Ranking the Top 10 European International Teams on Current Form
With leagues all over Europe winding down as we head into the offseason, you could be forgiven for thinking that football is finished for the summer.
However, that is far from the case, and with the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014, thoughts are now turning to national teams and qualification for that particular extravaganza.
Early next month sees more World Cup qualification for matches, and at the conclusion of those we may well have a much larger indication with regards to who stands a solid chance of heading to South America next summer.
Therefore, here's a look at ranking Europe's top 10 national sides based on current form.
Of course, it's been a while since sides played their last qualification matches—March in fact—whilst there have also been a number of international friendlies involving sides in recent times.
Shout outs go to a couple of sides who just missed out on the top 10.
Montenegro, spearheaded by the fantastic strike duo of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, currently top their qualification group by two points but still have a metaphorical mountain to climb before they can even think of securing qualification.
Switzerland, who are thoroughly taking advantage of their place in the weakest of Europe's qualifying groups, currently top Group E with an unbeaten record and just one goal conceded in their five matches.
As for Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, a mammoth clash with Russia on June 7 really is do-or-die for them. Given their recent struggles against the likes of Northern Ireland, Ecuador and Gabon, Paulo Bento's side would simply be an unwarranted name in such a list, selected on reputation alone.
But onwards and upwards. Here's an attempt at ranking Europe's finest:
Sneaking into the top 10 are England, largely at the expense of the side who lie two points ahead of them in the Group H table, the aforementioned Montenegro.
Roy Hodgson's side are unbeaten in their six group matches, accumulating 12 points and 21 goals in that time. And with home matches still to come against Montenegro and third-placed Poland, their destiny is very much in their own hands.
The 1-1 draw in Montenegro last time round was disappointing in that they lost the lead late on, and whilst the performance was by no means a good one—certainly in comparison with the previous month's friendly victory against Brazil—it may well have served its purpose: Strengthening their own position, whilst keeping others close by.
They go without a competitive fixture until September, but will have a close eye on their Group H counterparts, looking for sides to take points off one another once again.
In competitive action they remain unbeaten since Hodgson's arrival 12 months ago, save for a quarter-final defeat on penalties by Italy at Euro 2012.
In all likelihood, Les Bleus are going to have to head into the playoffs to fight with another second place side in order to secure a place in Brazil next year, having lost a crucial qualifier to Spain in March.
Didier Deschamps' side are undergoing something of a transitional phase at present, with young starlets like Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba being reintroduced into the full set-up.
And they aren't performing all that badly, with 10 points from five games. Indeed, the three matches you would expect them to win they have, whilst a late Olivier Giroud goal earned a point in Spain last October.
However, despite an impressive performance against La Roja in the Stade de France, they succumbed to a 1-0 defeat, Pedro's second-half goal taking automatic qualification out of their hands.
Throw into the mix February's friendly loss against Germany and you see that France are no longer at the pinnacle of the European game. Their recent form has rather curtailed.
However, encouraging performances under Deschamps and a strong backbone featuring the likes of Hugo Lloris, Matuidi, Benzema, Ribery and the aforementioned young duo are a sign that they aren't that far from challenging the elite once more.
With a squad jam-packed full of talent—Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel, to name just four—Belgium are currently experiencing their first real wave of mass footballing talent since the late '80s, when they finished fourth at Mexico '86.
Now, many believe the Red Devils capable of making an impact next summer, tipping them as dark horses.
And indeed their performances over the last nine months have only added to that train of thought, with Marc Wilmots' side solid at the back and capable of real moments of attacking brilliance.
However, whilst they have been showing their quality in qualification (unbeaten in six matches) their progress to Brazil is far from assured, thanks largely to Croatia.
They meet the United States in a friendly international on Thursday, which will be interesting for both parties, before a must-win clash with Serbia on June 7. They can't afford any slip-ups with Zagreb looming ever larger on the horizon.
Led by the striking power of Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic (12 goals between them thus far), Bosnia have powered their way to the top of qualification Group G.
Safet Susic's side blew Liechtenstein away in their opening match 8-1 and, with 13 points at the halfway stage, are well placed.
Moreover, having taken four points from their closest contenders, Greece, they already have one foot in Brazil.
Yet they are also defensively sound, having conceded just three goals in their five group games and one match of their last five (including friendlies).
Having come so close to qualifying for the last two major international tournaments—both times coming unstuck in the playoffs against Portugal—they are now perhaps ready to take their place at a major finals.
Currently level on points with Belgium atop Group A, the Croatians are well placed for at least a playoff spot.
However, having emerged with a point earlier in the campaign in Brussels and after their excellent wins against Serbia and Wales in their last competitive matches, Igor Stimac's side will be hopeful of automatic qualification.
Having won their last six games on the bounce, they'll be brimming with confidence ahead of their June 7 qualifier with Scotland.
They'll be expected to secure another three points, and with the likes of Luka Modric, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic, they certainly have the quality.
If Belgium are *the* dark horses heading into next year's tournament, there's no reason why Croatia (assuming they qualify) shouldn't aim for a place in the last-16 or even a quarterfinal spot.
They have the talent, but first must ensure qualification.
With four wins from four competitive matches under Fabio Capello, along with eight goals scored and none conceded, Russia currently have a vice-like grip on Group F.
A disappointing showing at Euro 2012—seriously, how did they fail to qualify from that group?—has been largely forgotten due to their impressive showings since.
They've been far from free-flowing as an attacking force but defensively are proving fiercely stubborn.
A recent friendly draw at Stamford Bridge against Brazil showed the sides counter-attacking ability, and they'll have to be at their best in that regard with a massive game against Portugal coming up on June 7.
If they can avoid defeat, they'll take a massive step towards next summer's finals, particularly given their games in hand over the sides below.
Cesare Prandelli's Italy will be testing themselves thoroughly at the Confederations Cup soon, and it could prove a good indicator as to whether they have a role to play in the later stages at next summer's tournament.
With Andrea Pirlo continuing to pull the strings and Mario Balotelli now putting together an increasing number of top-level performances for both club and country, the Azzurri are romping towards Brazil. The confidence gathered at Euro 2012 continues to shine.
13 points from five matches has given them a three-point lead in Group B, with a game in hand also.
Additionally, two recent friendlies have seen Prandelli's side come away with draws against Brazil and Holland, and with solid performances in both—they arguably deserved far greater reward against next year's hosts.
Decisions perhaps still need to be made moving forward about a definitive formation—4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2 have all been used in recent times—but such flexibility can also be construed as a strength.
Whichever way you slice it, however, the 2006 World Cup winners have put the debacle of 2010 firmly behind them, and the future looks bright.
Euro 2012 was no question miserable for the Dutch, but since the return of Louis van Gaal to the Oranje fold, it has been all change, both in terms of personnel and results.
The ex-Ajax and Bayern Munich coach has brought through a number of young players, and this has reaped dividends, with the Netherlands winning six from six, scoring 20 and conceding just two in their qualification matches.
The swagger in possession has returned, and the likes of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben appear rejuvenated on the international stage.
There is also a new-found defensive solidarity about van Gaal's Netherlands as opposed to Bert van Marwijk's rearguard, which was at sixes and sevens for much of last summer.
All in all, Louis van Gaal's return has gone as well as could be expected so far. They're as close to next summer's finals as any team in Europe, and the future looks exceedingly bright.
The reigning European and world champions haven't been anywhere near their best since the Euro 2012 success. The slender 1-0 win in Georgia and the 1-1 draw at home to Iceland will attest to that.
Nonetheless, as has been the want of Vicente Del Bosque's side over the past four years or so, when a result is needed, they produce. Once again, they did so with a 1-0 win in the Stade De France in March, which keeps them in pole position to top Group I.
This summer's Confederations Cup represents another opportunity for the most golden of golden generations to gather more international success, and they'll no doubt head to Brazil in a confident mood.
The official FIFA rankings currently stand them as the No. 1 side in world football. Based around their unprecedented level of recent success, that's a fair assessment.
And despite a lackluster qualifying campaign, they still remain European football's team to beat. But perhaps they are much more vulnerable than they have been in recent times.
Certainly, if you put them in a major final tomorrow with the team ranked number one on this list, I wouldn't be backing them to emerge victorious—although it would likely be close.
German football is undoubtedly riding on the crest of a wave this season, and the national side is as much a reason for that as anything else.
With a plethora of supremely talented individuals and a tactically astute manager in Jogi Low, Germany are making short work of qualification for Brazil 2014, a 30 minute aberration against Sweden apart.
16 points from a possible 18 is their qualifying record so far and, having seen what's gone before, I'd be shocked if they don't end with 28 points from a possible 30.
The attacking options available are the envy of almost every other national team in world football, whilst a defence comprising the likes of Philipp Lahm and Mats Hummels isn't bad either.
Their semifinal defeat to Italy at Euro 2012 showed that there is still work to be done, whilst the 4-4 draw at home to Sweden, when 4-0 in front, proved that they aren't infallible.
However, the football currently being played by Die Mannschaft is technically, physically and tactically outstanding, taking the very best of what it's players are regularly doing for their clubs and putting it on an international stage.
At present, they are good enough to give anybody a game and are, for my money, the best international team in Europe at present.