The super-vital Confederations Cup is over. So are the June qualifiers.
It’s a great time to take stock of the World Cup picture for Russia 2018. Here are five favorites to win the tournament, and five more that at least warrant discussion.
The defending champions. The consensus chalk pick. Consistency is key. Joachim Low has coached since 2006. The Germans have reached the semifinals or better at the last six major tournaments. Germany will have an experienced core of World Cup winners: Neuer, Hummels, Boateng, Ozil, Kroos, Muller, Khedira. But the scary part may be their depth.
Germany won the Confederations Cup with what was essentially a youth team. Only two players in the 23-man squad had 20 caps. None more than 30. The Mannschaft may not win. But they are a safe bet to be thereabouts.
Consistency has never been a trademark for the French. But Les Bleus should enter 2018 with the tournament’s most talented squad. The potential is staggering. Three of our current Top 10 players in the world – Griezmann, Kanté, and Pogba – are in their primes. Wee 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé is the world’s most sought after youth prospect. Young starlets Lemar, Tolisso, Coman, and Martial have yet to make an impact.
Historically, France has relied on a star to step forward. Tournament triumphs come when there’s a Platini or Zidane. The man of the moment must be a bigger-name player than Dimitri Payet. One mild concern: the French need to qualify. France trails Sweden in their group on goal difference, and the Dutch are lurking for the second-place playoff spot. One untimely result could see the world’s best team eliminated from the tournament before it starts. No pressure.
A Neymar-less Brazil went down with indignity at Copa America Centenario in 2016, exiting in the group stage. Since that tournament, Tite took over as coach. He improved things, dramatically. The Brazilians are 8-0 in competitive matches since. They have outscored opponents over that span 25-2. Toughest CONMEBOL qualifying campaign ever? The Brazilians sit nine points clear, have a +25 goal difference, and have already qualified with four matches remaining.
Will Brazil be “Brazil” again? They need that extra gear to put good teams away in the knockout rounds. Neymar being in fine fettle is a must. Brazil will also place much of their faith in Jesus, Gabriel Jesus. The 20-year-old forward, who joined Manchester City in January, has five goals in his first seven national team appearances. Brazil looks much more like Brazil when there’s a Ronaldo or a Romario up front than a Fred.
The Argentines have been skunked in three-straight tournament finals. They lost the 2014 World Cup Final to Germany. Chile beat them in two Copa finals on penalties. The team that can call on Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Gonzalo Higuain among others up front failed to score. That denied Messi his international tournament one, the one omission on what may be the all-time greatest résumé.
A transcendent star carrying a pedestrian group on his back to a final is the Argentine paradigm. Messi is more than capable of doing so again, if Argentina can qualify. They sit in fifth place in the CONMEBOL qualification standings, meaning they would play off to reach the tournament. Much of the trouble has been missing Messi. The Argentines have earned just seven of 21 points in matches without him. Fortunately for Argentina, FIFA rescinded a suspension that would have knocked him out for three of the four qualifiers left.
Spain won three-straight major tournaments from 2008-12. The world adapted to tiki-taka (and nature took its course with Xavi). Things have not been the same since. Spain went down in the group stage of 2014 and only reached the Round of 16 at the Euros. The Spanish have lost four of their last seven matches at major tournaments.
The Spanish rebooted off he pitch. Vicente del Bosque took his talents to noble retirement. Julen Lopetegui, who won European U-19 and U-21 championships with Spanish youth teams, replaced him. Spain has outscored its qualifying opponents 21-3. Though, aside from a 1-1 draw with Italy, that has meant beating Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Lichtenstein.
Spain has a veteran laden squad of tournament winners and stars for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich. Even after underwhelming efforts the last two times out, one must count them in. The worry is no one has emerged to challenge that golden generation for a place in the team.
Worth Talking About At Least
Belgium: The talent is there. It has been over the past few tournaments. Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois, and Lukaku are just a few of the names. Squad coherence and coaching are issues. Despite world-class talent everywhere else, Belgium has no fullbacks.
Harry Kane was fantastic against Iceland. This freekick sums up his performance. pic.twitter.com/AkUnwaTq6E
— PREMIUM TWEEP (@XANTAPLUS) June 28, 2016
England: Club continuity can be a vital advantage in international play. Club players spend far more time with each other and develop greater affinity. A core group of players from the same successful club can work wonders. Tottenham’s young group – Kane, Ali, Dyer, Walker – has made Spurs a lot less “Spursy.” Can they do the same for England? They need to show more than they did at Euro 2016.
Italy: Never rule out the Italians. That’s the only argument in Italy’s apparent favor. Antonio Conte left for Chelsea. Multiple players, including the lauded BBC defense, will be in their mid-30s. Marco Veratti is the only real young star (if he’s fit). They don’t have anything resembling a Luca Toni up front.
Portugal: Portugal should not have won Euro 2016. In a deeper 32-team tournament, winning one match in the regulation 90 minutes, when the toughest team faced before the final is Croatia, gets you bounced. Portugal was old, creaky, and dependent on one man heading into that tournament. The Portuguese will be older and creakier heading into 2018.
Chile: Two-straight Copa America wins. One more run with Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. But, can they be more than a plucky also-ran on the world stage? Their A-team went all-in for the Confederations Cup and was foiled by a Germany youth team.