World Cup trends: What to watch out for at Qatar 2022
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World Cup trends: What to watch out for at Qatar 2022

With the World Cup drawing ever closer, we’ve compared data from the past six tournaments with the previous season’s Champions League to identify some trends that are unique to the greatest show on Earth.

Defences to dominate

World Cup matches tend to be cagier than games played in the Champions League – perhaps due to the amount at stake and the fact that international teams play less regularly.

The club competition has seen more goals per game in four of the last six World Cup years; around 0.2 extra on average. The difference widened in 2018, with the World Cup seeing 2.64 goals per game compared with 3.21 in the 2017-18 Champions League.

Back the group winners

All of the past six World Cups have been won by teams that finished first in their group. Qualifying impressively is less important in the Champions League, with knockout ties played over two legs rather than one.

In all, 77% of World Cup teams that top their group have gone on to win at least one knockout match, while the same percentage of group runners-up have exited in the Round of 16.

Our World Cup trends show only France in 2006 managed to reach the final as group runners-up, overcoming an incredibly difficult draw by beating Spain, Brazil and Portugal back-to-back before losing to Italy on penalties.

Minnows will not be overawed

The World Cup has increasingly provided tighter contests than the Champions League. Across the past six tournaments, fewer than 5% of matches have seen a team win by four goals or more.

Meanwhile, the Champions League – generally dominated by a handful of powerful clubs – has seen a higher percentage of thrashings (8%). The number of Champions League mismatches reached a peak in 2017-18, with Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG all enjoying multiple routs.

In contrast, England’s 6-1 victory over Panama was one of just two big wins recorded by any team at the World Cup the following summer.

Comebacks are rare in knockout games

The team that goes into half-time leading in a World Cup knockout game almost always goes on to win. In the last six tournaments, nations were twice as likely to erase a half-time deficit in the group phase compared with the latter stages.

The opposite is true in the Champions League, with teams more likely to launch a comeback from the Round of 16 onwards. The last World Cup was a case in point – England were the only side to get knocked out having led at half-time, doing so against Croatia in the semi-finals.

Expect fair play

The number of World Cup games involving red cards has declined sharply over the past two tournaments. In percentage terms, there were more dismissals at World Cups than in Champions Leagues in the late 1990s and 2000s, but that trend reversed in the 2010s.

Poor discipline was rife in 2006 – the year in which France’s Zinedine Zidane was sent off in the final for a headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi. However, the most recent tournament in 2018 saw just four red cards in total.

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