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World Cup candidates: Separating the runners & riders

 • by Blair Newman
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Some of international football’s traditional top dogs are missing out on this summer’s World Cup. Italy, who won the tournament in 2006, failed to reach the finals. So too did the Netherlands and reigning Copa America champions Chile. However, there are still plenty of familiar names among this year’s contenders.

Holders Germany are aiming to retain their title, while 2010 winners Spain looked outstanding in qualifying. Brazil are hoping to forget painful memories of their 7-1 semi-final defeat to the Germans in 2014, while fellow South American giants Argentina can call upon an all-star attacking cast including the iconic Lionel Messi.

Talking of icons, Cristiano Ronaldo will be dreaming of a European Championship and World Cup double with Portugal, while Antoine Griezmann, Eden Hazard and Harry Kane will lead France, Belgium and England from the front respectively.

Here, we at Football Whispers analyse the chances of the eight primary contenders this summer, considering the effectiveness of each team’s tactics, the quality of their squads, and the toughness of their draws.

Gareth Southgate manager of England

8. England

Gareth Southgate has been unafraid to make big decisions since taking over from Sam Allardyce as national team boss in 2016. He has done away with several members of the old guard, bringing in new blood. As a consequence, England will be one of the youngest sides at this summer’s finals, with Kane, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and John Stones – all under the age of 25 – their key players.

The change to a back three showed Southgate’s willingness to consider alternative tactical approaches, and the new 3-5-2 system has worked well in recent friendlies. Thanks to the switch and the growth of intelligent runners in Alli, Sterling and Jesse Lingard, England’s attacking game is much better than it was two years ago, where they dominated the ball but still lost to Iceland at the Euro 2016 second round stage.

However, while there have been obvious improvements with and without possession, this inexperienced England side will find it difficult to make it beyond the quarter-final stage. Assuming they get through their group and a potential second round clash with Colombia or Poland, the likes of Brazil and Germany await them in the last eight.

7. Portugal

They may not be the most exciting attacking side going to the World Cup, but reigning European champions Portugal have a very clear plan. Fernando Santos has organised them brilliantly over the last four years, implementing a 4-4-2 that mixes defensive nous with a fluid front four offensively.

Led by the goal-hungry Ronaldo, Santos’ side make for a tough opponent. They are difficult to break down, and the development of Bernardo Silva and Gonçalo Guedes ensures they always present a threat on the counter-attack. However, drawn in a group containing Morocco and Iran, they may not be able to showcase this particular quality early on.

The centre of Portugal’s defence looks slow, so getting through their group – which also contains Spain – would be an achievement in itself. Beyond that, a second round tie with a Uruguay led by Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani is potentially problematic but winnable, though a meeting with France in the quarters would likely see their ageing back line exposed.

The depth of striking talent available to Jorge Sampaoli is enviable

6. Argentina

A rocky qualifying campaign saw Argentina go through three different managers before eventually securing their spot at the World Cup. Jorge Sampaoli, who previously led a thrilling Chile side, will take them to the tournament, and he seems increasingly clear on his tactics.

Argentina will probably line up in a 4-4-1-1, with Messi stationed behind Gonzalo Higuaín or Sergio Agüero. Yet, while their attacking options are unrivalled, elsewhere the squad lacks real depth.

Drawn in a group featuring possible several banana skins in Croatia and a Nigeria side that beat them in a friendly last year, they would do well to reach the second round unscathed.

Assuming they don’t slip up early on, the Albiceleste are set to meet Spain in the quarter-finals. Given they lost 6-1 the last time the two sides met, this match would perhaps be too big a hurdle for Sampaoli’s men to overcome.

5. Belgium

On paper, Belgium look like serious contenders for the World Cup. Their squad is packed with individual talent, including Premier League stars in Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea dribbling king Hazard and Tottenham Hotspur defensive duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. However, international tournaments are not won on paper.

Roberto Martínez’s side are yet to fully gel together successfully, but there are some promising signs. They qualified as the European section’s joint top scorers along with Germany, and recent friendlies against Portugal and Egypt saw hints at greater cohesion, with clean sheets kept in both games.

Belgium’s group stage meeting with England will be a battle of back threes, with Martínez lining his side up in a 3-4-2-1. If they get the better of that tussle, there is nothing to suggest they should fear their second round opponents. A last eight tie with Brazil, however, would be a much stiffer test of their organisation.

France have frightening forward options for this summer's World Cup

4. France

As Euro 2016 hosts, France nearly went all the way, losing to Portugal in the final. In truth, they felt their way into that tournament, with Didier Deschamps experimenting tactically throughout. This time around they look much more certain of how they will line up, both in terms of their chosen system and the personnel to fill said system.

Their 4-3-3 is likely to feature a front three brimming with mobility and skill. Barcelona transfer target Griezmann should start centrally, though he will interchange with Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé – subject of Liverpool transfer rumours.

Behind them, Paul Pogba should play in his favoured left-sided central role within a midfield three that also features the insatiable N’Golo Kanté. With a defence reinforced by Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti – reportedly a Manchester United transfer target – no other squad at the finals in Russia is as well rounded as France’s.

Unfortunately, Deschamps’ side have it tough from the get-go. Their group includes two difficult games in Denmark and Peru, while in the second round they could meet Argentina or Croatia. If they can make it past that they can make it past a quarter-final with Portugal or Uruguay, meaning a semi-final spot is absolutely viable.

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3. Spain

Julen Lopetegui has restored the Spanish style, reintroducing an intense attacking press and aggressive counter-pressing. These facets only help Spain to dominate the ball, something they make full use of with the precision passing of Andrés Iniesta, Isco, David Silva, Sergio Busquets and Thiago.

They go to the finals as the favourites of many, and with arguably the finest squad at the tournament supplemented by a clear tactical approach, such expectation is entirely understandable. However, their success this summer is anything but assured.

Simply in order to reach the last four they will have to face down the two most consistent individual attackers in the game today – Messi and Ronaldo. And, assuming they get past both, reigning champions Germany could await them in the semis. Spain have everything needed to win the World Cup, except a good draw.

2. Germany

Having underwhelmed in recent friendlies, including a 2-1 defeat to Austria, Germany’s World Cup preparations haven’t been plain sailing. As well as poor performances, a reported training ground bust-up between Antonio Rüdiger and Joshua Kimmich was worrying, and the omission of Leroy Sané proved controversial.

However, this isn’t unusual. Germany have gone to previous tournaments in supposedly bad shape, only to stun once the competitive action gets underway. And with a squad so good they can actually afford to leave out a player of Sané’s class on the basis he doesn’t fit their established system and style, a similar showing could be on the cards this summer.

Their biggest threat in the group stage is Mexico, while their likely second round opponents are Switzerland or Serbia. Then, assuming they get to the last eight, their potential opponents – Belgium, England or Colombia – are talented but flawed.

Joachim Löw’s side should, therefore, find their route to the last four fairly easy to navigate, meaning burnout won’t be an issue by the time they face Spain.

1. Brazil

Since Tite took charge, Brazil have lost just one game in 20. In the process they have kept 15 clean sheets and conceded only five times.

They are far stronger defensively than they were four years ago, when they reached the semi-finals on home soil, thanks to a compact 4-3-3 system.

Further forward, the rise of Gabriel Jesus has taken the heat off of Neymar, while Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Douglas Costa and Paulinho make up an outstanding supporting cast.

With cover provided by Casemiroand Fernandinho they may not be the most exciting team at this World Cup, but they will be among the most balanced.

Difficult to open up and with immense individual skill in attacking areas, Tite’s side should comfortably make it through a group containing Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica. Probable second round opponents Mexico have never made it past the last 16, and potential quarter-final opponents Belgium and England rarely make it beyond the last eight.

Given Brazil are also likely to avoid either Germany or Spain until the final, they have the best chance of winning the 2018 World Cup.

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