Russia 2018 World Cup: how the main contenders are shaping up

From a rejuvenated Brazil to Frances incredible strength in depth, we look at the frontrunners starting XIs to see how they compare

The World Cup is only 15 months away and, with the latest round of qualifying games around the corner, we look at some of the teams expected to challenge for the trophy in Russia. The usual suspects Argentina, Brazil and Germany are expected to go far but France and Belgium, player-by-player, have arguably more impressive squads.

Brazil are top of the South American qualifying, having been rejuvenated under Tites stewardship with Argentina languishing in fifth with a crucial game against Chile coming up on Thursday. In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are the only teams yet to drop points with England, Spain, France, Poland, Republic of Ireland and Croatia also topping their groups.

The African teams are only two games into their third qualifying round with DR Congo, Nigeria and Egypt leading the way with six points from their opening fixtures while in Asia Iran lead one of the two groups with Saudi Arabia and Japan joint top of the other.

Here are some of the main contenders, in order of Fifas latest rankings, and their starting XIs if all players were fit.

Argentina

Argentina

Russia 2018 offers the last chance for Lionel Messi to be crowned the undisputed king of football, as Maradona was in Mexico in 1986 at least that is what fans feel in Argentina. The match against Chile on Thursday in Buenos Aires is really a final on the road to the World Cup; it is a must-win. Edgardo Bauza, the new head coach, has so far not made the changes needed. He decided to keep the same players Tata Martino and Alejandro Sabella looked to over the past six years. The big question is if this group of extraordinary players such as Gonzalo Higuan, ngel Di Mara, Sergio Agero, Javier Mascherano and Messi can finally become world champions after losing three major finals in the past three years (Brazil 2014, Copa Amrica in Chile in 2015 and again in the US in 2016). Juan Carlos Pasman.

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Mauro Icardi (Internazionale).

World ranking 1.

Odds to win World Cup 8-1.

Next match Chile, 23 March.

Brazil

Brazil

What a difference eight months make. Last summer Brazil did not even get out of their group at the Copa Amrica. The team were, admittedly, on the receiving end of an almighty refereeing blunder in the final game against Peru but it was an unimaginative team that had made very little progress, or even regressed, under Carlos Dunga. In came a new head coach, Tite, and he has transformed the team. There were always good players in the team but Tite has made them work as a collective in a 4-1-4-1 system. Neymar is undoubtedly the leader of the new generation but there is a good mix between youth and experience with players such as Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa, Gabriel Jsus, Casemiro and Dani Alves key members of the squad. The side should be stronger than in 2014 but it is worth pointing out they have not played any of the top European teams for a long time and there is only one friendly, against Germany in March 2018, scheduled before the World Cup. Paulo Vinicius Coelho

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Dudu (Palmeiras).

World ranking 2.

Odds to win World Cup 8-1.

Next match Uruguay, 23 March.

Germany

Germany

Joachim Lw is blessed with many options but they are unequally distributed. Left-back remains a weakness although Borussia Dortmunds Felix Passlack, 18, could mature in time to claim the spot. In midfield Sami Khediras place could come under pressure from Ilkay Gndogan (currently injured) or Julian Weigl of Dortmund, a world-class player in waiting. Competition will be toughest in attacking midfield. Timo Werner (RB Leipzig), Julian Brandt (Leverkusen), Leroy San (Manchester City) and perhaps even the teenager Kai Havertz (Leverkusen) will be in contention if they continue to perform next season. Up front Mario Gmez (Wolfsburg) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim) will harbour hopes that Lw might favour an orthodox No9, at least against weaker opposition. Raphael Honigstein

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen).

World ranking 3.

Odds to win World Cup 9-2.

Next match England (friendly), 22 March.

Belgium

Belgium

There are only two big questions marks for Roberto Martnez at the moment: will Vincent Kompany ever be fit again and will Axel Witsel suffer after moving to China? Martnez is planning for a future without the Manchester City defender but added that he expects him to be back for the next international game, after the season, against Estonia. Martnez, as we know, likes to attack. The all-out-attack tactic. With Belgium he plays a three-man defence with a midfield that has Thomas Meunier on the right and the attacking Yannick Carrasco on the left. Martnez still rates Witsel and believes he is crucial to the balance of the team with Kevin De Bruyne playing as a No8, especially against weaker teams. The Manchester City player dictates the tempo with his direct passing and creates the speed and movement that Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku need to fullfil their, frankly, frightening potential. Eden Hazard likes the 3-4-3, also used at Chelsea. Dries Mertens can play as a false No9 if needed, but Martnez likes Romelu Lukaku, a player he signed while at Everton.

In Belgium, there have been a lot of discussion about who should be the striker over the past few years: Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi or Michy Batshuayi, but Lukaku, not the most popular with the fans, is slowly winning everyone over. Radja Nainggolan has been the main victim of the new tactical system. He is not the most disciplined player and Martnez does not like the fact that he smokes but the two of them had a long chat and are now happy to work together. Nainggolan can play in a more attacking role or in Witsels position. Moussa Dembl will have to be content with a place on the bench as things stand. Kristof Terreur

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht).

World ranking 5.

Odds to win World Cup 14-1.

Next match Greece, 25 March.


France

France

The 4-3-3, designed to give Paul Pogba the freedom to roam from box to box, can become a 4-2-3-1 (Didier Deschampss preferred system in recent World Cup qualifiers), with NGolo Kant the sole genuine defensive midfielder alongside the Manchester United player. Antoine Griezmann can then go back one notch and play as a support striker behind his Atltico team-mate Kvin Gameiro, a partnership which has proved as fruitful for the national team as for their club. Should circumstances demand a Plan B approach, Deschamps will swap Gameiro for Olivier Giroud. Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Nebil Fekir, Alexandre Lacazette and Ousmane Dembl will have to fight for a couple of spots in the final squad of 23, which gives an idea of the depth of talent higher up the field for Les Bleus. If only this were true at the other end, where Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna have been called up far too often at the tail end of their careers. Alternatives are worryingly few. A brave choice perhaps too brave for a naturally cautious manager – would be to trust Monacos duo of flying full-backs Djibril Sidib and Benjamin Mendy. Picking Kylian Mbapp ahead of more experienced contenders should not provoke much soul-searching, however. The teenagers return of 19 goals in 32 games (and only 18 starts) for Monaco is prodigious, superior to any other player of a similar age in French football history. Hell be 19 when the World Cup kicks off. It wont be too early for him. Philippe Auclair

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Kylian Mbapp.

World ranking 6.

Odds to win World Cup 8-1.

Next match Luxembourg, 25 March.

Uruguay

Uruguay

Uruguay are second in South Americas qualifying group having already played Argentina, Brazil and Chile away and look set to qualify comfortably. scar Tabrez, as any manager would, relies heavily on Luis Surez and Edinson Cavani up front and the irresistible Diego Godn in defence. Tabrezs preferred formation is a 4-4-2 that becomes a 4-5-1 with Cavani dropping back to midfield when they lose possession. There is also the option of using Nicols Lodeiro in a central role in a 4-3-1-2. Next year, should they qualify, will be Tabrezs fourth World Cup and while his experience will help the team he is somewhat hampered by there being little competition for places in the squad. Uruguay won the Under-20 South American championship in February but none of those players are members of the senior squad. Martin Charquero

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Diego Laxalt (Genoa).

World ranking 9.

Odds to win World Cup 40-1.

Next match Brazil, 23 March.

Spain

Spain

Vitolo Costa SilvaSpain is no different to any other country in that every time a squad is named, debate starts. But while some countries wonder how so-and-so could possibly have been included, in Spain the question is how he could have been left out, such is the strength in depth. That allows for a certain state of flux around the fringes of the squad, footballers coming and going and others, talented players, believing there may be a chance. That creates a hint of uncertainty about the starting XI too, with alternatives in most positions. Julen Lopeteguis latest squad re-establishes a continuity with his era as Under21 coach, with players such as Isco, Ander Herrera, Thiago Alcntara and the surprise call-ups of Asier Illaramendi and especially Gerard Deulofeu. There are other young players who could yet get a first callup, like Roque Mesa and Manu Trigueros. Certainties include the goalkeeper, two central defenders, Sergio Busquets, and Diego Costa or lvaro Morata at No9, while Iago Aspas offers a mobile, clever alternative. Thiago, if he stays fit, may finally be given a key role in the middle. No one will ever be Xavi, mind you, and it is now legitimate to wonder how much longer Andrs Iniesta will be a key player. Sid Lowe

Possible breakthrough Vitolo (Sevilla).

Fifa world ranking 10.

Odds to win World Cup 9-1.

Next match Israel, 24 March.

England

England

England will be heading towards their first tournament since the World Cup in 2002 without Wayne Rooney being considered an automatic pick. All the same it would be a surprise if Gareth Southgates selection plans differ vastly from those of Roy Hodgson at last summers European Championship and, again, there will be a strong Tottenham influence, with five players from White Hart Lane featuring prominently (and none, you might note, from Arsenal or Manchester United). Southgate can also switch to a midfield diamond, a tactic he often used for Englands under-21s, and another option would be to look at a wing-back system that can make the most of the attacking tendencies of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Daniel Taylor

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Jordan Pickford (Sunderland).

World ranking 14.

Odds to win World Cup 16-1.

Next match Germany (friendly), 22 March.

Italy

Italy

Giampiero Ventura has experimented with different formations since succeeding Antonio Conte as Italy manager but in the biggest games he has emulated his predecessor by using a back three. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini remain as reliable as ever, but the final member of Italys famous BBC – Andrea Barzagli – has started to show his age. Happily, the Azzurri are not short of options to replace him. Alessio Romagnoli has the makings of a world-class player at Milan and his fellow 22-year-old, Daniele Rugani, is likewise turning heads at Juventus. The midfield must inevitably be built around the vision and creativity of Marco Verratti but finding a shape that will suit the rest of Italys talented but mismatched squad is trickier. Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne are happiest as wide forwards but might best be deployed in alternative roles – the former as a wing-back, and the latter as a deep-lying inside forward – so as to accommodate Federico Bernardeschi, who has excelled at No10 for Fiorentina. Up front Andrea Belottis scintillating form cannot be ignored. He sits top of the Serie A scoring charts and has struck three times in five games for Italy, despite only playing the full 90 minutes in one of them. Paolo Bandini

Possible breakthrough Andrea Belotti (Torino).

World ranking 15.

Odds to win World Cup 16-1.

Next match Albania, 24 March.

Nigeria

Nigeria

Two things stand out in Gernot Rohrs selections for Nigerias Super Eagles squad. One is a deliberate point of selecting players who not only have the talent to improve the Super Eagles but are also young enough to lower the average age of the squad. Tyronne Ebuehi, Noah Bazee and Victor Osimhen are 21, 20 and 18 respectively. Isaac Success, who is making a comeback after missing out on a previous squads, is 21. What this means is the average age of the latest invitees comes to 23.16 years, the lowest in recent years. The German seems impervious to calls to include players from the local league in his squad, with only one, the goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, called up. Rohrs 4-3-3 system appears built to exploit the players pace and energy with excellent technique, using the captain, Mikel Jon Obi, as its pivot. Colin Udoh

Possible breakthrough at Russia 2018 Victor Osimhen (Wolfsburg).

World ranking 41.

Odds to win World Cup 150-1.

Next match Senegal, 23 March.

Japan

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/mar/22/world-cup-russia-2018-frontrunners-argentina-brazil-germany-france