Brazil eyeing sixth World Cup with European armada floundering
With a month to go until the World Cup it is Brazil who have earned the tag of favourites 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 Junior 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. I think Brazil look good and have a good chance of winning the World Cup.”
The big question mark surrounding Brazil, however, is that they have not been tested by leading European opposition since Belgium dumped Tite’s side out of the 2018 World Cup in the quarter-finals.
Messi’s last chance
In contrast, Argentina pitted their wits against Italy earlier this year in London and the Copa America winners triumphed 3-0.
The two-time world champions are 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 favourites who win it.”
Can France defend title?
Just look at France in 2002, when a team led by an injured Zinedine Zidane went to South Korea as the holders and reigning European champions, 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 right 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.
“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 Euro.
Form is an issue for England, who went six games without a win in a disastrous Nations League campaign and are also set to be without their rampaging right-back Reece James, one of their best players, due to injury.
It is not clear if Germany are 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 are wondering if they need to faze out Cristiano Ronaldo and give more space to their younger attacking stars.
It also remains to be seen if Spain have the defence 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 set on a course to meet in the semi-finals 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 in the next few weeks.