15 Months to Go: Your Early World Cup Power Rankings

Jerrad Peters@@jerradpetersWorld Football Staff WriterMarch 11, 2013

15 Months to Go: Your Early World Cup Power Rankings

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    On Tuesday, we’ll be just 15 months away from the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, which will be played at Sao Paulo’s new Arena Corinthians between tournament hosts Brazil and an opponent that will be determined at December’s Group Stage Draw in Bahia.

    Slowly but surely, the roster of 32 nations that will go into the four pots is taking shape, and we’ll have an even better idea of which teams will be included after this month’s round of World Cup qualifying.

    But if the competition was to begin today, who would be the favourite? Who would they be likely to face in the final? And would Brazil, whose recent results have hardly been flattering, get enough of a boost from home-field advantage to be considered legitimate contenders?

    The following slides reveal our Early World Cup Power Rankings—an ascending list of 25 teams, graded by what we feel is their ability to win the event.

    It is not an alternative FIFA World Rankings list. Rather, it’s an ordering of the teams that are most likely to grow that most exclusive club of World Cup winners from eight members to nine in July, 2014

    Let’s get to it.

25. Greece

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    The surprise champions of Euro 2004 have been to four of the last five major international tournaments and look a good bet to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. They’re presently level with Bosnia-Herzegovina atop UEFA qualification Group G and will face the co-leaders on March 22 in Zenica.

    Like his predecessor Otto Rehhagel, manager Fernando Santos has nurtured the side’s identity as a defense-first outfit—an ethos that has, so far, paid off in World Cup qualifying. Greece have conceded just a single goal in four matches so far.

    The back four of Vasilis Torosidis, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Avraam Papadopoulos and Jose Holebas is about as stingy as it gets.

24. South Korea

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    One of two Asian sides represented in this Power Ranking, 2002 World Cup semifinalists South Korea are involved in a rather unexpected, four-way battle to win AFC qualification Group A.

    Ranked 38th in the world by FIFA, the Taeguk Warriors have lost three matches on the bounce (both qualifiers and friendlies) and will be looking to put some distance between themselves and Qatar on March 26. Both sides have seven points—as do Iran—and trail leaders Uzbekistan by one.

    Ten of manager Choi Kang-Hee’s 23-man squad to face Qatar play their club football at home in South Korea, but among the foreign-based contingent are players such as QPR defender Yun Suk-Young, Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung and Hamburg forward Son Heung-Min.

23. Bosnia-Herzegovina

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    Bosnia-Herzegovina will come into their March 22 World Cup qualifier against Greece unbeaten in seven matches and looking to take sole possession of first place in UEFA qualification Group G.

    They have yet to contest a major tournament following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia but came close to punching a ticket to both the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship, losing in the playoffs on both occasions to Portugal.

    On paper, manager Safet Susic—the former PSG attacker and Yugoslavia international—has an immensely talented squad, populated by the likes of Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, Stuttgart marksman Vedad Ibisevic, Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic and Guizhou playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic.

    Bosnia-Herzegovina have yet to turn all that promise into results, but when they do, look out.

22. Honduras

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    Honduras will host Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on March 22 and play away to Panama four days later. We’ll know a little more about them after those two matches, but at this point we can safely install them as one of only two CONCACAF representatives on this list.

    La Bicolor participated in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where they were anything but pushovers, and at last summer’s Olympic Games, earned a famous win over Spain.

    Last month they beat the United States in San Pedro Sula. A midfield of Oscar Garcia, Mario Martinez and Roger Espinoza wins far more battles than it loses.

    Striker Jerry Bengtson, who plays for New England Revolution in MLS, has so far scored six goals in World Cup qualifying.

21. Sweden

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    Sweden are reliable qualifiers, and in their most recent UEFA Group C match fought back from a 4-0 deficit against Germany and came away with an impressive point in Berlin.

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic got the comeback started shortly after the hour-mark, and this is very much his team.

    Manager Erik Hamren is a rarity among international coaches in that he still adheres to a very traditional 4-4-2, although when Ibrahimovic drops deep his formation does take on the semblance of a 4-2-3-1.

    The Swedes have contested four World Cup semifinals (1938, 1950, 1958 and 1994) and are generally a good bet to progress to the knockout stages at the very least.

20. Switzerland

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    They were the only team to beat Spain at the last World Cup and finished the one before that unbeaten, having not even conceded a goal in normal time (they lost on penalties to Ukraine following a 0-0 draw in the Round of 16).

    Switzerland are currently atop UEFA qualification Group E and will be expecting to at least maintain their three-point lead on Norway when they face Cyprus in Nicosia on March 23.

    Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld—former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich boss—has a young team that includes Basel goalkeeper Yann Sommer, Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri and Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka. Napoli tandem Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami add an element of experience in the centre of the park.

19. Ecuador

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    A burgeoning club game and a rich roster of prospects have combined to create what is likely the best Ecuadorian national team in that country’s history.

    Last month, they won a friendly against Portugal in Guimaraes, and after nine rounds of CONMEBOL qualifying sit second in the table, just three points back of leaders Argentina.

    Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia is Ecuador’s most famous international, but midfielders Segundo Castillo, Jefferson Montero and Christian Noboa are players to watch as well. In defense, Frickson Erazo marshals an effective group and has, himself, been scouted by Manchester United.

18. Ghana

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    One of two African teams in this Power Ranking, Ghana are three points back of CAF Group D leaders Zambia, whom they will host on the final day of the campaign in September. The match will likely determine which side progresses to the last round of a difficult African qualification process.

    The Black Stars are coming off yet another semifinal appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations (they’ve progressed to the final four in each of the tournament’s last four installments) and made it to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

    Manager James Appiah has a relatively young squad at his disposal. Al Ain striker Asamoah Gyan is the captain and go-to striker, but Espanyol’s Wakaso Mubarak enjoyed a coming-out party at the 2013 Cup of Nations, and Juventus winger Kwadwo Asamoah adds a reliable attacking presence down the left.

17. Russia

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    They came up surprisingly short in the 2010 qualification playoffs, where they lost to Slovenia over two legs, but are targeting automatic qualification this time around.

    Fabio Capello’s Russia have yet to concede a goal in four UEFA Group F matches and will put their 100 percent record to the test against Northern Ireland on March 22.

    CSKA Moscow playmaker Alan Dzagoev, who so impressed at Euro 2012, pulls the strings in the centre of the park for this team, and Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Vladimir Bystrov complete a midfield group that can both support Aleksandr Kerzhakov in attack and provide a reliable shield in front of the defense.

    But it’s the Anyukov-Berezutski-Ignashevich-Zhirkov quartet that has starred in World Cup qualification so far. Recent Russian teams have been pleasant to watch in an attacking sense, but under Capello they’re finally doing away with the sloppy concessions as well.

16. Japan

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    Japan are comfortably situated atop AFC Group B and are all but a lock to qualify for their fifth successive World Cup. They’ll face Jordan in Amman on March 26, and from there their presence in Brazil should be just a formality.

    Manager Alberto Zaccheroni, who has coached Udinese, both Milan teams, Lazio and Juventus, has a squad comprised of mostly European-based players, Inter Milan full-back Yuto Nagatomo, Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe and Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa.

    Japan have won three of the last four Asian Cup tournaments.

15. Croatia

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    Since coming third at the 1998 World Cup in France, Croatia have twice exited at the Group Stage and failed to even qualify for the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

    Manager Igor Stimac, whose playing career included stops at Derby and West Ham, is the man charged with reversing that slide. After four matches in UEFA qualification Group A it looks as though he will get his team into the playoffs at the very least. Croatia are presently joint-leaders of the bracket alongside Belgium.

    Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric is the most recognizable player in this team, but Stimac has some good options in attack, where Everton’s Nikica Jelavic and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic are tasked with banging in the goals.

    Few European teams play as attractive football as the Croatians.

14. Nigeria

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    Nigeria are at the top of CAF qualification Group F after two rounds and also won the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa last month.

    Manager Stephen Keshi broke with tradition in naming his Cup of Nations squad—overlooking old hands such as Yakubu, Obafemi Martins, John Utaka and Danny Shittu in favour of a younger, less individualistic squad.

    Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is the leader of these Super Eagles and was one of the best players at the Cup of Nations. Victor Moses provides excitement down the right wing and CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa is developing into a decent attacker as well.

13. Colombia

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    Presently third in CONMEBOL qualification behind Argentina and Ecuador, Colombia’s next two matches are against Bolivia and Venezuela, from which they’ll be looking to pick up the maximum six points.

    Atletico Madrid sniper Radamel Falcao is obviously the Colombian international everyone wants to talk about, but his supporting cast of Fredy Guarin, Luis Muriel and Jackson Martinez, who has been on a goalscoring tear for Porto this season, deserve mention as well.

    As does manager Jose Pekerman. While the Argentine has allowed Falcao to flourish up front, he hasn’t sacrificed a commitment to team defense. Colombia’s six goals conceded from eight qualification matches represents the best defensive record of the campaign.

12. Portugal

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    They always seem to begin the qualification campaign slowly before inevitably booking their place in the tournament, at which they tend to be a very tough out.

    Just ask Spain. The reigning world and European champions faced Portugal in the Euro 2012 semifinals and had to rely on penalties—during which Cristiano Ronaldo was surprisingly omitted—to advance.

    Ronaldo, it goes without saying, is Portugal’s talisman, but the team’s true strength is in the centre of midfield, where Joao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles form an effective trio.

    If manager Paulo Bento could uncover a reliable centre-forward (it may end up being Nelson Oliveira), Portugal’s chances of international success would be that much greater.

11. Belgium

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    They are the team everyone seems to be talking about.

    Manager Marc Wilmot’s squad is a who’s who of young superstars. It starts in goal with Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, continues in defense in the forms of Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen, includes midfielders Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini of Chelsea and Everton, respectively, and is topped up by Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke and West Brom’s Romelu Lukaku.

    Belgium haven’t been to a World Cup finals since 2002, but with 10 points from their first four qualification matches they should book a spot in the playoffs, at the very least, this time around.

10. Uruguay

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    The 2010 semifinalists and 2011 Copa America winners have struggled in CONMEBOL qualifying and are right now in the fifth spot, which would require them to play two legs against the fifth-place Asian side.

    But Uruguay are ranked 16th in the world by FIFA for a reason, and in a tournament setting they’ll be rightfully installed among the second tier of favourites.

    Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Napoli’s Edinson Cavani form what, on paper, is among the top striking tandems in world football, but there are decent attacking options in the midfield as well. Christian Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez add elements of creativity and flair to a group that also includes the more defensively minded Walter Gargano and Diego Perez.

    The World Cup has only been held in Brazil once before—in 1950—which also happens to be the last time Uruguay won the World Cup.

9. France

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    They imploded at the last World Cup and were unimpressive at Euro 2012. And yet, it would be foolhardy to disregard Les Bleus, who have thrived with the underdog label before.

    Raphael Varane’s emergence as a top defender at Real Madrid is a massive boost to manager Didier Deschamps, who has played around with central defensive tandems since being appointed to the job following Laurent Blanc’s resignation, and the recent form of Franck Ribery for both club and country means France will typically run the rule on the left-hand side of the park.

    In midfield, Newcastle pair Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko and PSG’s Blaise Matuidi will likely be in the mix when France face Spain later this month, but what Deschamps is really missing is a playmaker in the mold of Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini. Les Bleus have never really thrived without that sort of player.

8. England

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    If England’s February friendly against Brazil can be used as any sort of indicator, the Three Lions may be finally poised to get at least as far as a World Cup semifinal for the first time since Italia ’90.

    Manager Roy Hodgson deployed a 4-3-3 at Wembley against the Brazilians, with Wayne Rooney operating centrally between Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. Steven Gerrard, Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, formed a dynamic midfield trio that Brazil simply couldn’t deal with. Wilshere, in particular, was impressive on the night.

    If Hodgson keeps the faith with this group for upcoming qualifiers against San Marino and, more specifically, Group H leaders Montenegro later this month, England should expect to be atop the bracket as the campaign enters its final stretch.

7. Argentina

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    Finally, we’re beginning to see what Argentina are capable of. And wouldn’t it be something if they were to win their third World Cup in neighbouring Brazil in July 2014.

    Don’t rule it out.

    Argentina go into this month’s qualifiers atop CONMEBOL qualifying, having lost just once in nine matches. Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain are joint-top goalscorers with seven tallies apiece, and Sergio Aguero has contributed a further three.

    Angel di Maria has also been winning regular caps for manager Alejandro Sabella, who against Chile in Argentina’s last competitive match started the Real Madrid winger, Messi and Aguero just behind Higuain.

    Sabella also has a mostly settled back four in front of Sampdoria goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and Javier Mascherano, who shields it, is still one of the first names on the team sheet.

6. Netherlands

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    It seems to either feast or famine with this team, and after the disaster that was Euro 2012, there’s a case to be made that their 2014 World Cup campaign will more resemble the latter.

    The Netherlands tend to make qualifying for major tournaments look easy. They have a 100 percent record in UEFA Group D ahead of matches at home to both Estonia and Romania later this month. Assuming they take the full six points, it’s likely they’ll be among the first two or three European teams to punch their ticket to Brazil.

    That Wesley Sneijder is playing regular football at Galatasaray only enhances their chances of winning a first ever World Cup, and the array of attacking talent available to manager Louis van Gaal (including Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben and Siem de Jong) is staggering.

5. Mexico

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    Believe it.

    Despite their 0-0 draw at home to Jamaica to open the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying last month, Mexico are the best team in the Americas right now—a reality that was forced home when they beat Brazil in the Olympic Gold Medal match at Wembley last August.

    Mexico are piling up titles and important results at every age level these days, and what has been the best few years of player development in their history is now manifesting itself in the senior team.

    Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez is the face of El Tri, but midfielders Andres Guardado, Marco Fabian, Hector Herrera, Pablo Barrera and Angel Reyna (Reyna is the oldest of the lot at 28) combine, in one guise or another, to form one of the top groupings in the centre of the park in world football.

    And the results bear them out.

    Mexico have been to the Round of 16 at each of the last five World Cup finals—a mark that will almost certainly be surpassed in Brazil.

4. Brazil

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    Brazil are installed this high in our Power Rankings because of one thing and one thing alone: home-field advantage. This is despite how recent performances have been disappointing.

    A managerial change barely a year-and-a-half before the World Cup was something the Brazilian Football Confederation obviously didn’t have in mind when they appointed Mano Menezes to the job in 2010, but the national team’s lack of direction—both in play and selections—under the former Corinthians boss necessitated the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari, who guided the Selecao to World Cup glory in 2002.

    Scolari’s “family approach,” as opposed to the very grumpy Gaucho style of Menezes, is likely exactly what this Brazil side needs, and the 64-year-old has already made some important recalls, including that of Lazio playmaker Hernanes.

    Now all Scolari has to do is sort out the attack, where Neymar and Lucas Moura provide attacking options from the left and right, respectively. He needs a centre forward. And if he finds one that fits in, Brazil could well become the seventh team to win a World Cup on home soil.

3. Germany

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    From here, we have the three sides that constitute the top group of favourites ahead of the 2014 World Cup. We have Germany ranked third of the lot in these rankings, although they are pretty much interchangeable.

    What Die Mannschaft have going for them is stability. Manager Joachim Low has been with the team nearly seven years and was an assistant before that, and the next World Cup will be Philipp Lahm’s third as captain in a major tournament.

    Germany also play the 4-2-3-1 to near perfection, so everyone in the side knows their position, their role and what’s expected of them.

    One thing Low will have to sort out over the next 15 months, however, is his go-to back four. Lahm writes his own name on the lineup card, but after that it’s a crapshoot. Mats Hummels, for example, has never really replicated his club form for his country.

2. Italy

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    Four-time World Cup winners Italy rebounded from an abysmal 2010 tournament with an exceptional showing at Euro 2012, where they finished runners-up to Spain.

    They’re presently four points clear of Bulgaria in UEFA qualification Group B and should pad their lead with three points against Malta on March 26.

    Manager Cesare Prandelli has embraced a merit-based selection process (something other national team managers would do well to emulate), and his approach has already seen international debuts for the likes of Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Federico Peluso.

    Prandelli also has the luxury of being able to field the entire Juventus defensive corps ahead of star goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. And in the midfield, another Juve tandem—Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio—provide service for a multi-pronged attack that features not only Balotelli and El Shaarawy, but Pablo Osvaldo as well.

    Italy are also blooding new internationals such as Marco Verratti and Salvatore Sirigu into the team, so the future looks bright for the Azzurri as well.

1. Spain

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    It’s quite simple. Spain will be among the hot favourites at every major tournament until Xavi and Andres Iniesta retire. So rare is it that playmakers of such quality are playing together for an extended time for both club and country, and the silverware won’t stop piling up for either Barcelona or Spain until one of them calls it quits.

    So strong is this team that manager Vicente del Bosque has nothing resembling a regular centre-forward, yet continues to get results. Fernando Torres is a shadow of the player who starred at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and neither Alvaro Negredo nor Roberto Soldado have been consistent enough to nail down starting places. As a result, del Bosque often tends to favour the use of a “false 9,” which is usually Cesc Fabregas.

    It doesn’t really matter. You could put a mule in the attacking goalmouth and Spain would still dominate most opponents.

    By the next World Cup, however, Xavi will be 34, Iniesta 30 and Xabi Alonso 32. Brazil will represent the last hurrah for this group, but there’s no reason they can’t add a second world championship to celebrate the swan song.