The last international break before the World Cup is done and that means, a smattering of pre-tournament friendlies aside, it’s all off to Qatar next. Once everyone’s played about 27 club games in the next nine weeks first anyway.
So why not have a quick look at the current top 10 in the betting, then? We could think of literally no reason not to do it, and so we have done it. Teams ranked by best odds currently available at oddschecker.com
Always up there, aren’t they? Always There Or Thereabouts. It’s Brazil! Carnival, Sex, Pele! But when it comes to the World Cup, they’ve been really quite underwhelming for a couple of decades now. Since Ronaldo’s Redemption in 2002 they’ve only made it past the quarter-finals once and given what happened next on that occasion would probably rather they hadn’t.
Still the only non-Europeans to triumph since Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to glory in 1986 and right now they do once again look the likeliest to break that cycle of European dominance. Already this year they’ve won three games 4-0, another couple 5-1 and yet another 3-0. And the teams they’ve beaten aren’t joke teams, either. Chile, Paraguay, South Korea, Tunisia and Ghana are among those swept away by Tite’s side, one that has a distinctly Premier League flavour with your Alissons, your Thiago Silvas, your Casemiros and the Richarlisons of this world all key figures. Although Brazil’s depth and – let’s be real – Tite’s eccentricities meant the final pre-World Cup squad for the September friendlies had no room for Arsenal’s trio of Gabriels; Jesus, Margalhaes and Martinelli.
Cruised through South American qualifying, winning 14 and drawing three of their 17 games (scoring 40 goals and conceding just five) and being so far clear they never even bothered replaying the Argentina game that was abandoned when Brazilian health officials stormed the pitch demanding four Argentine players go into isolation for breaching Covid rules.
Holders and possessors of legendarily absurd strength in depth, with the added bonus that the draw throws up the high possibility of a last-16 clash with Mexico, which is basically a bye to the quarter-finals under the ancient, unbreakable if inexplicable World Cup Law that decrees Mexico must always go out in the last 16.
France are second favourites and to be honest their second XI would be about sixth favourites and their third XI would be dark horses.
Didier Deschamps’ side qualified for Qatar in comfortable if not quite entirely convincing fashion, drawing home and away with Ukraine and also failing to beat Bosnia at home.
As ever when it comes to major tournaments, we like the chances of the French but they can be… a little bit French. Tend to either crush all-comers (see Russia 2018) or go out in pitifully meek fashion as talent succumbs to squabbles and infighting (see Euro 2020 et al) and it is generally impossible to know which one you’re going to get.
If the Nations League is any guide (and it probably isn’t) then it’ll be the latter. They weren’t England-level bad, but only narrowly avoided relegation after taking a single point from four games against Croatia and Denmark.
Messi’s Last Chance at the Big Dance, and it might just be his best opportunity as well. Argentina have a formidable squad that blends youth and experience perfectly and they haven’t lost a game since the 2019 Copa America.
They won the 2021 edition to finally end Messi’s wait for a major international honour and do appear to have an excellent chance of adding global glory to continental success after an unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign. They will, though, need to overcome a relatively modest recent record at the World Cup.
Since winning it twice and finishing runner-up once in the space of four tournaments from 1978 to 1990, Argentina have been beyond the quarter-finals only once, when they narrowly lost the final to Germany in Brazil in extra-time after a goalless 90 minutes.
But their recent form really does suggest something quite special could happen. They gave Italy a 3-0 shoeing in the Finalissima and have won their last four games by a combined score of 14-0.
The group stage draw in Qatar appear to have been relatively kind too, pitting them as it does against teams who can generally be relied on to follow a set pattern and in none of those cases does that pattern involve winning their group. Mexico always finish second before going out in the last 16, Poland always underwhelm, and Saudi Arabia mainly get thrashed horribly. It all points, then, to Argentina cruising into the knockouts looking a million dollars before getting bantered off by tricky Group D runners-up Denmark in the last 16.
Always and inevitably far too short with British bookmakers, England’s position in the betting as ever owes more to the vast liabilities racked up than an objective rating of their chances. Especially as they currently find themselves in the midst of a horror run of form and calls for the manager’s head.
Didn’t win a single game as they bombed out of the top tier in the Nations League, losing home and away to Hungary in the process. They’ve conceded seven goals in their last two home games, which seems decidedly sub-optimal but their recent tournament form deserves our grudging respect.
They once again made short work of qualification for this World Cup, something that isn’t necessarily true of all the top European sides, and are the only team to have reached the last four of both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 where they went all their way to a first major final since 1966 before going down to Italy on penalties.
Have had luck with draws opening up for them, but could well do so again in Qatar. If they can top an initial group containing Iran, USA and Wales – admittedly a bigger ‘if’ than might have been expected – then a last-16 clash against (probably) Qatar, Ecuador or Senegal doesn’t look too awful. Then it’s just a case of hoping this is one of the tournaments where potential quarter-final opponents France are rubbish for some reason and – BOOM! – Southgate is back in the semi-finals again and all the doubters and haters will be in the mud.
It’s all technically possible. But, to reiterate, this is a team that will go in to the tournament on a six-game winless run and with problems all over the pitch.
It seems somehow old-hat to think of Spain as serious contenders these days. They’re somehow a team that rose to astonishing prominence and widespread acceptance as the very best in the world and then just suddenly sort of weren’t anymore, really, without ever being short of good players or anything.
Since the absurd glory days that saw them win three straight tournaments – two Euros and a World Cup – between 2008 and 2012, they’ve been very meh in the majors. This is a strong case of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ but the facts are that they’ve gone out in the group stage and last 16 of the last two World Cups since ending their long wait for a global crown in South Africa. The Euros hinted at a return to the very top table with a run to the last four ended only on penalties by eventual champions Italy.
It was a strange old run, though, involving a couple of staid group-stage draws before giving Slovakia an absolute humping and then knocking out Croatia 5-3 after extra time in an immensely silly game. Then they needed penalties to scrape past Switzerland.
Have just qualified for the Nations League finals as well, pipping Portugal to top spot thanks to a late Alvaro Morata winner in Braga on the final matchday. How much the Nations League actually matters is up for debate, but it’s arguably notable that the other top European sides towards the head of the World Cup market – Germany, France, England – have made varying degrees of a bollocks of it.
A team in decline at the Euros 18 months ago, to the extent that they managed to be fairly comfortably beaten in a knockout game by England having already lost at home to giant-bothering scamps North Macedonia in a World Cup qualifier.
Did seem to put all that confusing unpleasantness behind them by crushing all-comers in all of their remaining qualifiers for Qatar, but then had a confusingly uneven Nations League campaign in which they thrashed eventual group winners and European champions Italy 5-2, but lost at home to Hungary and – most embarrassingly of all – failed to beat Gareth Southgate’s disastrous England side home or away.
In general, though, Hansi Flick has started to mould a pretty compelling squad that contains enough of the old guard to keep things sensible but has successfully integrated assorted exciting young talents such as former England Under-21 star Jamal Musiala.
For a team with such a formidable record in major tournaments, though, this is a team charged with arresting something of a decline. After reaching at least the last four of six majors in a row between 2006 and 2016 they have gone out in the group stage and last 16 at their last two attempts.
The 2010 beaten finalists and 2014 semi-finalists failed to qualify at all for Russia four years ago, but put at least that right by seeing off Turkey and Norway in a competitive qualifying group and there is arguably no team hitting Qatar in better form than the Dutch.
They haven’t lost a game since their 2-0 defeat to the Czechs in the last 16 at last summer’s Euros and have just absolutely pulverised a top-tier Nations League group featuring fellow World Cup qualifiers Belgium, Poland and Wales.
Louis van Gaal’s side won five and drew one of their six games to march into the finals, most notably giving Belgium a 4-1 beating in Brussels on the opening matchday.
Their recent tournament record (outside the Nations League anyway) is wretched – as well as missing out on the 2018 World Cup, they also failed to qualify for Euro 2016. Things were looking up at last summer’s Euros, but waltzing through the group stage with three wins before immediately getting knocked out by one of the lucky third-place teams to sneak through felt incredibly Dutch of them.
It’s coming up on a decade since the Netherlands had any kind of tournament run. And that is far too long really, isn’t it?
The Euro 2016 victory remains one of the all-time great smash-and-grab tournament successes, Portugal somehow contriving to win an event after finishing third in their group and in which a 2-0 semi-final win over Wales was the only time they won any game in 90 minutes.
That ability to shithouse success from the most unlikely of scenarios, alongside the presence of A Certain Mr Cristiano Ronaldo and all manner of Wolves players, means bookmakers are taking no chances with their Portugal prices.
Their recent form is reasonable, coming within minutes of reaching the Nations League finals before having their hearts broken by Spain and Alvaro Morata.
They’ve also got precisely the sort of World Cup group that should suit them, because with Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea in there it has precisely the look of the sort of pool where you can banter your way to top spot with one win and a couple of ugly draws. You’re definitely going to want to win that group, though, with Brazil likely in wait for whichever team scrambles to second place in what we (and nobody else) are already calling the Group of Draws.
Is this the actual final last chance after all the other last chances for the Golden Generation to land a major tournament? The reality is that this is a squad whose best days are already behind it, but what they certainly won’t lack in Qatar is experience.
There is every chance that Belgium’s squad will contain six players with over 100 caps – Vertonghen, Witsel, Alderweireld, Hazard, Mertens, Lukaku – as well as a couple of novices with only 90-something international appearances in Courtois and De Bruyne.
A smattering of quarter-finals and one semi-final really isn’t a good enough return for the insane quantity and quality of talent Belgium have churned out in the last decade, but they’ve got a tough task in Qatar.
Their group isn’t the worst, with Morocco and Canada unlikely to be much of a threat. And there are few group stage games we’re looking forward to more than their clash with Croatia, a game where it’s entirely possible there will be 10 players on the pitch with over 100 caps (Modric, Perisic, Vida, since you asked) if Courtois plays in three of Belgium’s four games before then.
The last 16 looks problematic, though. It’s almost certainly going to be Spain or Germany.
In many ways the most interesting team of all, one that on an almost crassly simplistic level seems to have been forged into something far greater than the sum of its parts by its shared experience of Christian Eriksen’s collapse and near-death on the pitch in their opening game of the Euros and his subsequent recovery.
Despite losing their best player, a tightly-knit Danish squad managed to galvanise themselves and emerged from that trauma to march through to the semi-finals where they were, let’s be real, deeply unfortunate to go out in extra-time against England, whose winning goal came from a Harry Kane rebound after the softest of soft penalties.
Since then they’ve eased through what was left of World Cup qualifying, topping their group with nine wins from 10 games, and beaten France home and away in the Nations League.
That’s doubly significant because they will face France again in Qatar in Group D, a section that also includes a non-vintage Australia side and Tunisia. Argentina or Mexico appear the likeliest last-16 opponents.