FIFA World Cup: Power Ranking the Early Favorites on Form
This weekend's round of international friendlies has served as a reminder that World Cup 2014 is just about a year away.
While this summer will be filled with transfer rumors and a hankering for more football, we can look forward to the return of the world's most thrilling and widely followed sporting event as it makes its way to Brazil.
With the World Cup so near, let's take a look at where the top 10 teams in the world (as ranked by FIFA itself) stand on form. When the tournament begins, form is generally thrown in the trash, but this can help us get a read on which teams might have a slight edge in the quest for the Jules Rimet Trophy.
As ESPN's John Brewin stated after England's recent draw with Brazil, the Three Lions lack the "fear factor" that is necessary to succeed at a World Cup.
Indeed, their form has been tepid. Very good players have not been able to translate their club success to the national team, and the resulting lack of cohesion has produced as basic and lackluster a product as a side as good as England are on paper can produce.
Thus a troubling trend of draws: In the two games before this latest tie against Brazil, England could not manage victories against Ireland nor Montenegro. Those are two countries that Roy Hodgson's side really should be beating but cannot find the quality to do so.
Portugal have been the least convincing of any country on this list in their World Cup Qualifying campaign. They are third in their group, behind Russia and, amazingly, Israel.
The Portuguese were nearly embarrassed by the Israelis in March, as an equalizer from Fábio Coentrão in the 93rd minute was the only thing that preserved a draw against a markedly inferior opponent.
Before that they were beaten by Ecuador, and their only fixture since the Israel debacle was a shaky 2-0 win over lowly Azerbaijan.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. certainly have the talent to threaten the field in Brazil, but they will need to do a better job of exploiting it on a consistent basis.
Only a loss against Venezuela in March knocks the otherwise solid Colombians down this list.
They sit third in the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying table, four points clear of Chile, only one point below Ecuador and four points below Argentina. Colombia has played a game fewer than the former and the latter.
Much of their fortunes are determined by the play of Radamel Falcao, which can be dangerous. Though the £50 million Monaco man is one of the best strikers in the world, Colombia cannot depend on his form alone.
In this report on the official FIFA website, Gianluigi Buffon voices his concern that Italy have a tendency to let their focus slip during less high-profile games.
While that may not be as much of a problem during the World Cup, it is slightly hindering their progress toward it.
Buffon's statement was made after a labored 2-0 win over little Malta. And though Italy recently fielded a team mostly composed of reserves against San Marino (ranked last in the world), their 4-0 victory is perhaps not as convincing as it could have been.
When faced with a premier side like Brazil in March, the Italians could not manage to earn more than a 2-2 draw.
It is worth noting, however, that the Azzurri currently lead their World Cup Qualifying group and have not yet lost a game.
Despite their recent loss against Germany, Ecuador are flying higher than at any point during their footballing history.
Their current FIFA ranking of 10th is the best in their history, and they sit only four points below Argentina in World Cup Qualifying with a game in hand.
Since October 2012, La Tri have beaten Chile, Portugal, El Salvador and Paraguay—the latter two by a combined score of 9-1.
Not bad for a little country whose only mainstream star is Manchester United's Antonio Valencia.
Die Mannschaft's somewhat humiliating loss to the United States certainly knocks the Germans down a peg, but their superb display in World Cup Qualifying cannot be discounted by the failure of a very makeshift side.
In an undefeated campaign, they have accrued 16 points—among the best in the totality of Europe, and double the totals of second-, third- and fourth-placed Austria, Sweden and Ireland.
Germany's tremendous depth makes them a formidable force and renders them somewhat impervious to the perils of transient form. If Bastian Schweinsteiger, for example, were to falter, any of five players could comfortably assume his role.
Lionel Messi is never out of form.
And that is one of the most significant reasons why Argentina have been able to top all other nations in CONMEBOL's lone World Cup Qualifying group to date.
As previously mentioned, the Argentines' total of 24 points is four better than the next-best country, and, but for a draw against Bolivia in March, their performances have reflected their dominance.
A convincing 3-0 victory over Venezuela succeeded a thrilling 3-2 victory over Sweden. Argentina's problem come next year will be Messi's dubious record in major tournaments. Based on his form at the moment, it would be stunning if he is left goalless, as he was in South Africa three years ago.
Spain are never as much "off form" as "unspectacular."
Their relative lack of flair might be a cause of worry to some, but La Roja played their way to a second consecutive European Championship triumph with pragmatic performances and narrow margins of victory.
Thus, it is hardly a surprise to see the Spaniards topping their qualifying group with an undefeated record, and their one-point separation from France is equally unremarkable.
Ostentatious scorelines might not be common for Vicente del Bosque's team, but neither are defeats. The last time Spain lost was in November of 2011 against England.
Take one look at Croatia's most recent results, and their fourth-place FIFA ranking (only one lower than the highest in their history) is not quite so surprising.
Victories over Macedonia, Wales (twice), South Korea (by four goals to none) and Serbia have all been achieved with the style and pomp of a team that is confident in its quality and depth.
With defensive stalwarts like captain Darijo Srna, Josip Simunic and Vedran Corluka backing up creators like Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric and a tremendous striking corps of Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic (to name a couple), the Croats have reason to feel assured in their play.
Fans should be enthusiastic about the excellent run that this talented and experienced team is putting together before the big show next year.
1. The Netherlands
The Netherlands have performed better than any other team in Europe in World Cup Qualifying. Why?
Because it is impossible to improve upon perfection.
Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Co. have won every single game during their qualification campaign and are the only team in UEFA to earn the maximum possible 18 points from their six matches in Group D.
The only recent results that might worry Louis van Gaal slightly are draws against Italy and Germany. But the Oranje were nevertheless strong in both friendlies, and they have had absolutely no trouble dispatching of their opponents in games that actually count.
As has been the norm in recent years, the lack of established defensive stars might be a worry, but the Netherlands' embarrassment of riches in attack can—and has—compensated for this Achilles' heel thus far.
The Dutch will not have to be flawless between now and the World Cup, nor during it. But perfection is a pleasant place to start from.