The World Cup is only 15 months away and, with the latest round of qualifying games around the corner, we look at some of the teams expected to challenge for the trophy in Russia. The usual suspects – Argentina, Brazil and Germany – are expected to go far but France and Belgium, player-by-player, have arguably more impressive squads.
Brazil are top of the South American qualifying, having been rejuvenated under Tite’s stewardship with Argentina languishing in fifth with a crucial game against Chile coming up on Thursday. In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are the only teams yet to drop points with England, Spain, France, Poland, Republic of Ireland and Croatia also topping their groups.
The African teams are only two games into their third qualifying round with DR Congo, Nigeria and Egypt leading the way with six points from their opening fixtures while in Asia Iran lead one of the two groups with Saudi Arabia and Japan joint top of the other.
Here are some of the main contenders, in order of Fifa’s latest rankings, and their starting XIs if all players were fit.
Russia 2018 offers the last chance for Lionel Messi to be crowned the undisputed king of football, as Maradona was in Mexico in 1986 – at least that is what fans feel in Argentina. The match against Chile on Thursday in Buenos Aires is really a final on the road to the World Cup; it is a must-win. Edgardo Bauza, the new head coach, has so far not made the changes needed. He decided to keep the same players Tata Martino and Alejandro Sabella looked to over the past six years. The big question is if this group of extraordinary players such as Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Javier Mascherano and Messi can finally become world champions after losing three major finals in the past three years (Brazil 2014, Copa América in Chile in 2015 and again in the US in 2016). Juan Carlos Pasman.
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Mauro Icardi (Internazionale).
World ranking 1.
Odds to win World Cup 8-1.
Next match Chile, 23 March.
What a difference eight months make. Last summer Brazil did not even get out of their group at the Copa América. The team were, admittedly, on the receiving end of an almighty refereeing blunder in the final game against Peru but it was an unimaginative team that had made very little progress, or even regressed, under Carlos Dunga. In came a new head coach, Tite, and he has transformed the team. There were always good players in the team but Tite has made them work as a collective in a 4-1-4-1 system. Neymar is undoubtedly the leader of the new generation but there is a good mix between youth and experience with players such as Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa, Gabriel Jésus, Casemiro and Dani Alves key members of the squad. The side should be stronger than in 2014 but it is worth pointing out they have not played any of the top European teams for a long time and there is only one friendly, against Germany in March 2018, scheduled before the World Cup. Paulo Vinicius Coelho
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Dudu (Palmeiras).
World ranking 2.
Odds to win World Cup 8-1.
Next match Uruguay, 23 March.
Joachim Löw is blessed with many options but they are unequally distributed. Left-back remains a weakness although Borussia Dortmund’s Felix Passlack, 18, could mature in time to claim the spot. In midfield Sami Khedira’s place could come under pressure from Ilkay Gündogan (currently injured) or Julian Weigl of Dortmund, a world-class player in waiting. Competition will be toughest in attacking midfield. Timo Werner (RB Leipzig), Julian Brandt (Leverkusen), Leroy Sané (Manchester City) and perhaps even the teenager Kai Havertz (Leverkusen) will be in contention if they continue to perform next season. Up front Mario Gómez (Wolfsburg) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim) will harbour hopes that Löw might favour an orthodox No9, at least against weaker opposition. Raphael Honigstein
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen).
World ranking 3.
Odds to win World Cup 9-2.
Next match England (friendly), 22 March.
There are only two big questions marks for Roberto Martínez at the moment: will Vincent Kompany ever be fit again and will Axel Witsel suffer after moving to China? Martínez is planning for a future without the Manchester City defender but added that he expects him to be back for the next international game, after the season, against Estonia. Martínez, as we know, likes to attack. The all-out-attack tactic. With Belgium he plays a three-man defence with a midfield that has Thomas Meunier on the right and the attacking Yannick Carrasco on the left. Martínez still rates Witsel and believes he is crucial to the balance of the team with Kevin De Bruyne playing as a No8, especially against weaker teams. The Manchester City player dictates the tempo with his direct passing and creates the speed and movement that Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku need to fullfil their, frankly, frightening potential. Eden Hazard likes the 3-4-3, also used at Chelsea. Dries Mertens can play as a false No9 if needed, but Martínez likes Romelu Lukaku, a player he signed while at Everton.
In Belgium, there have been a lot of discussion about who should be the striker over the past few years: Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi or Michy Batshuayi, but Lukaku, not the most popular with the fans, is slowly winning everyone over. Radja Nainggolan has been the main victim of the new tactical system. He is not the most disciplined player and Martínez does not like the fact that he smokes but the two of them had a long chat and are now happy to work together. Nainggolan can play in a more attacking role or in Witsel’s position. Moussa Dembélé will have to be content with a place on the bench as things stand. Kristof Terreur
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht).
World ranking 5.
Odds to win World Cup 14-1.
Next match Greece, 25 March.
The 4-3-3, designed to give Paul Pogba the freedom to roam from box to box, can become a 4-2-3-1 (Didier Deschamps’s preferred system in recent World Cup qualifiers), with N’Golo Kanté the sole genuine defensive midfielder alongside the Manchester United player. Antoine Griezmann can then go back one notch and play as a support striker behind his Atlético team-mate Kévin Gameiro, a partnership which has proved as fruitful for the national team as for their club. Should circumstances demand a Plan B approach, Deschamps will swap Gameiro for Olivier Giroud. Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Nebil Fekir, Alexandre Lacazette and Ousmane Dembélé will have to fight for a couple of spots in the final squad of 23, which gives an idea of the depth of talent higher up the field for Les Bleus. If only this were true at the other end, where Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna have been called up far too often at the tail end of their careers. Alternatives are worryingly few. A brave choice – perhaps too brave for a naturally cautious manager – would be to trust Monaco’s duo of flying full-backs Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy. Picking Kylian Mbappé ahead of more experienced contenders should not provoke much soul-searching, however. The teenager’s return of 19 goals in 32 games (and only 18 starts) for Monaco is prodigious, superior to any other player of a similar age in French football history. He’ll be 19 when the World Cup kicks off. It won’t be too early for him. Philippe Auclair
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Kylian Mbappé.
World ranking 6.
Odds to win World Cup 8-1.
Next match Luxembourg, 25 March.
Uruguay are second in South America’s qualifying group – having already played Argentina, Brazil and Chile away – and look set to qualify comfortably. Óscar Tabárez, as any manager would, relies heavily on Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani up front and the irresistible Diego Godín in defence. Tabárez’s preferred formation is a 4-4-2 that becomes a 4-5-1 with Cavani dropping back to midfield when they lose possession. There is also the option of using Nicolás Lodeiro in a central role in a 4-3-1-2. Next year, should they qualify, will be Tabárez’s fourth World Cup and while his experience will help the team he is somewhat hampered by there being little competition for places in the squad. Uruguay won the Under-20 South American championship in February but none of those players are members of the senior squad. Martin Charquero
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Diego Laxalt (Genoa).
World ranking 9.
Odds to win World Cup 40-1.
Next match Brazil, 23 March.
Vitolo Costa SilvaSpain is no different to any other country in that every time a squad is named, debate starts. But while some countries wonder how so-and-so could possibly have been included, in Spain the question is how he could have been left out, such is the strength in depth. That allows for a certain state of flux around the fringes of the squad, footballers coming and going and others, talented players, believing there may be a chance. That creates a hint of uncertainty about the starting XI too, with alternatives in most positions. Julen Lopetegui’s latest squad re-establishes a continuity with his era as Under‑21 coach, with players such as Isco, Ander Herrera, Thiago Alcântara and the surprise call-ups of Asier Illaramendi and especially Gerard Deulofeu. There are other young players who could yet get a first callup, like Roque Mesa and Manu Trigueros. Certainties include the goalkeeper, two central defenders, Sergio Busquets, and Diego Costa or Álvaro Morata at No9, while Iago Aspas offers a mobile, clever alternative. Thiago, if he stays fit, may finally be given a key role in the middle. No one will ever be Xavi, mind you, and it is now legitimate to wonder how much longer Andrés Iniesta will be a key player. Sid Lowe
Possible breakthrough Vitolo (Sevilla).
Fifa world ranking 10.
Odds to win World Cup 9-1.
Next match Israel, 24 March.
England will be heading towards their first tournament since the World Cup in 2002 without Wayne Rooney being considered an automatic pick. All the same it would be a surprise if Gareth Southgate’s selection plans differ vastly from those of Roy Hodgson at last summer’s European Championship and, again, there will be a strong Tottenham influence, with five players from White Hart Lane featuring prominently (and none, you might note, from Arsenal or Manchester United). Southgate can also switch to a midfield diamond, a tactic he often used for England’s under-21s, and another option would be to look at a wing-back system that can make the most of the attacking tendencies of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Daniel Taylor
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Jordan Pickford (Sunderland).
World ranking 14.
Odds to win World Cup 16-1.
Next match Germany (friendly), 22 March.
Giampiero Ventura has experimented with different formations since succeeding Antonio Conte as Italy manager but in the biggest games he has emulated his predecessor by using a back three. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini remain as reliable as ever, but the final member of Italy’s famous BBC – Andrea Barzagli – has started to show his age. Happily, the Azzurri are not short of options to replace him. Alessio Romagnoli has the makings of a world-class player at Milan and his fellow 22-year-old, Daniele Rugani, is likewise turning heads at Juventus. The midfield must inevitably be built around the vision and creativity of Marco Verratti but finding a shape that will suit the rest of Italy’s talented but mismatched squad is trickier. Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne are happiest as wide forwards but might best be deployed in alternative roles – the former as a wing-back, and the latter as a deep-lying inside forward – so as to accommodate Federico Bernardeschi, who has excelled at No10 for Fiorentina. Up front Andrea Belotti’s scintillating form cannot be ignored. He sits top of the Serie A scoring charts and has struck three times in five games for Italy, despite only playing the full 90 minutes in one of them. Paolo Bandini
Possible breakthrough Andrea Belotti (Torino).
World ranking 15.
Odds to win World Cup 16-1.
Next match Albania, 24 March.
Two things stand out in Gernot Rohr’s selections for Nigeria’s Super Eagles squad. One is a deliberate point of selecting players who not only have the talent to improve the Super Eagles but are also young enough to lower the average age of the squad. Tyronne Ebuehi, Noah Bazee and Victor Osimhen are 21, 20 and 18 respectively. Isaac Success, who is making a comeback after missing out on a previous squads, is 21. What this means is the average age of the latest invitees comes to 23.16 years, the lowest in recent years. The German seems impervious to calls to include players from the local league in his squad, with only one, the goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, called up. Rohr’s 4-3-3 system appears built to exploit the players’ pace and energy with excellent technique, using the captain, Mikel Jon Obi, as its pivot. Colin Udoh
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Victor Osimhen (Wolfsburg).
World ranking 41.
Odds to win World Cup 150-1.
Next match Senegal, 23 March.
Japan are phasing out the generation that peaked somewhere between the 2010 and 2014 World Cups before failing dismally at the latter. But a lack of real quality in the age group below, particularly in defence, has left Vahid Halilhodzic with a number of dilemmas. Performances in qualifying have been unconvincing, with one or two experienced names expressing doubts over the new tactical direction. A more optimistic interpretation would be to say that the margin of victory over Thailand or Iraq is of secondary importance if Halilhodzic can gradually instil the kind of tenacity and discipline which characterised his Algeria side in 2014. Japan remain heavily reliant on Maya Yoshida and the 33-year-old Makoto Hasebe, who performs admirably in defence for Eintracht Frankfurt but leads his country from the base of midfield.Hiroshi Kiyotake endured a tough spell with Sevilla while establishing himself in the No10 role for Japan ahead of Shinji Kagawa. Genki Haraguchi discovered the final product he lacked to play a starring role on the left. If Yuya Kubo can keep up the kind of performances for Gent which have led him to usurp Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami as the likeliest breakthrough prospect, then Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and even Keisuke Honda may have to settle for the substitutes’ bench come 2018. Ben Mabley
Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Yuya Kubo (Gent).
World ranking 51.
Odds to win World Cup 150-1.
Next match United Arab Emirates, 23 March.
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