We’re less than three weeks away from the greatest sports showdowns of them all. And with the FIFA World Cup squads announced, here are how the major teams are shaping up in their bids to go the distance in Russia.
Egypt have emerged as a dark horse over the past few months primarily on the basis of the world beating form depicted by Mohamed Salah, who at the time of writing is gearing up for the Champions League final. While Salah is among the players to watch out for in the tournament, Egypt have an English Premier League core, which if holds it ground could allow Salah to express himself.
Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, West Brom defenders Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr, Aston Villa defender Ahmed Elmohamady, Wigan midfielder Sam Morsy, and Stoke winger Ramadan Sobhy are the more notable names in the squad.
Uruguay need Luis Suarez and Edin Cavani to pull off their Barcelona and Paris Saint Germaine goal scoring exploits, with the two 30-year-olds as close to their peak powers as they would be at any major tournament. With center back Diego Godin, 31, the team’s mainstay at the heart of defence, the team’s core evidently is made of players perhaps giving their one last shot at the biggest prize in international football.
Even so, youngsters Federico Valverde and Nahitan Nandez have the potential of injecting much needed exuberance in the midfield.
Gareth Southgate has announced that Harry Kane will lead an England side that is the least fancied it has been over the past two decades. While that may well work in its favour, it’s still a squad that on paper doesn’t match up to its more illustrious peers. Other than Kane, names like Raheem Sterling, Deli Alli, Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford aren’t exactly world beaters.
While a midfield potentially featuring Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier is solid, it lacks the dynamism that other teams have. And while a robust defensive showing could give England a chance, with the likes of John Stones and Harry Maguire likely at the heart of it, the team just doesn’t have the needed experience at the biggest stage.
This, in all likelihood, is Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to win the World Cup, but perhaps with the least chances of lifting it that he’s had. Portugal’s Euro 2016 win has increased the burden of expectations on the side, but the overall squad doesn’t quite matchup to that.
Portugal have gone for an injection of youth, Nani, Eder, Nelson Semedo and Andre Gomes all dropped. But they have the experience where needed, with Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte spearheading the defence, with veteran Ricardo Quaresma still marauding on the flanks.
It’s safe to say that with the personnel at their disposal, perennial dark horses Belgium don’t quite merit that billing and are truly one of the major contenders. Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Romelo Lukaku, Edin Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are among the very best players in the world in their positions.
The absence of an obvious talismanic star actually helps the squad, given that there won’t be undue pressure on one particular individual. Belgium also have the experience of Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany and Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini to fall back on.
Like Belgium, France have a squad brimming with depth and a potential starting 11 that is a match for anyone on a given day. But where the French historically struggle is getting the whole to be at least somewhere near the sum of its parts.
Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe are comfortably among the very best players in the world, but the outfield trio is yet to replicate their potential at the international stage.
Elsewhere, the likes of Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi, shore up a squad that can definitely go one better than their runners-up finish at Euro 2016.
Like Ronaldo, this might be Lionel Messi’s last shot at that elusive World Cup win. The fact that the Portuguese has won an international trophy at Euro 2016, while the Argentinean is still looking for his first, further adds burden on him.
On paper, Argentina have supreme quality outside of Messi as well, with Angel Di Maria, Segio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain helping form the most explosive attacking lineup in the tournament. The problem, however, has been this big names disappearing for Argentina, who have – if anything – become even more reliant on Messi in recent times.
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero reportedly being ruled out of the World Cup owing to injury is, however, a major blow for Argentina.
As usual, Spain would line up with a two-pronged Real Madrid Barcelona spine, looking to make their last World Cup debacle well and truly a part of history.
Captain Sergio Ramos has Real mates alongside in the shape of Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio, Nacho and Lucas Vazquez. Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and the retiring Andres Iniesta – who scored the winner in the 2010 World Cup final – are the Barca contingent.
Spain have been the most successful international side over the past decade with the 2010 World Cup win sandwiched between Euro 2008 and 2012 triumphs. But after failures in 2014 and 2016, this is a new era for Spain, whichever way it goes.
Neymar returning from injury is of course the biggest headline coming out of the Brazil squad, which is packed with stars elsewhere as well. Brazil manager Tite, with classic Brazilian swag, had named his World Cup starting 11 in February:
“The 11 who will start are Alisson; Marcelo, Miranda, Marquinhos, Daniel Alves; Paulinho, Renato Augusto and Casemiro, Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus.”
While Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino might be knocking on the door of the first three, the announcement of the starting 11 four months in advance shows the confidence that Tite has in his squad, and how there is clarity regarding the first choice players.
Brazil, as always, are among the top favourites to win an unprecedented sixth World Cup.
Germany could join Brazil as the top of the pile with five World Cups if they defend their crown in Russia, with a squad that typically is without bulging superstars. What they also don’t have is a clear cut starting 11 like Brazil – as things stand – but there is more than a fair idea of where Joachim Low might go with his selection.
Bayern duo Mats Hummels and George Boateng should form the heart of defence, with Manuel Neuer in goal if fit. Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos should form the heart of midfield with Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Marco Reus being the attacking trio behind young Timo Werner.
It is the right blend of youth and experience, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Germany lift the World Cup come July.