In 52 days’ time the World Cup begins. For many of those competing in Qatar there will be no more international fixtures between now and their first game at the tournament. The time for experimentation, blooding fringe players and honing the starting XI is gone. Game faces on, we’re in the big time now.
Here is how the 32 teams are shaping up after the final international break.
Tier 1: The favorites
The hulking presence of the Nations League on the international calendar serves to confuse matters somewhat. In years gone by friendly meetings between the best of Europe and South America were a rite of passage pre-tournament. Brazil have not played a European team since beating the Czech Republic in a friendly in March 2019. Argentina have played one European side in recent years but they comprehensively swept aside Italy in the summer’s Finalissima at Wembley.
For now, we do not have as much as we would like to go on with regards to these two’s recent games but the friendlies in which they have played suggest these are the two nations to beat in Qatar. Brazil have competition for places across their frontline with Richarlison and Gabriel Jesus putting up quite the fight for the No. 9 jersey with club and, in the former’s case, country. Tite’s full-backs look a little weaker than the rest of the squad but you’ll have to get the ball off them if you really want to test that Achilles’ heel.
Argentina, meanwhile, look like a team who can swat aside weaker nations. Lionel Scaloni may not be committed to unleashing his attacking talent en masse but instead, he has a side that are hard to break down, keep the ball well and get the best out of Lionel Messi. Four years ago it seemed the great man had missed his last chance at glory. You wouldn’t say so now.
1. Brazil (–)
2. Argentina (–)
Tier 2: Possible contenders
The Nations League makes for just as confusing a picture among its competitors as it does for South American teams. How much does this arriviste competition mean to international managers? After all, it has given them what they wanted, games with stake against opposition on a similar footing. Is it only a lower-stakes tournament when you are not winning?
At least for Germany and England, it has given them a magnifying glass with which to observe the weaknesses of their squad. They were apparent when the two teams met on Monday; Gareth Southgate can ill afford to play in such a conservative fashion if his defense cannot be relied upon to avoid basic errors. Meanwhile, Hansi Flick’s side have the players for a fast-moving, ball-dominant style but rarely seem to get out of second gear. You could say the same of Didier Deschamps’ France.
Others, meanwhile, look to be grasping what needs to be done ahead of the tournament. Spain controlled their game in Portugal though it was a familiar experience that took a lifetime to be expressed on the scoreboard; on this occasion, Alvaro Morata struck late but there are so many occasions when Luis Enrique’s side let their best chances slip away. The Netherlands are similarly easy on the eye with Cody Gakpo blossoming alongside Memphis Depay. Their clean sheets against Poland and Belgium would also suggest that Virgil van Dijk’s travails are isolated to Liverpool.
As for Denmark, perhaps it is time to upgrade them from dark horse status. If they won the entire tournament in December only those who haven’t been paying attention to European football for the last two years, or even just their win over France earlier this week, would be stunned. This is a team with a robust defense and a match-winning creator in Christian Eriksen; that is a formula for serious success.
3. Spain (+3)
4. Netherlands (+4)
5. France (-2)
6. Denmark (+5)
7. Uruguay (–)
8. Germany (-4)
9. England (-4)
10. Croatia (+2)
Tier 3: The knockouts await
Here are three teams who, at the moment, do not look like they are making their talent shine on the field. If it is surprising to see that label given to Senegal then it is worth noting that they have not been the most free-scoring of late; their defense limited Iran to one shot in a 1-1 draw but they one got four on target and prospered from an own goal.
Belgium seemed to have steadied the ship after a woeful summer but their loss to the Netherlands in their final Nations League did point to a side who are someway off the best in the continent. When you have a talent like Kevin De Bruyne, however, there are no reasons why things can’t improve quite quickly. The same could be said of a Portugal side that can blow by the likes of the Czech Republic one game but who seem to come undone all too often against the continent’s better sides.
11. Senegal (-2)
12. Belgium (-2)
13. Portugal (–)
Tier 4: In the mix
The United States tumble down our rankings and with good cause. Their 2-0 defeat to Japan was as poor a performance as any delivered by a nation that envisages itself as eventually being a major footballing force; in almost every aspect of their play, Gregg Berhalter’s side seemed to be doing a poor impression of an antiquated team who had been passed by in the modern game. No less concerning was that they showed rather limited signs of progress against Saudi Arabia. This simply isn’t a team that looks like putting the ball in the net. Their best hope might be that Group B rivals Wales are also struggling (against significantly better opposition) but a strong run of results for Iran in the international break suggests it could be all to play for.
Meanwhile, Group G promises to be an intriguing battle between Serbia and Switzerland, the former perhaps blessed with the greater talent pool but the latter having proven to be an almightily tough out at tournament football. Victories over Spain and the Czech Republic in the Nations League send them rising rapidly up our power rankings into what we will christen “don’t sleep on these” corner. Morocco welcomed perhaps their most talented player back into the fold in Hakim Ziyech and responded with an impressive win over Chile and a draw with Paraguay in Spain. On the basis of their win over the US, Japan could give Germany and Spain all sorts of headaches, not least because they combine their technical qualities with a physicality that saw them outmuscle Berhalter’s men in most of their 50-50 duels. Hajime Moriyasu’s side might be light on star quality but there look to be few weak links in their squad.
As for those falling down our rankings, Ghana are perhaps paying the price for an overexcited reaction from us to their talent drive earlier this year. On the basis of their defeat to Brazil and narrow win over Nicaragua, there might not be time to get everyone in sync. Still, if Inaki Williams can hit the ground running in Qatar the Black Stars could yet escape the group.
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14. Serbia (+1)
15. Japan (+10)
16. Switzerland (+6)
17. Morocco (+6)
18. Ecuador (-1)
19. South Korea (–)
20. Mexico (-2)
21. Wales (-1)
22. Ghana (-6)
23. Iran (+8)
24. USA (-10)
25. Poland (+1)
26. Tunisia (-5)
Tier 5: Unlikely to escape the groups
Defeats to South Korea and Uzbekistan have made for an extremely worrying World Cup preparation period for Cameroon. Bringing Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting into the fray in Qatar might give them some extra nous but Rigobert Song has a lot to do to get this team back to the one that fired on all cylinders earlier this year at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Qatar will be hoping for a host nation bounce when they kick off the tournament against Ecuador but a string of unofficial friendlies have not gotten Felix Sanchez’s side in a winning mood. Indeed if anything they are making headlines for the wrong reasons, losing to a hastily assembled Croatia Under-23 side and then being swatted aside by Canada a few days later. No host has failed to win a game at their World Cup. Qatar could be about to change that.
27. Australia (–)
28. Canada (+1)
29. Cameroon (-5)
30. Costa Rica (–)
31. Saudi Arabia (+1)
32. Qatar (-4)