2022 is unusual for football because it will be bookended by the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup. It wasn’t supposed to be that way— continental championships and World Cups are held in alternate years —but so were many other things till Covid-19 got in the way. Between the two international men’s events, between one season yielding to another, here is what we can look forward to over the next 12 months.
Manisha Kalyan has shown that she is not afraid to look Brazil in the eye and India will need her and her mates to do more of the same in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup which will be held in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Pune from January 20 to February 6.
India is hosting the continent’s highest competition for first since 1980 and at stake is a possible berth in the 2023 World Cup. For automatic qualification to the quadrennial showpiece in Australia and New Zealand, India, ranked 55th (the men are 104th), must be among the top five teams.
India will have to do it possibly without striker Bala Devi and midfielder Sangita Basfore who haven’t recovered from injuries.
ALSO READ | Bala Devi unlikely for Asian Cup, says coach Thomas Dennerby
Covid-19 also severely impeded preparations with a season of the Indian Women’s League subsumed by the pandemic, travel restrictions scuttling friendlies and leading to the cancellation of an invitation tournament in Kochi last month. But India did manage to play a competition in Turkey, friendlies in Uzbekistan, UAE and move to Europe for some more practice before visiting Brazil in November.
India are grouped with Chinese Taipei (whom they beat in a friendly in 2021), China and Iran. A top-two finish seals a quarter-final berth but even if they finish third, the team coached by Swede Thomas Dennerby can make the round of eight. In the absence of a proper structure it will be a big deal if they do.
Will Mbappe swap capitals?
Talking of big deals, it sure will be one if Kylian Mbappe stays in Paris. Per the terms of engagement, the French forward is free to talk to other clubs given that he is in the last six months of his contract. Paris St-Germain are hoping Mbappe lights up Parc des Princes, like he did with a hattrick at Vannes in the French Cup earlier in the week, and Europe with Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr and changes his mind. They are also hoping that Mbappe’s deep connect with the city he was born and grew up in will keep him from Madrid for now.
But there has been no new deal and so sure in Madrid are they that the 23-year-old French World Cup winner — and the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958 — is swapping capitals that Mbappe’s face was revealed in a New Year countdown clock. Few clubs in the world can turn down an approximately $190 million transfer offer especially for a player who can go for free in a year but there is nothing ordinary about PSG. The quirks of a re-done Champions League draw have pitted Real and PSG in a round-of-16 tie and on how that tie goes could decide whether Mbappe goes.
If Real have a plan as to how they intend using Mbappe, undoubtedly one of the brightest sparks in the game now, it is a secret well kept. But this is an age where stars are first signed before teams decide how they will fit — think Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barca, a revival story?
If the best sport stories are those of the underdogs, athletes and teams trying to regain lost glory would be next in the list. So will 2022 end with green shoots of a Barcelona revival visible? Barcelona go to Granada on Saturday fifth in the La Liga standings. At 31 points they are 15 behind leaders Real Madrid who have played a game more. Luuk de Jong, a striker who does not fit into the crisp passing game Barca are famous for, scored in the 1-0 win at Mallorca but goals have been a problem for them. As has been their defence and the patchy form of goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
So, Xavi has his task cut out. First, get the team to play like it did when he pulled strings in the midfield: dominating possession stats and weaving an elaborate tapestry of passes that left opponents chasing crooked shadows. Going into the winter break, Barca (4.5) played fewer passes per move than Real (nearly 5), according to a graphic by The Athletic.
Their financial issues are well documented (a debt of nearly $1.6 billion) so buying a striker could be a challenge but if there is a silver lining to all this, losing the talisman because they couldn’t afford him included, it is that a crop of young players have emerged. Step forward, Pedri, Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo, Gavi, Nicolas Gonzalez, Ricky Puig, Sergino Dest, Yusuf Demir, Eric Garcia. As Alex Ferguson has shown, you will win nothing without kids so who knows, the year may end for Barca as it has begun. With a return to the Champions League next term correcting an anomaly that happened in 2021-22, after 20 years, as bonus.
Arsenal’s upward trek
If Arsenal are a few chapters ahead of Barcelona in the revival story, it is because they have started earlier. Mikel Arteta spent 156.8 million pounds in the summer and got down to work on tightening the defence and being more clinical in attack.
The early results were woeful but December gave hope. Arsenal notched up 5-0 and 5-1 wins in the league and the EFL Cup, beats Leeds and had convincing wins at West Ham and Southampton. In the middle of this the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang crisis erupted and Arteta, like Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea with Romelu Lukaku, put the player in his place.
It was cruel that Arsenal didn’t get anything from the game against Manchester City but it also promises a turnaround for a team that was once Invincibles but more recently eighth twice in the Premier League.
New ISL champions
From revival stories to writing new ones. ATK have done it thrice; Chennaiyin FC twice, Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City once each. So what chances of a new team winning the eighth season of the Indian Super League (ISL), assuming of course the bio-bubble breach is restricted to ATK Mohun Bagan and they recover in time for the January 15 game against Bengaluru FC?
ALSO READ | Covid-19 hits ISL; Saturday’s ATK Mohun Bagan and Odisha FC match deferred
As we approach the halfway stage, there is little to separate the first seven teams. In that mix are Hyderabad FC, Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC.
Three of those four have never made the semi-finals but hope springs in how Odisha mounted a stirring comeback, led by Indian midfielder Jerry Mawihmingthanga, and how SC East Bengal stopped Mumbai City to a point on Friday.
New champions in successive seasons along with NorthEast United’s inspiring run to the semi-finals last term should take football beyond the traditional power centres of Kolkata and Goa (who have never won but are one of the most consistent teams of the competition). At least we can live in hope that it will.
Showcasing Africa’s best
It’s timing irritates Europe’s top clubs and you can’t blame them. To lose Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, Edouard Mendy, Riyad Mahrez, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Achraf Hakimi, Kalidou Koulibaly, Andrea Onana, Ilaix Moriba, to play without four players as Villarreal must, is a prospect no one relishes. This was supposed to be played last year and a world that has lived with deferred Olympics, deferred Euros has to live with this too. The Premier League will have 38 players, La Liga 11 and Bundesliga 12 in the competition.
Mahrez’s Algeria are the defending champions but Salah’s Egypt are seven-time champions, Africa’s most successful team. Koulibaly, Mane and Mendy’s Senegal were runners-up in 2019. The 24-team battle for continental supremacy begins on January 9.
First in the Arab world
2022 will end with a World Cup like no other, the first in the Arab world and the first in the northern hemisphere’s winter. You can read about it here.