Ranking the Teams Most Likely to Win the 2018 FIFA World Cup
It's the international break, so let's hit the pause button on what has been three-and-a-half frantic months of club football and turn our attention to the small matter of qualifying for the most prestigious, global event in sport: the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
We may still be more than one year away from the finals in Russia, with the teams yet to be finalised and the groups yet to be drawn, but that won't stop fans speculating who will reach the finals and, in particular, who could achieve glory.
We've taken it upon ourselves to rank the 32 teams most likely to win the World Cup in 2018, taking into account overall squad quality, the qualifying situation they're in and, to a lesser extent, the home-field advantage some teams might benefit from.
We haven't restricted the teams included by using FIFA's qualifying allocation rules, so you will see more from one continent than can qualify and fewer from others. Why? Because there's an awful lot of football to be played, and a team such as sixth-placed CONMEBOL side Colombia probably still have a better chance of winning the World Cup than Montenegro, who sit in a play-off position in the UEFA standings.
A number of prominent nations have missed the cut for these rankings. If you're wondering where some of them are, here are the reasons for their exclusion.
Iran: Top of their group in the AFC, yet not even listed in the 32? Manager Carlos Queiroz has done wonders for this team, but scoring goals is not a strength of theirs. With just four netted after five games, they may be in a strong spot to qualify, but actually winning the World Cup would be near-impossible using their strategy.
Saudi Arabia: Top of the other AFC group and also not in the 32. That group is neck-and-neck between four good teams towards the top, and it's expected two others will rise to the summit eventually, leaving Saudi Arabia to fight for a play-off spot with the United Arab Emirates.
Cameroon: They may have won the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but they're in a horrible spot in World Cup qualifying. Already four points behind an extremely talented Nigeria side in a group where only one team qualifies, it doesn't even look like they'll be going to Russia.
South Africa: They have a strong side in a tough group, and the presence of Senegal in their qualifying section makes it tough to believe they'll make the finals.
Algeria: Despite all of the attacking talent they possess, they're bottom of Group B with a point less than Cameroon.
Serbia: A talented but unpredictable team. They have some stunning young players coming through, but 2018 is probably too soon for them. Also bundled into a tough group they may not emerge from.
Ukraine: Second in their group, but the likelihood of them edging Croatia to first place seems low. Given their performances under pressure at Euro 2016 (where they were the first team eliminated from the tournament), we'll give them a miss for now.
Iceland: Everyone's beloved underdog sit third in their qualifying group and will be missing key man Birkir Bjarnason for this forthcoming round of fixtures. They're one to keep tabs on for now.
Austria: With a paltry four points from four games, they're fourth in their group behind Serbia, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Nothing we saw at Euro 2016 suggests they can piece it all together and rise to the top, either.
With plenty of players plying their trade in Europe and a strong midfield of Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy, Australia are your classic wild card. They might surprise a few people if the draw does them a favour.
31. South Korea
A credible, strong outfit with some good players in key areas, but the bad taste of South Korea's abysmal 2014 World Cup showing still lingers. Despite showing quality in qualifying, they've much to prove.
30. United States
Things look bleak for the U.S. men's national team right now, but there's plenty of football to be played in the Hexagonal stage, and Mexico managed to scrape through to a World Cup with a paltry 11 points once. They have a strong, young side and a new manager, so hope abounds.
29. Ivory Coast
As the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations proved, this is far from the strongest Ivory Coast have looked over the last decade. True, there's a chance the Eric Bailly-Franck Kessie-Wilfried Zaha connection grows strong and they really turn it up, but right now this is where they belong.
Second to Ivory Coast in their qualifying group and disappointing at the AFCON, but the feeling is the retention of manager Herve Renard and the return of injured key players (Nordin Amrabat, Younes Belhanda and Sofiane Boufal to name three) will see them in with a chance of reaching Russia.
Neil Taylor has discussed Wales' struggles this week with BBC Wales Sport, suggesting they've had to adapt their style of play in the wake of their Euro 2016 success. They're in a bit of a bind, with only six points from four games. While they're expected to shake the rust off, they're low down in this list as they're far from certain to qualify.
Japan have a remarkable number of players plying their trade in Germany—one of the best leagues in the world—and will again rely on technicality in midfield and thrust from their full-backs. The age-old question remains, though: Can they find the defensive formula that will truly allow them to compete?
Greece possess the innate ability to surprise and shock that so many other smaller nations desire. They'll likely have to settle for a play-off spot, but with Kostas Mitroglou back in form, they're a pretty dangerous outfit.
24. Republic of Ireland
The Boys in Green have started qualifying superbly, claiming 10 points from their first four games in a tough group. If they pip Wales and Serbia to first place, it'll be a serious achievement and set them up nicely for the finals.
Their presence in the AFCON final underlined how strong Egypt are in 2017, and it's been too long since we've seen them participate in a World Cup. With Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny in midfield, they're a threat in every game.
22. Costa Rica
Gauging Costa Rica is a tough task. They're a team who generally combine to become more than the sum of their parts, but that also makes them quite unpredictable. They were so up-and-down at the Copa America 2016 that it's difficult to trust them.
Senegal are in a tight qualifying group, but they're one of the strongest teams Africa can offer, and the expectation is they'll see Burkina Faso and South Africa off. They've certainly got the weapons to do so; in Sadio Mane and Keita Balda, they boast the best wing duo on the continent.
Nigeria are well clear at the top of Group B and are likely to ensure AFCON winners Cameroon don't make it to Russia. The Super Eagles have an incredibly talented generation at hand, and appointing technical adviser Gernot Rohr to look after things (and deal with the Football Association politics) has proved a masterstroke. They're the highest-ranked African team in this list.
The only thing Russia have going for them, seemingly, is the home support. They're the hosts of the tournament and it's expected that will elevate their performances. Frankly, their squad still looks a bit weak.
Second to Costa Rica in the CONCACAF standings right now, but with a stronger on-paper squad. The last World Cup saw El Tri spring to life when it mattered most and, although under different management now, they're expected to follow up with a strong performance.
Switzerland have started strongly in qualifying, winning all four of their games and beating Portugal 2-0 on the first matchday. By 2018, Breel Embolo could be a star, which gives the Swiss a strong starting point.
Poland have got better and better as Robert Lewandowski has, but crucially other players have emerged around him to help share the load. Poland are strong across the board, as Euro 2016 proved, and they'll be fancied to reach the knockout stage.
Colombia are sixth in the CONMEBOL standings and only five teams qualify, so right now Los Cafeteros have some work to do. But given they're within one point of the qualification spots and are a significantly better team than many others, they find themselves 15th here.
A sneaky-good side who have looked rather comfortable in qualifying so far. Their key players seem to have simply continued to improve as they've got older.
Croatia were arguably the most entertaining team at Euro 2016 and were sadly removed from the tournament in extra-time by Portugal in the round of 16. They have a majestic midfield that can win the centre of any park, but there are questions—mostly of the age variety—in every other position.
Top of their group with 10 points from a possible 12, under new, more inspiring management and having finally rid themselves of an unwanted captain, the Three Lions will be feeling that warm fuzz of optimism. But, you know, it's England.
The Oranje may have to settle for a play-off place to qualify (they're in France's group and already behind by three points), but you'd back them to negotiate that and then outperform most group winners at the finals.
Despite the ridiculous wealth of talent available to Belgium, they're yet to string it all together and achieve the success predicted of them half a decade ago. A disappointing Euro 2016 cost head coach Marc Wilmots his job, and now Roberto Martinez has been installed to take them to the next level.
Despite some sneers at the appointment—Martinez's stock was low after a poor 2015-16 season at Everton—they've started qualifying with four wins from four, scoring 21 and conceding just one. Their group isn't particularly weak, either; it has Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina in it—the latter of which were beaten soundly back in October.
After recent tournament performances, few will be sticking their neck on the line and predicting the Red Devils to claim glory in 2018—and understandably so. But keep an eye on this team and how they gel under Martinez, because against all the odds, he might be the one who adds the final flourish.
Placing Chile in these rankings was an agonising task. On the one hand, they've strung together two consecutive Copa America victories—one on home soil, then one in the Centenario edition in the USA—but on the other hand, the World Cup stage has recently seen them fall short after promising so much.
Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has done a great job picking up where the revered Jorge Sampaoli left off, imbuing La Roja with the intensity and high-speed play that gets the best out of star men Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez. That he was able to deliver success in his first year in charge astounded many.
Heading to the finals in 2018 they'll be many people's second team, but can they transfer their relentless Copa form to the world stage?
Uruguay have put themselves in a strong position from which to qualify for the 2018 World Cup; at no stage in their history have they had as many points (23) as they have now with six games to go.
With Edinson Cavani in phenomenal form this season for both club and country—he has 38 goals this season for Paris Saint-Germain in all competitions, per Transfermarkt, and eight in this CONMEBOL qualifying campaign, per FIFA—confidence will be high that he can continue to make the difference. The onus will rest even more heavily on him this week as Luis Suarez is suspended for La Celeste's bout with Brazil.
Oscar Tabarez's men are superbly set up for tournament football, offering bountiful amounts of grit in midfield, a rock-solid central defensive pairing that includes Diego Godin, and strikers who play for some of Europe's best clubs.
European champions Portugal are, right now, staring the possibility of a play-off spot in the face—but that probably won't concern any of the Selecao.
Traditional slow starters, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. have frequently relied on play-offs to reach major tournaments and, if anything, it seems to help them when they reach the finals.
Manager Fernando Santos does have some problems he'll need to address, though, and this is the reason Portugal are not our top-ranked European side.
Ronaldo will be 33 by the time the finals roll around next year, Pepe 35, and Jose Fonte 34. That's your star player and your central-defensive axis (which was so impressive at Euro 2016) all pushing on a little too far for comfort.
There are positives, though, as the emergence of a No. 9 (finally!) should solve plenty of Santos' formation issues, while there are at least eight brilliant central midfielders all vying for spots.
But there was also an amazement factor about Portugal's victory in France last summer, and not many will expect them to manage it again in Russia.
Spain's earlier-than-expected exit from Euro 2016 served as the final straw for Vicente del Bosque, who, to be honest, had held on to his job as manager for far too long. There came a point where a change clearly had to be made, and the Spanish FA duly obliged...24 months later.
Under Julen Lopetegui's command, the differences aren't exactly stark, but the squad call-ups do at least have a semblance of merit about them, and it should create a more energised atmosphere.
They've also been characteristically difficult to score against, conceding just one goal—a Daniele De Rossi penalty—while plundering 15 at the other end.
Spain will travel to Russia six years removed from a major international title and eight beyond their victory in South Africa. This is, largely, an entirely new generation of players who must prove worthy of the heavyweight tag they'll be attributed.
The last three consecutive summers have seen Argentina fall at the final hurdle, settling for second place in two Copa Americas and one World Cup. If you're feeling uneasy about labelling them a genuine contender for Russia 2018—despite the presence of the world's best player—you are not alone.
They've contrived to make life extremely difficult for themselves during the CONMEBOL qualifiers and sit in fifth place, making them even more difficult to trust. That's only good enough for an inter-confederation play-off, not an automatic spot at the finals.
That said, they're a point off Chile and Ecuador in fourth and third, respectively, and are fully expected to make it to Russia without having to face a play-off fixture in Auckland, New Zealand.
With the attacking talent available to coach Edgardo Bauza, they should be one of the most deadly teams to take to the stage next summer.
Remember: they do have Lionel Messi, so...
This most recent squad announcement for the Italian national team is packed full of young talent; if it matures in time for the summer of 2018, Gian Piero Ventura could become the mastermind of one of the finest Italy sides in history.
The Azzurri were one of the most impressive sides at Euro 2016, and although that was under former boss Antonio Conte, they've started strongly in qualifying with 10 points from a possible 12 under Ventura—including a creditable draw with Spain.
One thing Italy have lacked in recent years is a go-to striking option, but this year Manolo Gabbiadini has caught fire for Southampton, while Torino's Andrea Belotti has emerged as one of the finest poachers in world football.
Does that complete the set for Ventura and allow him to mount a serious World Cup challenge? They have the tournament pedigree that entices you to believe it so.
For this round of internationals, Didier Deschamps was forced to replace Paul Pogba in his France squad due to injury. In the Manchester United man's place steps Tiemoue Bakayoko, a Champions League quarter-finalist with AS Monaco and current Jose Mourinho target, per ESPN FC. Talk about the definition of squad depth.
Since losing the final of Euro 2016, Les Bleus have only got stronger. More and more quality players are emerging from the woodwork, meaning Deschamps' squad selection is going to be one of the most difficult in footballing history.
The team have started well in qualifying, securing 10 points from a possible 12 having beaten the Netherlands and Sweden, and they show no signs of needing exiled striker Karim Benzema due to the immense Antoine Griezmann.
It's been smooth sailing for Tite since taking over Dunga's position as manager of the Brazilian national team in June 2016, winning six games from six in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. That run includes the 3-0 thwacking of Argentina at home and the 3-0 defeat of an extremely strong Ecuador team away.
This week's fixture against Uruguay in Montevideo is hugely significant; if the Selecao win, they'll pull seven points clear of their opponents, all but sealing passage to the 2018 World Cup in the process.
A team equipped with Gabriel Jesus, Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Willian in the front line were always expected to deliver, and they duly have: a plus-19 goal difference after 12 games dwarfs all others. But they've also only conceded once during Tite's reign (an own goal), signifying how solid they are at the other end, too.
In short, be scared of Brazil.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany are top of the pile when it comes to predicting which nation is most likely to win the 2018 World Cup at this point in time.
Die Mannschaft became the first European team in history to win the tournament on South American soil in 2014, beating Brazil and Argentina en route to glory, and they will be looking to defend their crown in Russia.
They've started qualifying in perfect fashion, winning four games from four, and are already well clear at the top of Group C.
Given the strong start they've made, the fact they'll enter the tournament as champions and with their historic, seemingly ingrained ability to shoulder pressure and excel on the big stage, they're an easy choice for No. 1 here.