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France, Germany and Brazil, the teams to beat

The countdown to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will begin in earnest when the draw for the group stage takes place in Doha on Friday. From then on, each team can decide how to navigate their way to the final on December 18. But the tournament promises to be one of the most unpredictable in recent times, as there is no clear favorite to win the cup.

Italy, champions of Euro 2020, showed with their surprising elimination in the playoff against North Macedonia that there are no certainties at the highest level of international football. The Italians would have had the credentials to follow their European success with a fifth World Cup win in Qatar, but instead Roberto Mancini and his players will be on vacation when the tournament kicks off on November 21.

Europe’s heavyweights Germany and reigning champions France are expected to go the distance, but can Spain or England fulfill their potential? Will Brazil or Argentina be strong enough to end the 20-year wait for a South American world champion? And will Africa’s strongest teams break new ground by reaching the semi-finals or beyond?

Here’s a first look at where some of the top teams are heading into Qatar 2022.

GERMANY

Hansi Flick’s team were the first to secure their place at Qatar 2022 [Qatar se clasificó automáticamente como anfitrión] when he confirmed his qualification on October 11, recovering in convincing fashion from his early elimination from Euro 2020 following the round of 16 loss to England. And Germany go into Tuesday’s friendly against the Netherlands on an eight-match winning streak since Flick replaced Joachim Löw as coach, in which he scored 33 goals and allowed just two.

The four-time world champions can still count on the experience of Manuel Neuer, Antonio Rudiger, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller and Ilkay Gundogan, but rising stars such as Jamal Musiala, Lukas Nmecha and David Raum now bolster the younger element of the squad, already features Leroy Sané, Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz, depending on the 18-year-old’s recovery from his recent cruciate ligament injury.

Following an embarrassing group stage exit while defending their title at Russia 2018, Germany will feel they have something to prove in Qatar and are strong enough to reach the final.

BRAZIL

Since losing a friendly against Peru in September 2019, Brazil have only lost twice in 27 games and both defeats came against old rivals Argentina. How strong are the five-time world champions?

Largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s matches in the last two and a half years have been limited to meetings with South American rivals. Since falling to Belgium in the 2018 quarterfinals, Brazil have only played European opposition once — a 3-1 win against the Czech Republic in March 2019 — making their run of two losses in 27 games doesn’t seem particularly impressive, especially when you consider that both losses came against their main rival.

However, Brazil is second in the FIFA Ranking and its squad has evident quality in all positions. Coach Tite has two world class goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson; defenders like Marquinhos and Éder Militão; a midfield with Fabinho and Casemiro; and offensive talents like Neymar, Vinícius Jr., Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Martinelli.

But Brazil’s World Cup hopes in the last four tournaments have ended in defeat to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France respectively, so they will have to find a way to beat Europe’s best to win in Qatar.

FRANCE

On paper, Didier Deschamps’ reigning world champions are the best squad heading into the World Cup, but the same thing happened at Euro 2020 and they were eliminated in the round of 16 by Switzerland on penalties. However, France remain undefeated since that early exit, and returned to form by winning the Nations League against Spain last November.

It’s hard to find a weak spot in Deschamps’ squad, which has arguably been further strengthened since 2018. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan, defenders Jules Koundé and Theo Hernández, and striker Christopher Nkunku all made their debuts after the World Cup, reinforcing a squad that already had world-class players such as Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. With such quality, France are likely to be favorites to win the cup again.

BELGIUM

Every major tournament of the last decade was billed as a competition where Belgium would upset the old order by adding their name to the list of winners, but that hasn’t happened for the world number one.

Qatar will probably be the last chance at glory for many of the members of Roberto Martínez’s team. Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are all past 30, and only midfielder Youri Tielemans (24) seems capable of emulating the greats of the country’s golden generation.

But while Belgium are a team of an aging force, they have undoubted quality and a favorable group would give them a great opportunity. And while Romelu Lukaku continues to struggle with Chelsea, his formidable record of 68 goals in 101 games for Belgium shows that Martinez has a goalscorer to lean on.

ENGLAND

Under Gareth Southgate, England have become a team that can tackle major tournaments after failing to live up to (usually self-generated) expectations at so many previous World Cups and Euros. After reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, they came second after a penalty shootout loss to Italy at Euro 2020. England are on an upward trajectory and are shaping up to be a team that could do just that this year.

Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden are world-class attacking players, while Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice are proven midfielders at international level, but age issues continue to haunt England.

Will they be able to hold onto the ball so they can control matches against top opponents and will Southgate be bold enough as a manager to win a major tournament? The answer to both questions was ‘no’ at Euro 2020, but even if England don’t win in Qatar, they should reach the semi-finals.

ARGENTINA

Like their Brazilian rivals, Argentina is a traditional South American powerhouse that carries the burden of high expectations at home, but has struggled to outperform the best teams in Europe when it was time to act. At least they will go to Qatar after ending a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021 and that success has eased the intense pressure on 34-year-old Lionel Messi to win a trophy for his country.

Coach Lionel Scaloni has a big challenge ahead of him, however, if he is to guide Argentina to their first World Cup title since 1986. Argentina are in the midst of a 30-match unbeaten streak, dating back to of the defeat in the Copa América against Brazil in July 2019, but the result of the Finalissima [los ganadores de la Eurocopa vs. Los ganadores de la Copa América] against Italy at Wembley in June should give us a clearer indication of their true strength.

PORTUGAL

The Euro 2016 champions now have to overcome North Macedonia, who have beaten Germany and Italy on the road in the last 12 months, to qualify for the World Cup via playoffs this week. But if Fernando Santos’ team confirms its place in Qatar, it will automatically position itself among the favourites.

Perhaps for the first time since the 2006 World Cup, the fate of Portugal will not only depend on the performances of its star, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal now boast true depth in all areas, including defenders Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo, midfielders Ruben Neves and Renato Sanches, and a number of quality attackers including Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Pedro Neto.

But first they have to get to the World Cup and it could be the 37-year-old Cristiano’s last chance to try to win the World Cup.

SPAIN

Spain came one penalty shootout away from reaching the Euro 2020 final, losing to Italy in the semi-finals, and their advance to the semis was a surprise given the sense of transition in Luis Enrique’s side. The 2010 world champions will not be among the contenders to win in Qatar, but their advance to Euro 2020 underscored the quality of Enrique’s squad.

Spain’s problem is the lack of power at the front. Without a reliable goalscorer, they are going to have a hard time advancing, but a team with the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Aymeric Laporte and Ferran Torres should do well in a favorable group.

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