Brazil, Argentina the favorites as European sides enter World Cup finals beset by problems
With a month to go until the World Cup it is Brazil who has earned the tag of favorite as the South Americans seek to win the trophy for the sixth time while Europe’s heavyweights are plagued by question marks about form and fitness.
What happened in the past may be irrelevant, particularly in the first World Cup in the Middle East and the first to be played in November and December.
But history might play a part as all of the Brazilians’ last four World Cup triumphs came outside Europe.
If they crumbled under the pressure as hosts in 2014 and underperformed in Russia four years ago, they head to Qatar on a formidable run and with a strong squad not overly reliant on Neymar.
He will still attract the most attention, but coach Tite has a formidable squad — from Alisson Becker in goal, to the steel of Fabinho and Casemiro in midfield, the pace of Vinicius Jr. and the goal threat of Roberto Firmino and Richarlison.
“Brazil today are much more prepared and experienced. They don’t depend on one player,” Selecao legend Cafu recently told Globoesporte.
“We have a team that will allow that player to stand out. Brazil looks good and has a good chance of winning the World Cup.”
The big question mark surrounding Brazil, however, is that it has not been tested by leading European opposition since Belgium dumped Tite’s side out of the 2018 World Cup in the quarterfinals.
Messi’s last chance
In contrast, Argentina pitted its wits against Italy earlier this year in London and the Copa America winner triumphed 3-0.
The two-time world champion is also heading to Qatar in good shape, unbeaten in 35 games since losing to Brazil at the 2019 Copa America.
Currently ranked third in the world, coach Lionel Scaloni does not have the same depth of quality as Brazil but there are enough good players to bring out the best in Lionel Messi, scorer of nine goals in his country’s last three games.
At 35, this is Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup and that motivation could be powerful.
“It is very likely my last World Cup, yes,” Messi told ESPN recently.
“We come into it with a well-equipped and strong squad, but anything can happen. Every game is so difficult and it is not always the favorites who win it.”
Just look at France in 2002, when a team led by an injured Zinedine Zidane went to South Korea as the holder and reigning European champion, only to crash out in the group stage without scoring a goal.
Two decades on, Les Bleus are again the holders but all is not well in Didier Deschamps’ squad.
Kylian Mbappe has been distracted by reports he wants out of Paris Saint-Germain, while injuries are creating headaches.
The all-action N’Golo Kante will miss the tournament and Paul Pogba is battling to get back to fitness after knee surgery.
Then again, Deschamps does have a strike pairing of Mbappe and Karim Benzema, the new Ballon d’Or holder.
“I hope to be in the squad for Qatar, to go to the World Cup and do everything to win it,” Benzema said this week.
At least France will be there, unlike Italy who failed to qualify a year after winning the Euros.
Form is an issue for England, who went six games without a win in a disastrous Nations League campaign and is also set to be without its rampaging right-back Reece James, one of its best players, due to injury.
It is not clear if Germany is really any better than the side that went out of Euro 2020 in the last 16, despite Hansi Flick replacing Joachim Loew as coach since then.
The Netherlands are back but do they, or for that matter Belgium, really look like potential World Cup winners?
Portugal is wondering if it needs to faze out Cristiano Ronaldo and give more space to its younger attacking stars.
It also remains to be seen if Spain has the defense or the attack to go all the way, and that leaves two other questions to be answered.
Can a European surprise package emerge, like Croatia in 2018? If so, then Denmark and Serbia may be worth watching.
Alternatively, can Sadio Mane’s Senegal go far on the back of winning the Africa Cup of Nations?
As for Brazil and Argentina, by winning their groups they would be on a collision course to meet in the semifinals, with the ultimate prize then within sight.
Right now that looks plausible, but with domestic leagues in action right up to the World Cup much can change over the next few weeks.