Four years ago Argentina went home from Russia in a mess. Now they look in the best shape of all the contenders and what a story it would be if Lionel Messi crowned his final World Cup with the trophy. Lionel Scaloni’s team were unbeaten in qualifying – although they must contest one more replayed dead rubber against Brazil, who they defeated last year to win a first Copa América since 1993 – and overwhelmed Italy in the “Finalissima”. Is a 36-year duck ready to be broken?
The perennial favourites have been in excellent form as usual having thrashed South Korea 5-1 this month before Neymar’s penalty secured a 1-0 win over Japan. But with Argentina having gained the upper hand over Tite’s side in recent meetings, including in the Copa América final at the Maracanã last year, will Brazil be able to turn the tables and end their 20-year wait for a sixth World Cup win?
Luis Enrique’s side steadily improved in the Nations League, drawing with Portugal and the Czech Republic before beating Switzerland and the Czechs to take control of their group. The lack of a top-class striker is the main issue for the 2010 winners but the potential of the new generation led by Pedri and Gavi is clear.
The eye-catching 4-1 win over Belgium in Brussels will have raised expectations among Oranje supporters as they prepare for their first World Cup since 2014. Louis van Gaal, who led them to the semi-finals in Brazil that year, is back and will fancy his chances of a similar run with a youthful side that got the better of Wales with stoppage-time winners twice in the space of seven days.
Battered and broken last summer, Germany have quickly discovered a clear identity under Hansi Flick. The transition between generations is being cleverly managed and they are producing the kind of slick football that largely went missing at Euro 2020. Tuesday’s demolition of Italy suggested things are coming together after a run of draws and, as the adage goes, they cannot be written off.
Two home defeats and two away draws were not the June results France wanted. The world champions are struggling to convince despite the depth of talent at their disposal; there is a reliance on Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé for goals and the hangover from last summer’s Euro 2020 exit to Switzerland has not properly cleared. Something needs to click in Qatar.
Although the emotion of Christian Eriksen’s collapse and recovery undoubtedly helped fuel their run to the Euro 2020 semi-finals, Denmark have proved without doubt that they are among the world’s top international teams. They stormed through the qualifiers, recently won away against Group D opponents France and, best of all, Eriksen is pulling the strings once again. A good bet to go far.
An embarrassing 4-1 home defeat to the Netherlands this month laid bare an uncomfortable truth: that Belgium’s golden generation may have had their time. Given they responded with a six-goal demolition of Poland it would be premature to write the obituaries but an ageing defence and spluttery attack do not feel, at this point, like potential winners in Qatar.
A star-studded squad has struggled to reach its potential since winning Euro 2016. Defeat by Switzerland last week was their first in the Nations League and after the disappointing last-16 exit to Uruguay in Russia, Fernando Santos and Cristiano Ronaldo will be keen to make amends in what could be a last major international tournament for both.
As a disbelieving Gareth Southgate observed after the 4-0 home defeat to Hungary, the mood around those watching England has turned within a mere 11 days. There was already unease after a narrow loss in Budapest and unremarkable draws against Germany and Italy; that turned to outright revolt at Molineux and it is no way to set a tone five months out from Qatar. England remain favoured to reach the latter stages but a previously serene ship has begun listing dangerously.
After winning the Africa Cup of Nations and squeaking past Egypt again to earn their spot, Senegal are on a high. They were unlucky to exit the group stage on the fair play tiebreaker in 2018 but will feel confident of a knockout spot this time. Aliou Cissé has them superbly drilled but questions about creativity remain and they will hope Sadio Mané settles at Bayern Munich if that move goes through.
Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani may be waning but the rise of Darwin Núñez is perfectly timed for Uruguay, who have a habit of showcasing gladiatorial strikers at World Cups. Diego Alonso’s appointment has revitalised La Celeste, who wobbled badly towards the end of Óscar Tabárez’s 15-year reign; they have won six games and drawn another this year, rarely concede, and look ready to compete fiercely once again.
They had dipped since 2018 but set a marker this month with eye-catching wins in Denmark and France. Such is the quality available to Zlatko Dalic that his canny, technically excellent side will always have a chance of going far; the issue is that so much still hinges on players like Luka Modric, 36, and the 33-year-old Ivan Perisic. The heroes from a remarkable generation may be running on fumes in Qatar.
Last summer the Swiss showed they can be better than last-16 makeweights. They have been inconsistent since under their new coach Murat Yakin but Sunday’s win against Portugal reiterated that an experienced side will be formidable opponents when functioning fully. A tricky group-stage draw, pitting them against Brazil and Serbia, means they will need to hit the ground running in Qatar.
A team that tends to arrive at tournaments high on promise but ends up short on delivery. It could be different this time: Dusan Tadic is better than ever at 33 and, if he picks opponents’ locks, Dusan Vlahovic leads a set of exciting centre-forward options. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is now in his prime and an impressive win in Sweden suggests a once-brittle side may have toughened up.
A little-known quantity at this level having previously qualified in 1986, Canada will fancy letting their clutch of top-class talent loose on ageing Belgium and Croatia sides in Qatar. Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin are capable of troubling anyone. A dispute about prize money has caused ructions this month and John Herdman, their excellent English manager, will hope distractions are kept to a minimum.
The Welsh qualified for their first World Cup since 1958 amid a now familiar cocktail of emotion and high spirits. Now they must ensure their quality players, particularly Gareth Bale, are receiving regular club minutes at a decent level in the runup to Qatar. A tight-knit, highly motivated squad have become accustomed to eking out results against elite opposition and will feel a knockout spot is there for the taking.
Poland tend to be thrown in among the dark horses but recent results, which include a thrashing by Belgium and a creditable draw in Rotterdam, suggest it is hard to know which side will turn up. They did well to beat Sweden in the playoffs and troubled England twice but much, as always, hangs on Robert Lewandowski. At almost 34 the captain remarkably gets better with age but could do with sorting out his club situation quickly.
A comprehensive 3-0 defeat by Uruguay in a recent friendly was an example of how El Tri have struggled in recent months despite qualifying for their 17th World Cup with relative ease. Gerardo Martino’s side did beat Nigeria late last month but were held to a 1-1 draw by Jamaica in the Concacaf Nations League on Tuesday.
Grateful for an injury-time equaliser against El Salvador in their Nations League match on Tuesday night, Gregg Berhalter will have been encouraged by the performances in beating Morocco 3-0 at the start of the month and then drawing with Uruguay. The USA coach has some big calls to make before naming his squad, notably in attack.
Vahid Halilhodzic’s position is under growing pressure despite two victories in Morocco’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against South Africa and Liberia. The coach’s decision to exclude high-profile players such as Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech has not been popular with supporters and the Bosnian could, for the second time, find himself out of a job after qualifying for the World Cup, having experienced the same fate with Ivory Coast in 2010.
The Indomitable Lions have played only once in this international break because of the cancellation of their fixtures against Kenya: a 1-0 win in Burundi in their Afcon qualifier. The new coach, Rigobert Song, a veteran of four World Cups as a player, has a chance of guiding a talented squad into the knockout stages, which Cameroon have not reached since 1990.
Optimism is not especially high that Iran, who will face England and Wales, are on track to cause a stir. They topped their qualifying group by seeing off the lesser sides, losing to South Korea, and look more solid than spectacular under Dragan Skocic. A friendly defeat by Algeria was underwhelming; they do, though, have dangerous forwards in Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi if opponents doze off.
The Carthage Eagles have not conceded a goal in six matches since being knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations in January and they swept aside Japan impressively on Tuesday to win the Kirin Cup in Osaka. But they will need to be at their very best to trouble France and Denmark in Group D having never made it past the group stages in five previous appearances at the World Cup.
The surprise 3-0 defeat by Tunisia in Tuesday’s Kirin Cup final was a worrying sign for the Blue Samurai after a run of eight wins from their previous 10 matches. But Hajime Moriyasu’s side showed what they are capable of in last week’s impressive 4-1 win over Ghana and the narrow loss to Brazil.
Unbeaten in this month’s friendlies having reached their fourth World Cup, Ecuador were relieved to hear that Fifa had dismissed claims by Chile that they had fielded an ineligible player in the qualifiers. “We celebrate it more because we felt humiliated,” said the federation president, Francisco Egas. “We felt trampled by the great media campaign from the Chilean federation.”
Black Stars supporters will be salivating over the prospect of gaining revenge over Uruguay in their World Cup group after the bad memories of the 2010 quarter-final. But the heavy defeat by Japan last week was a reminder that Ghana have their work cut out to make it into the last 16 in Qatar despite their heroics in beating Nigeria to qualification.
28) South Korea
A mixed bag of results from recent friendlies that included a 5-1 thrashing by Brazil before they beat 10-man Chile and drew with Paraguay. Not fancied by most to progress through a difficult-looking group that contains Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana but with Son Heung-min on their side, don’t put it past them.
29) Costa Rica
Los Ticos’s priceless third-minute goal in the playoff against New Zealand from the former Arsenal forward Joel Campbell was enough to secure their place in Qatar after missing out to the US on goal difference during qualifying. A traditionally miserly defence that has helped Costa Rica win nine of 10 matches since last November will have its hands full trying to contain Germany and Spain in Group E, however.
Given the resources piled into preparing Qatar’s national team, expectations – such as they are in a country with scant football culture – should be relatively high. They will hope guest appearances at the 2019 Copa América and last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup, along with various prestige friendlies around the globe, were not for nothing. Given they won the Asian Cup three years ago Félix Sánchez’s side should not be written off but they have a difficult draw.
Showed great fortitude to come through playoffs against the United Arab Emirates and Peru, beating the South American side thanks to an inspired performance from the substitute goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne in the penalty shootout. The coach, Graham Arnold, will hope they can maintain that momentum after a disappointing qualification campaign that saw the Socceroos struggle for consistency.
32) Saudi Arabia
Two 1-0 defeats by Colombia and Venezuela this month will not inspire much confidence as Saudi Arabia prepare to face the might of Argentina in their opening match. The coach, Hervé Renard, has committed his future until 2027 but the Afcon winner with Zambia and Ivory Coast will know his team are in for a tough campaign with Poland and Mexico completing Group C.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism