel Messi
Argentina breezed through South American qualifying – sealing a place at the World Cup with four games to spare – but they have questions to answer after failing to impress at Russia 2018.
Star player Lionel Messi has one last chance to win the game’s biggest prize but he needs to find some form and fitness after a difficult season.
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Star player: Kylian Mbappe
France were widely expected to kick on after their triumph at Russia 2018 but they took a couple of steps back with their unconvincing performances at Euro 2020.
However, few teams can match the individual quality and depth within the French squad, which gives them have every chance of mounting a strong defence of the trophy.
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Star player: Kevin De Bruyne
Despite a comfortable, unbeaten qualification campaign, it still feels like Belgium have missed the boat when it comes to winning a major international tournament.
Kevin De Bruyne is an immense midfield talent and Romelu Lukaku has his moments in the final third but many of the so-called Golden Generation are long gone and they are likely to fall short of the third-place finish they achieved at the 2018 World Cup.
Manager: Luis Enrique
Star player: Pedri
Runs to the last four at Euro 2020 and last year’s Nations League final suggest Spain are a team on the up and they could certainly be dark horses in Qatar.
In Barcelona teenagers Pedri and Gavi, they have the basis of a top midfield for years to come while a defence marshalled by Aymeric Laporte was generally sturdy during the Euros. Finding the right player to polish off chances in attack will be the key to success at this year’s World Cup.
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Star player: Harry Kane
Winning the World Cup might seem like the logical next step for England, who reached the semi-finals at Russia 2018 and the final of Euro 2020.
However, the Three Lions benefited from favourable draws on both of those occasions and they still need to prove themselves against the very top teams.
Manager: Fernando Santos
Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal took the roundabout route to qualification but they have lots of talent, especially in attacking areas, and could be a serious threat in Qatar.
The Iberians have had to cope with some tough draws at recent major tournaments but they are capable of mixing it with the best and cannot be ruled out of contention.
Manager: Kasper Hjulmand
Star player: Christian Eriksen
Christian Eriksen’s likely involvement at the World Cup will be one of the stories of the tournament but there are plenty of other reasons why the Danish challenge should be taken seriously.
Denmark excelled at Euro 2020 and are capable of giving any opponent a decent game although they are banking on a strong recovery for key man Mikkel Damsgaard, who is just returning from a long-term knee injury.
Manager: Zlatko Dalic
Star player: Luka Modric
Since their shock run to the final of the last World Cup four years ago, Croatia have slumped, underperforming in the Nations League before falling at the last-16 hurdle at Euro 2020.
Luke Modric remains one of the most captivating midfielders in world football but they lack cutting edge creativity beyond the Real Madrid man and are unlikely to cause a stir in Qatar. Josip Brekalo, however, is an exciting talent to monitor.
Manager: Hansi Flick
Star player: Manuel Neuer
Germany reached the last four at four consecutive World Cups between 2002 and 2014, when they were crowned champions, but they suffered a group-stage exit in 2018 and struggled at Euro 2020.
Hansi Flick took over from Joachim Low and led them to World Cup qualification with five successive wins but his team may find it tough to get past the quarter-finals in Qatar.
Manager: Murat Yakin
Star player: Breel Embolo
After seven years in charge, Vladimir Petkovic left his post as Switzerland manager shortly after their quarter-final exit at Euro 2020 and new boss Murat Yakin could have his work cut out getting more from a pretty average squad.
A fairly robust defence and an experienced midfield featuring Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri should once again help them get out of the group but do not expect much more than that.
Manager: Louis van Gaal
Star player: Memphis Depay
Three-time World Cup runners-up the Netherlands failed to qualify for the last tournament in Russia but showed signs of promise at Euro 2020.
The tournament ended in anti-climactic fashion with defeat to Czech Republic in the last 16 but the Dutch stormed their group and if veteran boss Louis van Gaal can get the best out of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay, they could go far.
Manager: Diego Alonso
Star player: Luis Suarez
Uruguay had a rocky qualification but they came good after Diego Alonso replaced Oscar Tabarez as manager and they are capable of making a decent impact in Qatar.
Veteran strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are backed up by rising star Darwin Nunez and the general depth and quality of the squad looks sufficient for La Celeste to be marked down as potential dark horses.
Manager: Gerardo Martino
Star player: Raul Jimenez
Mexico have been knocked out at the second-round stage at the last seven World Cups and the only two occasions they have eclipsed that effort was when they were hosts in 1970 and 1986.
They kept it tight with five consecutive clean sheets to close out their qualification campaign and could be a difficult team to break down, but Fifa’s ninth-ranked team don’t tend to have enough when they come up against top European or South American opposition.
Manager: Gregg Berhalter
Star player: Christian Pulisic
The USA failed to qualify for the first time since 1986 in 2018 and they have been Concacaf powerhouses, reaching eight of the last nine Gold Cup finals.
They have suffered just four defeats in their last 34 games, but just four of those matches were against teams from outside the region, so their 15th place in the Fifa rankings looks flattering.
Manager: Dragan Stojkovic
Star player: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
Serbia crashed out at the group stage in the 2018 World Cup but there is cause for optimism this time after a strong qualifying campaign in which they finished above Portugal and Ireland in their section.
Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic remains a dangerous midfield operator while Aleksandar Mitrovic and Luka Jovic will be relied upon in the final third.
Manager: Dragan Skocic
Star player: Sardar Azmoun
Iran are making their sixth appearance at the World Cup finals, having reached four of the last five, although a stuttering start to their qualifying campaign cost Belgian coach Marc Wilmots his job in December 2019.
They took four points from a tough group featuring Morocco, Spain and Portugal at the 2018 finals and have some exciting attacking players including Porto’s Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun of Bayer Leverkusen.
Manager: Paulo Bento
Star player: Heung-Min Son
The Taegeuk Warriors are looking forward to a tenth consecutive World Cup finals campaign and their first 11 has a talented core of players from the Premier League and Bundesliga.
South Korea have faced modest opponents since the start of 2021 although they beat Germany 2-0 in their final group game in 2018 after narrow defeats to Sweden and Mexico.
Manager: Hajime Moriyasu
Star player: Takumi Minamino
Japan’s qualification campaign started slowly with 1-0 defeats to Oman and Saudi Arabia and a 1-0 win over China in their first three games before a late own goal gave them a 2-1 victory against Australia.
The Samurai Blue won their next five qualifiers, all by a 1-0 or 2-0 margin, to secure a place at their seventh consecutive World Cup finals although they have never got past the last 16 and scoring goals against higher-quality opponents may be a problem.
Manager: Czeslaw Michniewicz
Star player: Robert Lewandowski
Poland have been present at the last World Cup and the last three European Championships, but they tend to struggle at major tournaments and it is hard to see them finding the improvement required to contend this winter.
Robert Lewandowski is still among the world’s best strikers but the supporting cast isn’t great and the Poles have not got past the World Cup group stage since 1986.
Manager: Aliou Cisse
Star player: Sadio Mane
The Afcon champions repeated the trick over Egypt in the playoffs, winning again on penalties, and are a team built on solid foundations with one of the best keepers in the world in Edouard Mendy and a strong defensive unit.
Sadio Mane takes the plaudits going forward but the Lions of Teranga are a well-balanced side who will be able to go toe-to-toe with most.
Manager: Vahid Halilhodzic
Star player: Achraf Hakimi
Morocco’s last defeat in 90 minutes was 31 games ago and they are a solid defensive side with Wolves man Romain Saiss the anchor.
The Atlas Stars have a good mix of youth and experience and could prove to be a surprise package in Qatar. Matching their best performance, a last-16 finish in 1986, is a solid aim.
Manager: Jalel Kadri
Star player: Wahbi Khazri
Former assistant manager Jalel Kadri was brought in following an inconsistent Afcon campaign and has since seen his Tunisia side scrape past Mali in the playoffs to reach Qatar.
The Eagles of Carthage have won just two of their 15 matches at previous World Cups and they look unlikely to do much better this time.
Manager: Herve Renard
Star player: Salem Al-Dawsari
Former Morocco, Ivory Coast and Cambridge United manager Herve Renard has been in charge of the Saudis since July 2019 and they steered a smooth course through qualifying, winning six of their first seven games in the third round.
However, they took just one point from group matches against Morocco, Jordan and Palestine at last year’s Arab Cup and the squad does not look much stronger than the one who failed to qualify from a section featuring Russia, Uruguay and Egypt at the 2018 World Cup.
Manager: John Herdman
Star player: Alphonso Davies
Canada have qualified for the first time since 1986, when they failed to score a goal in a tough group that included semi-finalists France, Hungary and the USSR.
They won seven of their final nine Concacaf qualifiers, conceding just four goals in that run despite the absence of Bayern Munich full-back Alphonso Davies for much of that period. They could cause the odd upset but a last-16 appearance would be a big surprise.
Manager: Davide Ballardini
Star player: Thomas Partey
The Black Stars endured a heartbreaking defeat to Uruguay in the quarter-finals in 2010 but haven’t lived up to that since, finishing bottom of their group in 2014 and failing to qualify in 2018.
Their playoff win over Nigeria was something of a shock given that they didn’t make it out of their group at the Africa Cup of Nations. They look one of the weaker African teams.
Manager: Rigobert Song
Star player: Vincent Aboubakar
The Indomitable Lions qualified in dramatic style thanks to a 124th-minute winner over Algeria and performed well when hosting the Africa Cup of Nations, finishing third.
Cameroon benefited from a plum draw and home advantage on that occasion, though, and are likely to find it tougher on the world stage. Goalkeeper Andre Onana is a solid operator but may need to be.
Manager: Gustavo Alfaro
Star player: Piero Hincapie
Ecuador’s results tailed off toward the end of qualifying but they may be capable of posing problems for some of the stronger teams in Qatar.
There is some talent in the squad including DC United striker Michael Estrada – their six-goal top scorer in qualifying – and 20-year-old central defender Piero Hincapie, who is a regular for Bayer Leverkusen.
Manager: Steve Clarke
Star player: Andrew Robertson
Steve Clarke has already made significant progress with the current Scotland crop, leading them to their first major tournament since 1998 when they turned out at Euro 2020.
Despite a hard-fought draw with England at Wembley during that campaign, they failed to make it out of the group but responded with six wins in their last seven qualifiers and could be tricky opponents for any team in Qatar, though they must see off Ukraine and Wales first.
Manager: Oleksandr Petrakov
Star player: Andriy Yarmolenko
Although it concluded with a 4-0 defeat against England in the quarter-finals in Rome, Ukraine should remember their Euro 2020 campaign fondly.
West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko forms a talented front three along with Roman Yaremchuk and Viktor Tsyhankov, while defender Illya Zabarnyi shows plenty of potential and they have every chance of reaching the knockout stages should they get past Scotland and then Wales.
Manager: Rob Page
Star player: Gareth Bale
Wales last featured in a World Cup in 1958, reaching the quarter-finals on that occasion, and their prospects in Qatar should they qualify will be dependent on one man in particular.
Gareth Bale remains inconspicuous at club level but is the star of this Wales team and more moments like his free-kick against Austria in the playoffs will be required for the Dragons to go far.
Manager: Luis Fernando Suarez
Star player: Joel Campbell
Costa Rica were one of the stories of the 2014 World Cup when they topped their group following victories over Uruguay and Italy and a draw with England.
They were knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals by the Netherlands, but a repeat seems unrealistic. They did beat Canada and USA to seal a playoff against New Zealand, but they struggled to keep up with the Concacaf qualifying pace and an ageing squad look unlikely to make much of an impact should they make it to Qatar.
Manager: Danny Hay
Star player: Chris Wood
Breezing through Oceanic qualifying is one thing, taking care of Costa Rica for a place at the finals is quite another.
Danny Hay’s men ought to be confident with a young group emerging alongside veterans Chris Wood and Winston Reid, although there’s a sense they’ve got their sights set on four years from now.
Manager: Graham Arnold
Star player: Aaron Mooy
Heading into qualification as the second-ranked team in their section should have resulted in a top-two finish for Australia – but a tally of just one win in their last seven sent them into the playoffs and left many demanding coach Arnold’s head.
Now the Socceroos must beat UAE and Peru in the space of a week and the national mood suggests that’s a long shot.
United Arab Emirates
Manager: Rodolfo Arruabarrena
Star player: Ali Mabkhout
Arab Cup humiliation at the hands of Qatar before Christmas cost Bert van Marwijk his job but the UAE showed plenty of bravery under new boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena to stun South Korea and make the playoffs.
Their defensive strength will make them obdurate opponents for the Aussies and, should they prevail, Peru, although they look light in attack.
Manager: Ricardo Gareca
Star player: Yoshimar Yotun
Peru acquitted themselves well enough at the last World Cup under Gareca, where they were pipped by Denmark and France but beat Australia. Since then they’ve reached the final and semis of the Copa America.
Some faithful old-timers have needed replacing but even in their absence they should still be too strong for either the Aussies or UAE.
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