Damir Kulaš –
Croatia’s 1-0 win over an uninspiring Mexico at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington Texas marked the culmination of a week-long festival of eagerly-anticipated friendly clashes, most of which featured this summer’s World Cup participants. Club football will make a return this weekend as the business end of the season begins although most of Europe’s top leagues lack title races with the winners being a matter of formality. Come May 20, all 32 finalists will begin assembling themselves and heading off to training camps as all eyes turn to Russia. Until then, the recent round of friendlies serves as the best form of assessment on the participants, with five of the favourites analysed.
Following on from their 6-1 defeat over a hapless, Messi-less Argentina, Spain have been instilled by many as pre-tournament favourites. Having won European Championships with La Roja at U-19 and U-21 level respectively, manager Julen Lopetegui has revitalised the team after Vincente Del Bosque’s troubled last few years at the helm. The national team have refound their distinct identity and are littered with some of the finest creative talents on the planet.
In David de Gea, they have the world’s most in-form goalkeeper while full-backs Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba should compensate for the lack of pace centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have while providing plenty of drive in attack. Cesar Azpilicueta, Nacho and recent debutant Marcos Alonso are able defensive deputies. In midfield, Spain’s stocks are unrivalled by any other national team in world football with Sergio Busquets, Thiago and Koke joined by 2010 hero Andres Iniesta, for whom Russia will be an international swansong.
In attack, hat-trick hero Isco and David Silva will be looking to exploit space via their exceptional talents while Real Madrid rising star Marco Asensio will no doubt be one of the favourites for the tournament’s best young player award. Up front, the absence of the out-of-form Alvaro Morata is not a major cause of concern for the coach given Iago Aspas, Diego Costa and Rodrigo all found the back of the net over the course of the two friendly games with Lucas Vasquez another exciting option out wide.
The 2014 Champions will have to improve on their respective showings in the 1-1 draw with the Spanish in Düsseldorf and the 1-0 defeat to Brazil in Berlin on Tuesday. In the years since their triumph at the Maracana, Joachim Löw has lost the experience of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. While their dynamic, attacking style of play has not altered much, there are still plenty of questions marks regarding who exactly plays in Russia.
Manuel Neuer is expected to be fit in time for the tournament while Barcelona shot-stopper Marc-André ter Stegen is a far better alternative than either Bernd Leno and Kevin Trapp. Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels are considered by many to be the world’s best defensive pairing while Joshua Kimmich has asserted himself as Lahm’s natural successor at right-back, while also being able to play in the centre of the park. The problem left-back position could be Die Mannschaft’s primary weakness with neither Jonas Hector nor Marvin Plattenhardt looking particularly convincing in the role.
Löw’s preferred midfield pairing would no doubt be 2014 winners Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos although the former’s injury problems might provide the likes of Emre Can and Ilkay Gundogan with starting roles. Bayern-bound Leon Goretzka is expected to feature further ahead in a playmaking capacity, with Julian Draxler being a suitable candidate. Premier League based duo Mesut Özil and Leroy Sané, and the ever-serviceable Thomas Müller are the three prime candidates for the wide attacking roles.
Müller himself could be utilised as a target man once more and is six goals short of Klose’s World Cup record having netted five times in each of the two previous tournaments. Whether he starts up front is dependent on whether Low entrusts Timo Werner in the role of big man targets Mario Gomez and Sandro Wagner failing to flatter despite some good Bundesliga form of late. A fit and firing Marco Reus could be their x-factor while teammate Mario Götze will need to rediscover his form if he hopes to replicate his match-winning heroics at the Luzhniki.
Brazil appear to have recovered from the national embarrassment that was Mineirazo and will arrive in Russia as the most in-form nation at the World Cup with or without the services of the talented yet divisive Neymar. Tite has provided a structure rarely seen under predecessors Scolari and Dunga and has a settled defence to combine with the attacking talents marauding their frontline. Alisson will hope to use the World Cup as a springboard to a big-money move away from Italy and will be looking to replicate his Roma heroics with the impressive Ederson only an understudy.
Marquinhos and Miranda have established a formidable defensive partnership at the back which has seen the Seleção concede just four goals in 13 games since the start of 2017. Full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo are still at the top of their game and provide an added attacking option going forward. Any space which they leave exposed at the back can be filled by defensive midfielders Casemiro and Fernandinho while Renato Augusto and Paulinho have been two of Tite’s star performers despite spending much of their time under his reign plying their domestic trade in China.
The frontline has undergone a considerable upgrade since 2014 with the likes of Bernard, Fred, Hulk and Oscar replaced by Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and Willian as Neymar’s supporting cast. The Paris Saint-Germain star is expected to be fit in time for the tournament and will look to Romario and Ronaldo’s injury redemptions from 1994 and 2002 as a source of inspiration. The Samba Boys will additionally know how to play without their main man should the scenario arise, a stark contrast from 2014 when the mauling to Germany was Brazil’s first game without his services heading into the tournament.
Equally talented but far from convincing are Les Bleus with their recent defeat to Colombia in Paris reinforcing the view that Didier Deschamps does not know how to maximise the talented generation of players at his disposal. Captain Hugo Lloris and La Liga-based centre-halves Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane provide a strong backbone but the full-back roles are yet to be determined with the likes of Digne, a returning Mendy, Pavard, Sidibe and the newly-capped Lucas Hernandez all in contention. But much of Deschamps’ problems lay further upfield.
N’Golo Kante was sacrificed in the latter stages of Euro 2016 but the general opinion is that he must be utilised in the water carrier role made famous by his hero and compatriot Claude Makélélé. Out of favour with Jose Mourinho at club level, Paul Pogba scored a spectacular free-kick against Russia but how best to deploy him is proving to be a headache at an international level too. Blaise Matuidi has lost form with Bayern’s Corentin Tolisso, PSG’s Adrien Rabiot and the more attack-minded Thomas Lemar of Monaco pushing forward their case to replace him in the starting XI.
Up front, Deschamps looks set to continue using Olivier Giroud as the target man despite his lack of form at club level and the perceived inflexibility he brings to those around him. While Antoine Griezmann has found form at the right time, a front three featuring the Atletico star, Kylian Mbappé and one of Ousmane Dembélé and Anthony Martial maximises the collective attacking potential of the side that is often lacking when Giroud is on the field. Wissam Ben Yedder and Florian Thauvin are bolters while injury and a loss of form could prove costly for Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette.
Finally, to Argentina, who despite fielding arguably the greatest player of all time in Lionel Messi appear a long way from winning their third World Cup crown and, therefore, the weakest of all the World Cup favourites. While having some of the world’s best forwards to call upon, Jorge Sampaoli has experienced great difficulty in finding the right balance in addition to implementing his intense, hard-pressing style to a defence and midfield which lacks pace and penetration. His Chile side of 2014 were well-suited to carrying out these tactics due to their years of guidance under Sampaoli’s much-lauded mentor Marcelo Bielsa, but a rigid La Albiceleste is looking increasingly more ill-suited to such a full-throttle game plan.
In goals, Willy Caballero appears to have replaced Sergio Romero as first-choice despite neither of the two being first-choice at Chelsea and Manchester United respectively. In defence, Argentina were exposed to a great extent by a rampant Spain at the Wanda Metropolitano with Manchester-based duo Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo not covering themselves in glory. Young full-backs Fabricio Bustos and Nicolas Tagliafico have potential but lack experience. Sevilla’s Gabriel Mercado is a Sampaoli favourite and scored the first goal of his era last June but like Federico Fazio lacks the requisite pace.
Admittedly this problem is nothing new for the Argentines who in 2014 reached the final with an ageing Martin Demichelis at the forefront of their defence. However, Alejandro Sabella’s reactive approach was better suited to overcoming these deficiencies within the squad, as opposed to the fast-paced, attacking style Sampaoli is trying to implement in the present day. Similar problems plague the midfield with Javier Mascherano’s best days seemingly behind him while the mercurial Ever Banega and the industrious Lucas Biglia fail to solve this limitation. Zenit’s Leandro Paredes, while capable, was not utilised in the humiliation against Spain.
Out on the flanks, Angel Di Maria has returned to form at club level in the absence of Neymar while the likes of Angel Correa, Manuel Lanzini and Diego Perotti offer plenty going forward but question marks still remain over their defensive abilities. With Messi largely inhibited by those around him, he will no doubt be looking to find a prolific goalscoring partner up front with one of Sergio Aguero or Gonzalo Higuain to be used as the number nine. The ridiculously talented Paulo Dybala will in all likelihood have to do with a place on the bench while the reportedly Inter-bound Lautaro Martinez might squeeze into the squad ahead of future club teammate Mauro Icardi.
Summary of the World Cup favourites
Thus, with less than three months remaining until the world’s biggest sporting event kicks-off, 2010 Champions Spain and five-time winners Brazil look best placed to claim the game’s ultimate prize. Germany once settled will be up there too but question marks linger over whether France and Argentina are genuine favourites for the crown, a situation not helped by recent poor showings against Colombia and Spain which highlighted concerning deficiencies in both sides.
Damir Kulas is a 22-year-old politics/law student currently residing in Melbourne. Originally from Bosnia, his work has been featured in These Football Times as well as several Australian publications. Follow Damir on Twitter @damirkulas