World Cup audit: Every major contender has a big question to answer

·15 min read
Ronaldo (left), De Bruyne (centre) and Neymar (right) - GETTY IMAGES/AP
Ronaldo (left), De Bruyne (centre) and Neymar (right) - GETTY IMAGES/AP

England go into the Qatar World Cup as one of the favourites but there are plenty of teams who will also touch down in Doha with expectations of going all the way and lifting the trophy.

For the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it will be their last chance to claim the one piece of silverware conspicuously absent from their bulging collection. Likewise, can Belgium's so-called 'golden generation' finally live up to that billing before age catches up with them?

Here, our team of football writers dissect England's biggest rivals for the trophy...

Argentina

Current form: WWDWW

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy after beating Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 Copa America final - AP
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy after beating Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 Copa America final - AP

One of the most in-form teams in international football is set to head into November’s World Cup finals in very different shape to four years ago.

Argentina were beset with problems and riven with infighting in Russia and ultimately sent tumbling out of the tournament by France as Lionel Messi was upstaged by his future Paris St-Germain team-mate, Kylian Mbappe.

The contrast now could not be more stark and the main issues for coach Lionel Scaloni are not so much problems as welcome selection headaches, such as who to pair in central defence and central midfield, as well as managing the intense but inevitable scrutiny that will surround what, at 35, could be Messi’s final shot at World Cup glory. Friendlies against Honduras and Jamaica in the US over the coming days offer Scaloni the chance to fine tune.

Argentina’s 5-0 victory over Ecuador in June, when Messi scored all five goals - four days after the Copa America winners crushed European champions Italy 3-0 in the so-called Finalissima at Wembley - extended the Abiceleste’s unbeaten run to 33 matches. Scaloni’s side have not tasted defeat since being beaten 2-0 by Brazil in the semi-finals of the Copa America more than three years ago, a loss they avenged in last summer’s final in the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro no less. That, remarkably, was Messi’s first major trophy with Argentina and the country’s first since 1993.

Argentina’s renaissance under Scaloni has been founded on defensive solidity, hard work and togetherness, all of which has reduced the dependence on Messi at the same time as providing a platform for the seven-time World Player of the Year to sprinkle his magic. The irony is that, in the twilight of his career, this could represent Messi’s best chance yet of the one major honour still to elude him and one he craves above all others. After a difficult debut campaign at PSG, he has started this season in imperious form, with six goals and eight assists in 11 matches, and will hope to take that form to Qatar.

Scaloni seems to have found the ideal foil in attack for Messi with Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez, but can also call upon the likes of Nicolas Gonzalez, Joaquin Correa, Paulo Dybala and Manchester City’s exciting young talent Julian Alvarez. In defensive midfield, he must choose between Leandro Paredes, currently on loan at Juventus from PSG, or Real Betis’ Guido Rodriguez.

In defence, Scaloni has to decide whether to partner the likes of Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez and Tottenham’s Cristian Romero - both in fine form for their clubs - or keep faith with the veteran Nicolas Otamendi. Now 34, Otamendi’s best days are behind him but the former Manchester City centre-half – now at Benfica – has been a key figure in helping to unify the squad alongside other experienced heads like Di Maria and Messi.

In reality, injuries to key personnel appear the biggest threat to Argentine harmony between now and their opening World Cup game against Saudi Arabia on Nov 22.

Belgium

Current form: WLWDW

Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne look frustrated - GETTY IMAGES
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne look frustrated - GETTY IMAGES

Has the golden generation become the golden-oldie generation? There are unavoidable comparisons between Belgium circa 2014-2022 and England 2002-10. A once young, exciting squad that was ready to conquer the world has seen winnable European Championships and World Cups slip from their grasp. Now Qatar 2022 will be the final fling on the international stage for some of the stellar names in Roberto Martinez’s squad, either the fulfilment of a prophecy of world domination or evidence of the perils of dragging loyal servants along for one tournament too many,

Martinez has balanced his recent selections with emerging talent such as Anderlecht’s 18-year-old centre-half Zeno Debast, but the need to call up more veterans than Captain Mainwaring is a concern. Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens are 35. Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel are 33. They will provide wisdom, but Martinez will have to look to more inexperienced players for athleticism in a congested schedule.

Results have been erratic for Belgium over the past 12 months, including defeats to Italy, France and – comprehensively – to Holland. They also drew with Wales and the Republic of Ireland. In the games which really mattered – the World Cup qualifiers – Belgium were still imperious, their draw in Cardiff coming long after the Qatar hotel booking.

That said, Martinez and his players know how regularly the phrase ‘last-chance saloon’ will be translated into French and Flemish over the coming months. Naturally, their hopes will be carried by the legends still at their peak, most notably Kevin De Bruyne.

Will the Manchester City maestro have too much responsibility carrying those whose powers have waned? If any player is capable of defining a tournament in the manner of Maradona in 1986, Matthaus in 1990 or Zidane in 1998, it is De Bruyne.  But having gone into recent tournaments among the favourites, a credible semi-final place would represent success this time.

Brazil

Current form: WWWWW

Neymar takes part in a Brazil training session - AFP
Neymar takes part in a Brazil training session - AFP

Brazil coach Tite has the kind of headache his rivals crave – so many options, so little time to make the final calls in what looks like the strongest selection pool since his country won in Japan in 2002.

The downside for the coach is whatever choices he makes will cause consternation somewhere, with as much focus guaranteed on his squad omissions as his picks. In such a passionate, knowledgeable football nation that might create as much negative energy as positive heading to Qatar. Tite has already confirmed he will be leaving his post after six years in charge, having taken over in 2016. Was it wise to be so open about his post-tournament intentions?

His explanation gave the impression he is in danger of being psychologically burnt out before the tournament. “There is no chance of continuing,” he said. “Absolutely not. With body and soul I want to do the best possible job for the national squad (at the World Cup). Then I want to be at peace. I want to sleep in peace.”

That state of mind may also explain why Tite is unconcerned about making contentious decisions, although it remains to be seen if appearing demob happy has the desired impact.

Despite Brazil’s impressive run of 10 victories in their last 13 internationals, Tite has made occasionally mystifying tweaks to a winning formula, albeit it has not impacted superb results and performances. Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus’ absence from the latest squad has caused particular confusion ahead of this week’s internationals. Jesus is one of the hottest strikers in the world right now, thriving and maturing with the extra responsibility of being top dog at Arsenal. Jesus accepted the demotion with humility – a wise decision as he tries to ensure he is selected for the World Cup – but one has to question the motivation for the snub.

Every Brazil squad goes to the World Cup carrying the weight of history. The current side undoubtedly has the talent to win. The biggest question mark is whether the players and their outgoing coach can break with recent tournaments and handle the most extreme pressure.

France

Current form: LDDLW

France forward Antoine Griezmann jokes with Kylian Mbappe - AFP
France forward Antoine Griezmann jokes with Kylian Mbappe - AFP

France are never too far away from a dramatic meltdown and their latest internal issue, triggered by Kylian Mbappe’s reported refusal to take part in sponsor activities, could easily be the precursor for wider dysfunction. It is not so long, remember, since the families of the players were arguing in the stands during their exit from Euro 2020.

Paul Pogba’s rift with his brother, who has been detained over an alleged plot to extort money from the Juventus midfielder, is also deeply troubling and has not helped the mood around the national team in France.

And this is before one considers their on-field issues, which were made clear during a disappointing June. France lost two and drew two of their Nations League matches and looked short of attacking threat, despite the presence of Mbappe and Karim Benzema in their front line.

There are also fitness concerns over Pogba, who is yet to play this season and might not be available for the World Cup, while another key midfielder, N’Golo Kante, is struggling to stay in shape at Chelsea. There are other absentees for this international break, including Benzema and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

All in all, it does not sound particularly promising. But then one considers the sheer strength of their squad and the ridiculous amount of quality at the disposal of Didier Deschamps. Any team with the likes of Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann will cause major problems at an international tournament.

A strong defence is key to any side’s World Cup ambitions and France have an impressive blend of muscle and class at the back. Raphael Varane, Jules Kounde, Ferland Mendy and Benjamin Pavard are all high-quality options and Arsenal’s William Saliba is as physically formidable as they come. France are not perfect, but they are world champions for a reason and they will be feared.

Germany

Current form: WDDDD

Thomas Mueller, Armel Bella-Kotchap, Ilkay Gundogan, Nico Schlotterbeck and Timo Werner attend a Germany training session - GETTY IMAGES
Thomas Mueller, Armel Bella-Kotchap, Ilkay Gundogan, Nico Schlotterbeck and Timo Werner attend a Germany training session - GETTY IMAGES

A 5-2 victory over Italy in June was a reminder of the quality in this Germany team, which looks to be combative in defence and dangerous in transition. There had been four consecutive draws before that, though, and it would be fair to question whether they will have the required attacking firepower in Qatar.

Germany? Lacking firepower? It sounds odd given the forward options in Hansi Flick’s squad. But there is no top-class No 9 to lead the line, and that makes things a little more complicated.

Perhaps Timo Werner will step up as the central striker. Perhaps it will be Kai Havertz. Neither player has been capable of doing so effectively in the Premier League, however, and neither will instil a huge amount of fear in opposition centre-backs.

Far more threatening are the wider, or more creative, attacking players. Leroy Sane, Jamal Musiala, Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller: these are imaginative, dangerous forwards and they should have quality service from the likes of Joshua Kimmich and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield.

Germany are a fearsome opponent at any time but it is also true that they have produced disappointing showings at their past two major tournaments. They famously finished fourth in their group at the 2018 World Cup and in the European Championship last season they were defeated by England at the round-of-16 stage. Their triumph at the 2014 World Cup feels like a long time ago now.

These next few days should provide a good indication of the readiness of this Germany side, with Flick making it clear that he and his coaching staff “are already in World Cup mode”. That might be for the best, especially because Germany have a difficult group in Qatar: they have been pitted against Spain, Japan and Costa Rica.

Holland

Current form: WDWWD

Louis van Gaal drinks a cup of tea - SHUTTERSTOCK
Louis van Gaal drinks a cup of tea - SHUTTERSTOCK

The Dutch, not for the first time, flattered to deceive during last summer’s European Championship, winning every group game in impressive fashion only to lose to Czech Republic in the first knockout game.

As the former Chelsea defender Mario Melchiot complained earlier this year, “We always have talented players, but we need to go back to basics a little bit... the problem we have is that we always want to win playing beautiful football, but sometimes you just need to take care of business and win the game. We need to grasp that.”

The return of Louis van Gaal as national team manager should bring some more pragmatism to the dug-out and he has already put his own idiosyncratic stamp on the squad by effectively ending Tim Krul's international career because he declined to take part in specialist penalty training.

The big difference this year is that Liverpool’s Virgil van Dyke is back in the centre of defence, which makes them a far more daunting side to score against.

The squad is full of elite-tier players, from Van Dijk to Bayern Munich pair Matthijs de Ligt and Ryan Gravenberch to Barcelona duo Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay, but it is in attack where they look lightweight compared to the other leading nations.

Van Gaal has used Depay and former Spurs player Steven Bergwijn as wide forwards, rotating with Royal Antwerp’s Vincent Janssen and Club Brugge’s Noa Lang. It is underwhelming, but when the alternative is Wout Woughorst leading the line as a traditional centre-forward – the 30-year-old scored two goals in 20 games for Burnley last season – you can see why Van Gaal is adopting this offensive system.

None of the attacking players in the squad inspire a lot of confidence at the top level. However, their form heading into the tournament is good – a 4-1 win over world No 1 Belgium demands respect – and they look like a decent each-way bet.

Portugal

Current form: LWWDW

Fernando Santos watches Cristiano Ronaldo train - GETTY IMAGES
Fernando Santos watches Cristiano Ronaldo train - GETTY IMAGES

“I don’t think anyone has any doubts that Cristiano Ronaldo continues to be of great importance to the national team,” said Fernando Santos, the Portugal manager, last week. But is he right? Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and that means he will be in the World Cup squad no matter what, but it seems increasingly fair to ask whether he should be in Portugal’s team.

Primarily, this is due to his lack of minutes at Manchester United, where the 37-year-old has started only one league match so far this season (the 4-0 loss at Brentford). Secondly, Portugal are remarkably well-stocked when it comes to attacking talent – it is not as if Ronaldo is the only top-level forward at their disposal. Far from it.

Few teams in Europe are capable of matching Portugal’s collection of sprightly attacking players and the question that needs to be asked is whether Ronaldo, for all his obvious goal threat in the penalty box, still brings out the best in his younger team-mates.

In the current Portugal squad you will find the likes of Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, Pedro Neto and Rafael Leao. All of them are elite forward players, all of them capable of playing a brand of fast and vibrant football that should make Portugal one of the most devastating sides in Qatar.

Is such an approach possible with Ronaldo? Erik ten Hag, the United manager, seems to have decided that his team is better without Ronaldo, even if he remains their standout individual and one of the game’s greatest goalscorers. One day, and perhaps one day soon, Santos might reach the same conclusion.

Ronaldo’s cause might have been helped by the surprise international retirement of Benfica forward Rafa Silva. The 29-year-old has made an impressive start to the season but this week pulled out of the squad due to personal reasons.

The Ronaldo debate might serve as a distraction but, whatever conclusion is reached, Portugal will still expect to challenge. In Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias they have the Premier League’s standout full-back and centre-back and in midfield there is no shortage of technical quality. If Portugal fulfil their potential, with or without Ronaldo, they will be hard to stop.

Spain

Current form: WWDDW

Alvaro Morata celebrates scoring for Spain - SHUTTERSTOCK
Alvaro Morata celebrates scoring for Spain - SHUTTERSTOCK

The most encouraging signpost for Spain is the fact their young side reached the final of the Olympics last summer, a few weeks after the senior side were narrowly beaten by Italy, after a penalty shoot-out, in the semi-finals of the European Championship.

This is an interesting time for Spanish football domestically with Barcelona’s much-publicised financial troubles and Champions League winners Real Madrid no longer boasting so many superstars from the national side.

There is the impression that this is the start of something new for the national team and there are a lot of exciting, relatively new players in the squad - Leipzig’s Dani Almo, Real’s Marco Asensio, PSG’s Carlos Soler and Barcelona’s brilliant teenager Pedri and the former Manchester City prospect Ferran Torres.

They look strong in defence and in midfield, but can they score enough goals to win the World Cup? Do they have the firepower to beat the other top nations in knockout games?

The general view is that a side relying on Atletico Madrid’s Alvaro Morata as their first-choice centre-forward is in trouble, but he has the full faith of manager Luis Enrique and he is capable of match-defining moments. The criticism is that the former Chelsea player is not consistent enough as a goalscorer, but on the flip side this means Spain tend to share the goals around the team. They were unlucky not to reach the final of the Euros just over a year ago and they will surely be in the mix to do so again in Qatar.