The 2018 World Cup in Russia is eight months away, and after Tuesday’s congested slate of qualifying finales, 23 of the 32 nations set to vie for football’s biggest prize have secured a berth.
European and intercontinental play-offs, along with another round of African qualifiers, will determine the remaining nine sides, and while it's premature to weigh the chances of those yet to qualify, it's never too early to assess the trophy claims of the nations that have already earned spot.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 23 teams making plans for a Russian sojourn, and their chances of lifting the Jules Rimet trophy come July 15th:
1. Germany – Die Mannschaft checks all the boxes of a World Cup favourite. Joachim Low’s lot steamrolled through a record-breaking qualifying campaign a perfect 10 for 10, and as defending champion, Germany should arrive in Russia the bettor’s pick. For those who fancy a large sample size, the four-time winner has only failed to reach the last-four once in the last eight attempts.
2. France – Despite an underwhelming qualifying run with narrow wins over Belarus and Bulgaria and a scoreless home draw with minnow Luxembourg, France heads to Russia a popular pick to replicate 1998's World Cup win. It's hard to argue against a side that boasts an attack featuring Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and a midfield stacked with match winners like Paul Pogba.
3. Brazil – South America’s best entry by some margin, Brazil‘s memories of the 7-1 loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte will be impossible to escape four years later. That said, Tite brings a well-rounded squad to Russia, and after Neymar missed the 2014 semi-final drubbing through injury, the Paris Saint-Germain star will lead a lethal attack with Premier League stars Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino.
4. Spain – If La Roja's exploits in topping Group G with little difficulty is an indication, Spain may be approaching the same level of 2010 tournament winners. For Julen Lopetegui, squad selection provides a headache that most gaffers would kill for, as Spain features veteran World Cup winners like Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Ramos, and a growing core featuring David De Gea, Marco Asensio, and Thiago.
5. Belgium – An emerging power on the cusp of a breakthrough, Belgium's likely starting XI in Russia can compete with the world's best, and after a near-perfect qualifying campaign of nine victories and a draw, Roberto Martinez's side will be a fashionable pick. And why not, with Eden Hazard one of the world's best and Romelu Lukaku pairing seven goals in seven matches with the other Red Devils with 10 goals in qualifying?
6. Portugal – Euro 2016 holder Portugal only lost once in 10 qualifying tilts, but it was far from straightforward heading into Tuesday's finale with Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo appeared a dollar-store version of himself, though A Seleccao will be boosted ahead of Russia 2018 by the performances of an emerging core led by Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, and Nelson Semedo as Portugal ushers in a second Golden Generation.
7. Argentina – From hanging by a thread to an automatic berth thanks to Lionel Messi‘s stunning treble against Ecuador, Argentina is off to a 12th consecutive World Cup, though there are more questions than answers for the two-time winner. Why does Jorge Sampaoli prefer Dario Benedetto to Serie A studs Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, and what can be done with a midfield short on ideas?
8. Poland – Guided by a stingy backline led by Monaco ball-stopper Kamil Glik and a threatening attack featuring qualifying campaign goal-leader Robert Lewandowski and injury return hopeful Arkadiusz Milik, Poland will fly into Russia unjustly under the radar. By virtue of winning Group E paired with a healthy FIFA ranking, Poland earns a deserved Pot 1 spot, and is set to shock thanks to a balanced squad rife with top-flight talent.
9. Uruguay – Any side that can roll out Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez up front will always have a chance of doing some damage. There are some talented youngsters coming through the ranks – Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde chief among them – but this aging crop of Uruguayan players, anchored by captain Diego Godin, has one last shot at doing something special on football's biggest stage.
10. Nigeria – A potentially terrifying young attack featuring Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, and Victor Moses will hog the headlines, but Nigeria's greatest weapon is its balance, and Gernot Rohr has instilled exactly that thanks to midfield anchors Wilfred Ndidi, Mikel John Obi, and the underrated Ogenyi Onazi.
11. England – The Three Lions will inevitably go out on penalties at some stage of the competition, but before a ball is kicked, hopes will be high that young stars like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Marcus Rashford, among others, can at least help England put forth a respectable showing. The talent is there.
12. Colombia – It’s World Cup season, which means it’s time for James Rodriguez to come to life. If the stately attacking midfielder, who remains the darling of Colombian football, can replicate his breakout showing from four years ago, we could see plenty of yellow-clad stars busting a move in Russia.
13. Mexico – One of the most unpredictable sides in world football, Mexico's volatile cocktail of top-end star power, glaring holes in a couple of positions, and the ever-changing philosophy (and personnel) behind the bench, make El Tri a nation that can either trouble the perennial powers, or fail spectacularly.
14. Serbia – Back in the competition for the first time since 2010, Serbia will be looking to reach the knockout stages of football's showpiece event for the first time as an independent nation – the country's lone appearance seven years ago ended with a disappointing group-stage exit. The backline boasts immense experience, while Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic, and Adem Ljajic provide an ideal blend of stability and attacking flair.
15. Egypt – Powered by electrifying winger Mohamed Salah, Egypt finally ended its 27-year wait for a World Cup place. The Pharaohs, who boast a squad rich with talent across various positions, immediately enter the fold as one of the quietly dangerous sides that none of the big boys wants to draw.
16. Iceland – Enjoyable as it is to watch the Icelandic supporters produce their trademark Viking Clap at each match – and it is really great – the fact remains that the tiniest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup is going to be relying almost exclusively on Gylfi Sigurdsson to win matches. The Everton midfielder is a fine player, but he’s not delivering a World Cup title any time soon.
17. Costa Rica – Familiar faces return from the squad that bounced Greece to make the quarters in 2014, and after a qualifying run saw La Sele best the U.S. on two occasions, Costa Rica has the makes of a giant killer who could again make the knockout stages with a decent draw.
18. Japan – Like Costa Rica, Japan will need a fortuitous draw to have any chance, and despite manager Vahid Halilhodzic's experience in guiding Algeria to the 2014 installment, rear guard performances of Yuto Nagatomo, Hiroki Sakai, and Maya Yoshida will be paramount for a chance to progress beyond the groups.
19. Iran – A seven-point cushion atop AFC’s Group A may paper over the cracks of a side that is no stranger to struggles in front of goal, though Iran did display a penchant for seeing out results in qualifying. Manager Carlos Quieroz should have Team Melli well-prepared for a potential maiden voyage out of the group stages where a kind draw will be imperative.
20. South Korea – The last time South Korea won a match was in March against Syria, and after a relatively flaccid qualifying effort, there's not a ton of pressure on Tottenham stud Heung-Min Son to replicate the Taegeuk Warriors' 2014 last-16 finish.
21. Panama – While neither Panama boss Hernan Dario Gomez nor his players will admit that "they're just happy to be there," the World Cup debutants would be wise to harbour tempered expectations after sneaking into the tournament by virtue of a fortuitous cocktail of fortune and the United States' ineptitude.
22. Russia – Were it not for being the host nation, there’s a very real argument that Russia wouldn’t have been able to qualify for next summer’s tournament. The cupboard is largely bare, and there are few legitimate stars in Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad. Alan Dzagoev and Fedor Smolov can only do so much on their own.
23. Saudi Arabia – Former Argentina gaffer Edgardo Bauza bosses a side short on hope that could turn some heads should Mohammad al-Sahlawi continue a volcanic-hot conversion rate that’s seen the Al-Nassr forward score 28 international goals in 33 matches.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)
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