2018 World Cup countdown: the top-five challengers
Defending champions Germany are among the biggest names to dominate next month's World Cup in Russia
Paris — With the 2018 World Cup in Russia starting in a month, AFP Sport takes a look at how the biggest names, who between them have won 13 of the last 20 tournaments, are shaping up:
• Germany’s build-up has been marred by uncertainty about the fitness of first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. The 32-year-old Bayern Munich man has been on the sidelines since suffering a fractured foot in September.
"I do not think it’s imaginable that I go into such a tournament without match practice," Neuer admitted last week.
His natural replacement is the excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen of Barcelona.
Coach Joachim Löw has a core of the team that won the 2014 title and can also call on the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Timo Werner. Marco Reus will hope to be fit this time too. After winning all their qualifiers, Germany have failed to win recent friendlies against England, France, Spain and Brazil. Nevertheless, they are the world’s top-ranked side and almost always deliver at the World Cup.
• In 2014, Brazil’s hopes rested on the shoulders of Neymar, and the back injury he suffered in the quarterfinal win over Colombia sparked the meltdown that led to the 7-1 humiliation against Germany in the semis.
Fast forward four years and the nation is again sweating on his fitness. The world’s most expensive player is recovering from a foot injury suffered playing for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in February.
The absence of his PSG colleague Dani Alves with a knee injury is a huge blow, too, but Brazil still look far better now under manager Tite than they did in 2014. They comfortably topped South American qualifying and there is greater strength in depth. Add to that a kind-looking draw, and Brazil have a genuine chance of a sixth title.
• After poor showings in their last two major tournaments under Vicente del Bosque, Spain are on the up again under his successor, Julen Lopetegui.
The former goalkeeper has yet to lose a game in charge, with Spain dropping just two points in qualifying and recently destroying Argentina 6-1 in a friendly.
With Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique still there in front of David de Gea, they have one of the best defences in the business. Further forward, it will be difficult to stop the likes of David Silva and Isco in full flow, and then there is Andres Iniesta.
• France fell short on home soil at Euro 2016, losing in extra time to Portugal in the final. That increases the pressure on coach Didier Deschamps to deliver this time with a gifted squad.
Deschamps’s team won its qualifying group despite some unconvincing performances.
To silence his critics, the coach needs to find the right system to bring the best out of his squad, especially in attack, where Antoine Griezmann is the main man but teen sensation Kylian Mbappe will be one to watch too. This is also surely the stage for Paul Pogba to really step up.
• After Argentina’s defeat in the 2014 final, this is Lionel Messi’s big chance to get his hands on the trophy. However, Messi rescued a shambolic qualifying campaign only by scoring a vital hat-trick in Ecuador in the last game to take the team to Russia. There are huge doubts about the rest of Jorge Sampaoli’s squad.
He must also get the best out of the many undoubted talents at his disposal, including Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala, to help his side’s chances of reaching the latter stages.