The World Cup begins in 52 days. There will be no more international matches for many of those competing in Qatar between now and their first game at the tournament. The time for trialing new players and honing the starting XI has passed. Put on your game faces, we’re in the big leagues now.
Here’s how the 32 teams look after the final international break.
Tier 1: The favorites
The massive presence of the Nations League on the international calendar adds to the confusion. Friendly matches between the best of Europe and South America used to be a pre-tournament rite of passage. Brazil has not played a European team since a friendly victory over the Czech Republic in March 2019. Argentina has only faced one European opponent in recent years, but they easily defeated Italy in the summer’s Finalissima at Wembley.
For the time being, we do not have as much information as we would like about these two’s recent games, but the friendlies they have played suggest that these are the two nations to beat in Qatar. Brazil has competition for positions on their frontline, with Richarlison and Gabriel Jesus vying for the No. 9 jersey for the club and, in the former’s case, country. Tite’s full-backs appear to be weaker than the rest of the squad, but if you want to test that Achilles’ heel, you’ll have to get the ball off them.
Meanwhile, Argentina appears to be a team capable of defeating weaker opponents. Lionel Scaloni may not be committed to unleashing his attacking talent in large numbers, but he does have a side that is difficult to break down, keeps the ball well, and brings out the best in Lionel Messi. Four years ago, it appeared that the great man had squandered his final chance at glory. You wouldn’t say that now, would you?
Tier 2: Potential competitors
The Nations League creates as much confusion among its competitors as it does among South American teams. How important is this arriviste competition to international managers? After all, it gave them what they wanted: games with stakes against opponents on a level playing field. Is it only a lower-stakes tournament if you don’t win?
At the very least, it has provided Germany and England with a magnifying glass through which to examine their squad’s flaws. They were evident when the two teams met on Monday; Gareth Southgate cannot afford to play so conservatively if his defense cannot be relied on to avoid basic errors. Meanwhile, Hansi Flick’s team has the players to play a fast-paced, ball-dominant style, but they never seem to get out of second gear. The same could be said of Didier Deschamps’ France.
Others, on the other hand, appear to understand what needs to be done ahead of the tournament. Spain controlled their game in Portugal, but it was a familiar experience that took a lifetime to be expressed on the scoreboard; on this occasion, Alvaro Morata struck late, but there have been so many times when Luis Enrique’s side let their best chances slip away. The Netherlands is similarly appealing, with Cody Gakpo thriving alongside Memphis Depay. Their clean sheets against Poland and Belgium would also imply that Virgil van Dijk’s problems are not limited to Liverpool.
Denmark, on the other hand, may be ready to move on from its status as a dark horse. Only those who haven’t been paying attention to European football for the last two years, or even their win over France earlier this week, would be surprised if they won the entire tournament in December. This is a team with a strong defense and a match-winning creator in Christian Eriksen; it’s a recipe for success.
Tier 3: The knockouts are just around the corner.
Here are three teams that do not appear to be letting their talent shine on the field right now.
If Senegal’s label is surprising, 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 got four on target and benefited from an own goal.
Belgium appeared to have righted the ship after a disastrous summer, but their loss to the Netherlands in their final Nations League game revealed a team that is far from the best on the continent. However, when you have a talent like Kevin De Bruyne, there is no reason why things can’t improve quickly. The same could be said of a Portugal team that can blow past the Czech Republic in one game but comes undone far too often against the continent’s best teams.
Tier 4: Included in the mix
The United States has dropped in our rankings for good reason. Their 2-0 defeat to Japan was as bad as any delivered by a country that aspires to be a major footballing force; in almost every aspect of their play, Gregg Berhalter’s team appeared to be doing a poor impression of an antiquated team that had been passed over in the modern game. Not less concerning was the fact that they showed only minor signs of progress against Saudi Arabia. This isn’t a team that appears to be capable of scoring goals.
Their best hope is that Group B rivals Wales are also struggling (albeit against far superior opposition), but a strong run of results for Iran during the international break suggests it could be all to play for.
Meanwhile, Group G promises to be an exciting battle between Serbia and Switzerland, with the former having a larger talent pool but the latter has proven to be a formidable opponent in tournament football. Victories in the Nations League over Spain and the Czech Republic propel them rapidly up our power rankings into the “don’t sleep on these” corner.
Morocco welcomed back Hakim Ziyech, perhaps their most talented player, and responded with an impressive win over Chile and a draw with Paraguay in Spain. Based on their victory over the United States, Japan could give Germany and Spain fits, not least because they combine technical prowess with physicality, outmuscling Berhalter’s men in the majority of their 50-50 duels. Hajime Moriyasu’s team may be lacking in star power, but there appear to be few weak links in their lineup.
In terms of those falling down our rankings, Ghana may be paying the price for our overly enthusiastic response to their talent drive earlier this year. Based on their defeat to Brazil and narrow victory over Nicaragua, there may not be enough time to get everyone in sync. Still, if Inaki Williams can make an immediate impact in Qatar, the Black Stars may be able to escape the group.
Tier 5: Unlikely to escape the groups
Cameroon’s World Cup preparations have been made extremely difficult by defeats to South Korea and Uzbekistan. Adding Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Erik Maxim Choupo-Moting to the mix in Qatar may give them an edge, but Rigobert Song still has a lot of work to do to return this team to the form that saw them win the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.
Qatar will be hoping for a host nation bounce when they face Ecuador in the tournament opener, but a run of unofficial friendlies hasn’t put Felix Sanchez’s side in a winning mood. Indeed, they are making headlines for all the wrong reasons, having lost to a hastily assembled Croatia Under-23 side before being swatted aside by Canada a few days later. No host has ever lost a game in their World Cup. Qatar may be about to change all of that.