We’re just weeks away from the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia so what better time to look at five of the nations expected to challenge for the trophy next month?
Coach: Joachim Löw
As reigning world champions, ‘ Die Mannschaft ‘ are understandably favourites to retain their world title in Russia this summer. Coach Joachim Löw has done an impeccable job since taking over from Jürgen Klinsman in 2006, culminating in winning this title last time out in Brazil, 2014.
With a spine consisting of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, Germany have the capability of dominating any of the other 31 finalists, and posses potentially lethal firepower with the likes of Leroy Sané and Julian Draxler out wide.
This – coupled with the goalkeeping ability of either Manuel Neuer ( if fit ) or his understudy Marc-André Ter Stegen – means that whomever ( if anyone ) defeats Germany in Russia on route to winning, will surely be of merit.
Qualification: In the European qualification section, Germany were the only side to maintain a 100% record, winning all 10 of their games and scoring 43 goals, while conceding a measly 4.
In a real show of squad depth, Thomas Müller and Sandro Wagner were their top scorers, scoring only five goals apiece.
One to watch: Timo Werner
Whilst Thomas Müller is Germany’s third highest goalscorer in world cup history, he is sure to have competition up front in Russia with Red Bull Leipzig’s Timo Werner in fine form this season.
The rapid centre forward already has seven goals in twelve Germany appearances and will be a real threat to any defence, be it as a starter, or as a substitute off the bench.
Coach: Adenor Leonardo ‘Tite’ Bacchi
Four years ago in the semi-finals of this tournament, Brazil were broken in their own backyard by a wonderful Germany side.
They looked on helplessly as Toni Kroos and company magnificently scored goal after goal in a 7-1 rout to dump the hopeful hosts out of the world cup and, unsurprisingly, cost Luiz Felipe Scolari his job.
To the optimism of absolutely no one, former World Cup winning captain Dunga was given the job of rebuilding the team who, at one moment in time, were the most feared international side in the world of football.
In fairness, players such as Fred and Jô were quickly omitted from the squad – although I wonder how they were there in the first place – but just as he had shown before, Dunga was unable to bring any significant improvements to a nation who so desperately needed it, and he was also shown the door.
Then came the man known as Tite. The 56-year-old Brazilian had already proven himself domestically in Brazil, winning domestic titles with Gremio, Internacional and Corinthians, and certainly has not disappointed since taking over at the helm of ‘ the Selecão’.
Brazil are once again looking like a major threat at international level and, spearheaded by the front three of fan favourite Neymar, Barcelona winger Philippe Coutinho and young centre forward Gabriel Jesus, are the side many fans are tipping to win the title this summer.
Qualification: Despite an indifferent start to their qualification campaign under Dunga, Brazil eventually went on to finish top of the tough, gruelling ten nation South American qualification table.
They finished ten points clear of second placed Uruguay, thanks in massive part to Tite, and head in to the tournament riding a tidal wave of momentum.
One to watch: Gabriel Jesus
A quick, skilful striker who has shown his full range of qualities under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Gabriel Jesus comes into his first world cup under a lot of pressure.
Since Ronaldo’s heroics in 2002, Brazil – without trying to be too harsh on Fred and Jô again – have not since had a recognised world class striker at the world cup finals. As he has shown, Jesus is very capable of delivering for Brazil, but it will not be easy.
Coach: Julen Lopetegui
At the last two major international tournaments, Vicente Del Bosque’s outdated tactics were found out and Spain were unable to progress in to the latter stages of either tournament. Rather than Tite’s revolution in Brazil, it has been more of an evolution brought to the table by Spaniard Lopetegui.
Whilst they do still like to keep possession and play their passes, they seem a lot more defensively resolute and organised under Lopetegui, something which is sure to be of significant importance when they come up against another heavyweight.
Even though their lack of a recognised number nine will be worrying – Alvaro Morata has been in mixed form at Chelsea and Diego Costa has only played half a season – Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and David Silva have all, despite their age, been in superb form this season and with arguably the worlds best goalkeeper between the sticks in David De Gea, Spain are in with a real shout of reclaiming their crown as world champions.
Qualification: In Group G of European qualifying, Spain were dauntingly paired with fellow European juggernauts Italy. In Turin, Spain held on for a 1-1 draw, and then dispatched of them in a display of class and control at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, 3-0.
Aside from Italy, the group was full of, with all due respect, lesser known European nations that caused no trouble whatsoever.
Spain finished qualification with a record of nine wins and a draw, scoring 36 goals, and only allowing three in at the other end.
One to watch: Marco Asensio
The 22-year-old winger/attacking midfielder has had quite the season in the Spanish capital.
At the beginning of the season, he put in two outstanding performances against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, scoring two of the five Real Madrid goals over two legs, and followed that up with an inspired start to the league season, helping Madrid pick up vital points as they continued to chase down Barcelona at the summit.
As he is set to feature in his second successive Champions League Final – and having scored in the final last year – the future is indeed bright for this incredible young talent.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Argentina would not be on this list – and probably would not be at the World Cup – were it not for Lionel Messi, but such is the brilliance of this incredible little man.
Following Argentina’s third consecutive final loss in the 2016 Copa América, Messi retired from international football, but reversed his decision following Argentina’s dire start to their qualifying campaign.
Despite appointing three different managers across the campaign – including Sampaoli – Argentina still found themselves outside the automatic qualification spots on the final day of qualifying.
They travelled to Ecuador needing a win and, after going one nil down after 38 seconds, Messi scored a wonderful hat-trick to propel his side to Russia.
Even with the obvious talents of other players such as Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero, Ángel Di María and Paulo Dybala ( if Sampaoli includes him in the final squad ), Argentina will stand no chance of lifting the cup on the 15th of July if Lionel Messi is not on top form.
One slightly positive omen perhaps, for Argentina, is that their current state of affairs, both on and off the pitch, is eerily similar to this point in 1986.
With some players seemingly out of favour with the manager and with no one apparently giving Argentina a glimmer of home, maybe Lionel Messi can make the seemingly impossible possible, just as a certain someone did 32 years ago in Mexico.
Qualification: As mentioned previously, Argentina waited until the last possible moment to confirm their qualification for Russia. Under the management of both Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and Edgardo Bauza, Argentina were incredibly poor and dropped points to sides you perhaps might not have expected them to drop points to.
Were it not for Lionel Messi (and slight props to Jorge Sampaoli) Argentina would not be travelling to Russia and the weight of an entire nation rests on the shoulders of one of the greatest players to ever grace a football pitch.
One to watch: Lautaro Martínez
If this promising 20-year-old striker is brought on the plane to Russia (which is looking increasingly likely following Sampaoli’s recent comments on strikers Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala), expect big things.
Having made his debut in a friendly in March in a defeat to Spain, Martínez has scored 21 goals in 46 games for Racing Club in the Argentine Primera División, no mean feat considering the tough, hard hitting defences he comes up against.
With Dybala and Icardi seemingly out of favour, Darío Benedetto and Sergio Agüero injured (although the latter will be back in time for Argentina’s first match) and with Gonzalo Higuaín inconsistent at best on the international stage, Argentina appear short on options up front and a call up to the squad appears seriously on the cards.
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Under the guidance of former World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps, France’s performances at major tournaments has improved.
In comparison to their pitiful performance in South Africa 2010, France advanced to the quarter-final stage last time out in Brazil and agonisingly finished as runners-up at Euro 2016 on home soil after losing in extra time to Portugal.
Now, with all of their key players, such as Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, N’golo Kanté and Antoine Griezmann, seemingly coming of age, the French have reason to carry great optimism in to Russia.
Alongside these players are the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Anthony Martial and thus, France probably have the most impressive squad depth of all the contenders, so it is up to Deschamps to gel them together and get them to play as a cohesive unit.
Whether or not these bunch of players can repeat what Zidane and Deschamps did exactly 20 years ago, however, remains to be seen.
Qualification: France were slightly inconsistent in qualifying, losing 2-1 away to Sweden, as well as drawing at 0-0 at home to Luxembourg and away to Belarus.
They did however defeat the Netherlands 4-0 at home and 0-1 away, so it should not be too much cause for concern.
One to watch: Ousmane Dembélé
Despite getting off to a nervy start to his career in Catalunya, the talent of this young man in undeniable.
He put in stellar performance after stellar performance last season on the wing for Borussia Dortmund and would undoubtedly have shown a lot more of what he is capable in Barcelona were it not for a nasty injury he picked up early in the season away to Getafe.
With France being paired with teams nowhere near their level in their World Cup group, Dembélé will have the perfect opportunity early on to show exactly what he can offer, both for France and Barcelona.