On the eve of the 2018 World Cup, we take a look at the favorites to win the tournament. Realistically, the champion will probably come out of the following group of 4: Brazil, France, Germany or Spain. But teams like England, Portugal, Belgium, Colombia, Uruguay and last but not least, Argentina, shouldn’t be counted out completely.
When is Brazil not a favorite? Actually, in the last two World Cups they didn’t head into the tournament as the main favorite to win, especially not four years ago, despite hosting the event. This time, it’s different. They have a striker and an attack that doesn’t completely lean on Neymar, who is healthy just in time to take his place in the lineup behind Gabriel Jesus and next to (probably) Philippe Coutinho. The midfield is stacked defensively, and even without the injured Dani Alves, a wing back duo of Marcelo and Danilo or Fagner is enough to keep other defenses on their toes, and more.
This side didn’t finish top of the South American qualifiers for nothing, getting things going once Tite took over the head coach position from Dunga. Brazil are deep and balanced, something we haven’t seen from them since 2002. Will it be enough for a historic sixth World Cup title and only the second by a non-European side on European soil? If there’s just one team you can pick, it’s probably the Selecao.
Before this morning, Spain were my favorites to win the World Cup, but the uncertainty following the sacking of Julen Lopetegui and the taking of the position by national team technical director Fernando Hierro puts a different spin on things. This is still a well balanced side with exciting young talent alongside experienced veterans with pedigree of titles at every international and club level, as well as the best goalkeeper in the world. But it’s hard to prophesied what such a change in command will do to the side considering how well Spain has played since Lopetegui took over, putting an emphasis on players from the 2013 U-21 side that won the European championship.
There are other reasons to consider Spain less impressive compared to two weeks ago: Gerard Pique has picked up a knock, while the inclusion of Alvaro Odriozola instead of Sergi Roberto could come back to hurt Spain if they try to dig deep for certain solutions. Still, Spain present one of the most impressive squads in this tournament, one capable of playing efficient tactical football as well as fantastical efficient football, even if no one is quite sure what to do with the striker position.
Now that the dust has settled from Joachim Low leaving Leroy Sane out of his squad, it’s hard not to look at the defending World Champions as possible repeaters, even though the feat is incredibly difficult. 2017 Confederations Cup champions and 2017 U-21 European champions. That’s how deep Germany is at the moment, as it looks like the generational switch is nothing to fear. A side with a semi final appearance or better in each major tournament since 2006. The goalkeeper is suddenly an issue with the return of Manuel Neuer, but the Bayern Munich based squad seems built to have an answer for all tactical problems. The sudden Ardogan-gate could end up having more effect than what Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan had in mind, but perhaps it’s more of a media issue than an inside national team problem at the moment.
One of the more popular habits of football fans every few months is to make a depth chart infographic of France’s talented list of players. Two years after hosting the Euro and losing to a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal in the final, Didier Deschamps is set and ready to bring France to the top of the world stage again, with a super talented team that might also finally have the experience and wear-and-tear to leave its mark on the biggest stage, 12 years after France’s last deep foray in the tournament and 20 years since their first and only tournament win. No Zinedine Zidane this time, but Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are the anchors of this side, which can’t use the absence of other talented players (such as Karim Benzema) as an excuse to do anything less than a semi final.
Others, in no particular order:
While I’ll be quite surprised if the next World champion isn’t one of the four sides mentioned above, there are outsiders relevant to this discussion.
- Portugal, 2016 European champions, a team with Cristiano Ronaldo, can never be counted out. They don’t play pretty, but their group is pretty efficient, as they’ve shown not too long ago.
- Argentina. Same reason, although they have quite a few final losses racked up with Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste have been terrible without their superstar, but relying on Messi isn’t the worst thing in the world.
- Uruguay. Perhaps the best striking partnership in this tournament (one of the few teams playing with two strikers, even if Luis Suarez is positioned differently). Solid defense. Experience with a dash of youth. Easy group to get over. Stars align and this could be another deep, similar to 2010 World Cup run.
- Belgium. A side that’s been talked about as the next big thing for the last four years. There’s talent playing at the highest level, with the whole golden generation thing not holding water – the Belgians are here to stay, but perhaps, for the first time in over 30 years, as more than just a team that makes the final 8 and nothing more.
- England. Yes, funny, right? An easy group stage has never hurt anyone. And a side that seems to be flying slightly under the radar yet packed with interesting talent utilized by a manager who might be the first in years to know how to take advantage of what he has, could be the best English side on the World Cup stage in over a generation.
- Colombia. The refreshing side of the tournament four years ago comes once again with a packed attacking side and probably more well known defense than in the past. Led by James Rodriguez, the fact that some might be forgetting about them is a good thing.