If the 2014 world champions were frustrated by their failure to win continental honors at Euro 2016 they have certainly taken it out on everyone else since. Germany won 10 qualifying games out of 10 and, even if San Marino’s presence in Group C needs taking into account, a record 43 goals scored suggests things are back in their old working order.
So, too did their Confederations Cup title in July, achieved with an experimental squad; Joachim Löw can select from an unrivalled depth of talent and, while winning back-to-back World Cups remains a huge task, none of next summer’s contenders has an equivalent selection of tools with which to tackle the different challenges they will face.
The current holders and one more World Cup will equal Brazil’s record of five. They are ranked as the number one team in the world and joint favourites, with Brazil, to lift the trophy in Russia. One of the main questions about their squad is will Manuel Neuer be fit from his broken metatarsal in time? Their undoubted first-choice keeper before his injury has not played since September – but the form of Marc-Andre ter Stegen means he might have to settle for a place on the bench, if he returns at all.
In Timo Werner, who has scored seven goals in 12 caps, they finally have the proper striker they missed in their Euro 2016 semi-final run. Mario Gotze, who scored the winner in the 2014 final, might not even go to Russia because of his poor form, while Marco Reus was not in their most recent squad.
The most successful team in World Cup history with five trophies. On a good run of results – including a friendly win over Germany they will be looking to rebuild that reputation after their 7-1 thrashing by the same opponents in their home tournament four years ago. Joint favorites with Germany to win.
Brazil look revitalised under Tite and the light work they made of the fiendish CONMEBOL qualifying procedure was deeply impressive. The Manager has openly stated they should be listed among the leading contenders next summer; it is hard to disagree and it is worth listening to Dani Alves when he says Tite’s human touch makes him “very distant from all Brazilian coaches”. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and an energised Paulinho are among those benefiting from the transformation and perhaps a sequence of failing to lift the trophy since 2002 will be ended in Russia.
The big question is about the availability of Neymar, who Brazil are hopeful will make the World Cup. Their fourth top scorer of all time, despite only being 26, is recovering from successful surgery on a broken foot and might not return for Paris St-Germain this season. In February, boss Tite revealed the names of 15 players who were guaranteed a place in his squad, injuries aside.
Brazil have great strength in depth in some areas – Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino are probably battling for one starting spot up front, while Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson is likely to be back-up for Roma’s in-form Alisson Becker. Tite admits his side are still haunted by 2014, saying “the 7-1 from the World Cup is like a ghost”.
Will it aid Spain that, certainly unlike most of their European rivals, they have already had to dispose of another World Cup contender in the qualifiers? Italy may well make it through the play-offs and, in fairness the rest of Group G was not up to much, but that 3-0 win at the Bernabeu last month was ominous and La Roja’s new generation appear ready to challenge seriously next summer.
Álvaro Morata is developing into a genuinely world-class striker; Marco Asensio has a glittering career ahead at just 21; and the in-form Isco, who scored twice against the Italians, has been given room to express himself by Julen Lopetegui. Spain have emerged from their rough period to look a major force once again.
Spain looked good in qualifying and in their recent friendlies. Andres Iniesta is still pulling the strings, Isco has hit goalscoring form and highly decorated centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique remain in front of David de Gea, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.
The main query is who will play up front. Alvaro Morata was not even named in their recent squad following his poor Chelsea form. Valencia striker Rodrigo started against Germany and Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa got the nod against Argentina – with both players scoring when they got the chance.
Qualifying was not without the odd hiccup – but for the frame of the goal that home draw with Luxembourg could have become something far more humiliating – but France did well in one of the more awkward groups and the potential of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé trumps that of virtually any side that will be playing in Russia.
Can Didier Deschamps get the best out of them all? If he can then France, who have few obvious weaknesses on paper, will deserve to be ranked among the favourites next summer.They’ve got the players but can Didier Deschamps work out his best XI? Paul Pogba was dropped for the Colombia friendly with his “complicated situation” at Manchester United – although he returned to score against Colombia.
Les Bleus were error prone at the back in the loss to Colombia at Stade de France. Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane or Laurent Koscielny at the back?
And, while a nice problem to have, who misses out from Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Lemar, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud?
Belgium put on one of Europe’s better qualifying campaigns, negating any real threat from two potentially tricky rivals in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. Perhaps the unlikely combination of the Spaniard Roberto Martínez and the Frenchman Thierry Henry can deliver where Marc Wilmots failed and produce a run of convincing tournament performances.
Romelu Lukaku’s form for club and country makes Christian Benteke’s struggles all the less troublesome while Dries Mertens is in the form of his life for Napoli. None of their other mainstays need too much introduction and there remains the tantalising prospect that, should everything be harnessed correctly, Belgium can do something special.
Different year, different manager, same story. Marc Wilmots’ tactics were criticised after last-eight exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. Roberto Martinez replaced him before 2018 World Cup qualification, and they are now unbeaten in 16 games. But after a 3-3 draw with Mexico in November, playmaker Kevin de Bruyne said: “We still put too much on our talents. As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico.”
Belgium have never won a major tournament, with their best World Cup run a 1986 semi-final spot. They have probably their most talented squad of all time – filled with Premier League stars – and will be hoping to build on quarter-final eliminations in their past two tournaments.