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,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 overand and a scoreless home draw with minnow , 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 and and a midfield stacked with match winners like .
3. Brazil – South America’s best entry by some margin,‘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 missed the 2014 semi-final drubbing through injury, the star will lead a lethal attack with Premier League stars and .
4. Spain – If La Roja's exploits in topping Group G with little difficulty is an indication,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 , , and , and a growing core featuring , , and .
5. Belgium – An emerging power on the cusp of a breakthrough,'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 one of the world's best and pairing seven goals in seven matches with the other Red Devils with 10 goals in qualifying?
6. Portugal – Euro 2016 holderonly lost once in 10 qualifying tilts, but it was far from straightforward heading into Tuesday's finale with . 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 , , and as Portugal ushers in a second Golden Generation.
7. Argentina – From hanging by a thread to an automatic berth thanks to‘s stunning treble against , 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 to Serie A studs and , and what can be done with a midfield short on ideas?
8. Poland – Guided by a stingy backline led byball-stopper and a threatening attack featuring qualifying campaign goal-leader and injury return hopeful , 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 outand up front will always have a chance of doing some damage. There are some talented youngsters coming through the ranks – and chief among them – but this aging crop of Uruguayan players, anchored by captain , has one last shot at doing something special on football's biggest stage.
10. Nigeria – A potentially terrifying young attack featuring, , and will hog the headlines, but Nigeria's greatest weapon is its balance, and Gernot Rohr has instilled exactly that thanks to midfield anchors , , and the underrated .
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, , and , 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 forto 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,'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,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 , , and provide an ideal blend of stability and attacking flair.
15. Egypt – Powered by electrifying winger, 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 onto 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 bouncedto make the quarters in 2014, and after a qualifying run saw La Sele best the U.S. on two occasions, has the makes of a giant killer who could again make the knockout stages with a decent draw.
18. Japan – Like Costa Rica,will need a fortuitous draw to have any chance, and despite manager Vahid Halilhodzic's experience in guiding to the 2014 installment, rear guard performances of , , and 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, thoughdid 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 timewon a match was in March against , and after a relatively flaccid qualifying effort, there's not a ton of pressure on stud to replicate the Taegeuk Warriors' 2014 last-16 finish.
21. Panama – While neitherboss 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 thatwouldn’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. and 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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