World Cup 2018 Power Rankings Heading into the Finals
It's almost here. It's so close.
We are just days away from the big World Cup 2018 kick-off, commencing Thursday as hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia, and excitement levels are through the roof.
Predictions and mock brackets are rife on social media, official World Cup songs are being released and compared to old classics and the sadder side to this process is in full force, with unfortunate players sustaining injuries that will prevent them from fulfilling boyhood dreams.
When all of these things are happening, you know you're a hair's breadth away from the biggest sporting event on the planet beginning.
We're continuing our build-up to the tournament with a World Cup power ranking, ordering each of the 32 nations by relative strength and likelihood of lifting the trophy. A lot has happened since our March edition, a fact evidenced by some of the wild swings in the rankings. We also have a new No. 1!
32. Panama (-2)
It's fitting that Panama have used this preparation period to play Northern Ireland, as they're exactly the type of team they'll be looking to emulate at the World Cup. A stubborn defensive outlook is expected, with coach Hernan Dario Gomez's decision to switch from 4-4-2 to 5-4-1 geared toward frustrating opponents in Russia.
It'll be the most wonderful storyline if they can ruffle some feathers—this being their first-ever World Cup finals—but we'll have to see it to believe it.
31. South Korea (-4)
It's difficult to feel anything but concern for South Korea. Their squad has been ravaged by injuries, with at least three players named and then replaced, and their performances during the warm-ups haven't been good.
30. Australia (+2)
Australia are shaping up for this World Cup better than many expected, but it's important not to get carried away by their pre-tournament form. Wins over the Czech Republic and Hungary are good, but there's a big gap in quality between those opponents and the ones they'll face in Group B.
29. Saudi Arabia (Stay)
Watching Saudi Arabia fly forward on the counter-attack against Germany in their 2-1 defeat was fun and might concern a few Group A teams, but the finishing on hand was dire. They might thrill a few, but a lack of quality will probably stop them getting results.
28. Japan (-3)
Japan appear to be in complete disarray. After firing manager Vahid Halilhodzic in March, Akira Nishino has been parachuted in to pick up the pieces. He's lost his first two games in this important warm-up period, with his side failing to score a goal in either.
27. Tunisia (+4)
A combination of good warm-up performances and other teams being in free fall have resulted in Tunisia moving up to 27th. They're no pushovers but can't be expected to qualify from Belgium and England's group.
26. Iran (Stay)
Iran attempted to play four friendlies during this pre-tournament period but two were cancelled against Greece and Kosovo. They're a much stronger outfit than they were in 2014, yet they're far less prepared.
25. Russia (-10)
Hosts Russia now head into the World Cup finals on a seven-game winless streak. It's arguable that's a little misleading given they've played Spain, France, Brazil and Argentina during that run, but concerns abound regardless.
Any progress this side appeared to be making has been capped by a run of bad injuries during preparation, meaning players such as 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich have been drafted out of retirement to fill the squad. They'll leave their best holding midfielder (Igor Denisov) at home due to a dispute with manager Stanislav Cherchesov and approach the June 14 opener under a cloud.
24. Nigeria (-6)
If the World Cup was decided on kit design, Nigeria would reach the knockout stage with ease. Judging by performances on the pitch, though, you might worry for them a little in a tough Group D.
It's important not to read too much into pre-tournament goings on, but The Super Eagles losing 1-0 to a Czech Republic side who got trounced by Australia five days earlier is a concern.
23. Iceland (-6)
Where has Iceland's stubborn streak gone? In the last four games they've conceded 11 goals. It won't matter if they can whisk Gylfi Sigurdsson back to health for the finals if they're doing that; they're set to face Lionel Messi and Luka Modric in the groups!
22. Egypt (-2)
Egypt with and without Mohamed Salah are entirely different beasts. They were one of the most difficult nations to place in this ranking as his fitness is still a big question mark.
These pre-tournament friendlies without him have been grim; for want of a better phrase, they've looked lost. They're winless in six, too.
21. Costa Rica (-2)
The familiar feel to Costa Rica's XI (just one change is expected from 2014 to 2018), and the fact they can no longer "surprise" us, has led many to write Los Ticos off. They're in a tough group, but they'll likely prove stubborn once again and have a player in Keylor Navas who enhances their chances of success.
20. Sweden (+2)
Sweden won't wow anyone this tournament, but they're capable of getting results—as evidenced by the play-off win over Italy, and their solid, if unspectacular, build-up to the finals.
They look third-strongest in Group F, but qualification isn't out of the question. They'll need to make an effort to score a few more goals than usual if they're to usurp Mexico, though.
19. Morocco (+9)
If you're looking for a potential group-stage upset, Morocco to qualify ahead of Portugal should be on your radar. They're defensively excellent, have a coach in Herve Renard who knows how to eke out victories, and are close to a year unbeaten.
The Atlas Lions rarely concede, mix defensive quality (Medhi Benatia) with attacking zip (Hakim Ziyech) and are our first of three dark-horse candidates.
18. Senegal (+5)
Perhaps results didn't go their way during this preparation period, but what Senegal offered on the counter-attack against Croatia in their 2-1 defeat on Friday should scare anyone preparing to play them.
They defend crosses well and launch attacks quickly, feeding the ball to Sadio Mane and asking him to create. It's a good strategy!
17. Switzerland (+7)
For Switzerland, see Sweden (20): They won't blow you away with their football, but they can be solid when required and boast a couple of genuine difference-makers—Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo—in attack.
The group they've landed in, alongside Serbia and Costa Rica, will be a gritty one, but that almost plays to their strengths.
16. Peru (+5)
Things are looking pretty rosy for Peru right now. They haven't lost a game in over a year, have won five of their last six and have welcomed talismanic striker Paolo Guerrero back into the fold after his doping ban was temporarily lifted.
15. Serbia (+1)
There's no guarantee it all clicks for Serbia, but if it does watch out. They're a massive side who will dominate set pieces and have key difference-makers Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic in great form.
They're the second of our three dark-horse contenders.
14. Mexico (-1)
The 2018 World Cup will act as a sort of strange pathway from one generation to the next for Mexico. Thirty-nine-year-old Rafa Marquez will anchor the defence in his last tournament, while Hirving Lozano will spearhead the attack in his first.
They look good value to get out of their group, with the number of goals they're capable of netting giving them the edge over Sweden, and from there who knows?
13. Denmark (+1)
Denmark hop above Mexico in our rankings after beating them 2-0 on Saturday, but there's little to choose between the two. That Yussuf Poulsen found his goalscoring groove in the game is potentially important; it's crucial the attacking onus does not solely fall on Christian Eriksen's shoulders.
12. Poland (-1)
The news that Kamil Glik will miss the finals after sustaining an injury during training is a massive blow. Of all the pre-tournament ailments suffered across the 32 competing nations—and there've been too many, sadly—this is arguably the most impactful.
The White and Reds may still ride Robert Lewandowski's coattails to success, but they'll be far less resolute without their central-defensive man mountain.
11. Colombia (-1)
Colombia opted to play just one tune-up game ahead of the World Cup finals, taking on Egypt on June 1 and drawing 0-0.
That hardly seems like the ideal preparation—particularly given some teams have jammed in three friendlies during this period, for comparison—and things were made worse on Saturday by the ACL injury sustained by starting left-back Frank Fabra.
Los Cafeteros have depth in plenty of positions, but not that one. It's a serious knock to their chances of upsetting the odds this summer.
10. Croatia (+2)
Croatia still feel like a work in progress, which is understandable given their manager Zlatko Dalic hasn't had too long to sculpt this team. He only took over last November and had to devote his immediate energies to dragging the team through a playoff against Greece.
But the quality coursing through the outfit cannot be ignored. The Vatreni are sending their strongest crop to a tournament in some time.
Exactly how they line up in Russia isn't known, but the quick passing combinations and good wide play on show against Senegal suggests Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Co. can and will find fluency when required.
9. England (Stay)
There's a distinct feeling of cautious optimism about this England squad, with a belief that they might not embarrass themselves with a group-stage exit taking hold.
The Three Lions may seem unspectacular on paper, but there's a team bond in place, and they look well coached by Gareth Southgate. The two warm-up games against Nigeria and Costa Rica went well; there's a plan in place to start games with, and another to resort to if it's not going well.
8. Belgium (Stay)
Manager Roberto Martinez has been dogged by questions throughout this pre-World Cup process, and he'll likely be eager for the tournament to be under way.
From Vincent Kompany's injury, through Radja Nainggolan's exclusion from the squad to the fact Laurent Ciman (not in the 23) played 81 minutes of their friendly against Egypt last Wednesday, it's been relentless. Once the football starts, perhaps the subject will change.
Belgium remain what they have been for four years now: an incredibly talented bunch who must find a way to knit a golden generation into the same team and prove they deserve to be taken seriously.
7. Uruguay (Stay)
Like Colombia, it was just the one pre-tournament tune-up for Uruguay, a 3-0 win over Uzbekistan. They're hardly the most illustrious opponents, but the choice makes sense given they'll play similarly styled teams in Group A.
La Celeste rely on the same book-ending star quality as always—Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top, and Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez in defence—but boast a new-found lease of life thanks to the installation of a ball-playing, creative midfield, with Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Rodrigo Bentancur pulling the strings.
Consider them the third and final dark-horse candidate named here.
6. Argentina (-1)
Argentina's pre-tournament preparations could hardly have gone any worse. They organised three friendlies, but two (against Israel and Nicaragua) were cancelled, and the other was a 4-0 win against an awful Haiti side.
Given La Albiceleste were facing so many questions coming into this period, this represents a disaster. This was where coach Jorge Sampaoli was supposed to iron out his approach, formation and XI for the World Cup.
This leaves them clear outsiders to lift the trophy as we approach the big kick-off. The only reason they rank as high as sixth is because of the presence of Lionel Messi—a man who is capable of winning matches on his own.
5. Portugal (+1)
Portugal are a little tough to gauge. There are times when they look stodgy and slow (like against Belgium in their 0-0 draw), but others when they seem fluid and fun (like in the 3-0 win over Algeria).
But despite that inconsistency, you have to consider them a top-five team heading to the finals. They boast a number of world-class players (including Cristiano Ronaldo), have a familiarity few nations can match and manager Fernando Santos' grinding style is perfectly suited to intensive tournaments—check Euro 2016 for evidence of that!
Perhaps he'll opt to entertain us, utilising young stars Goncalo Guedes and Bruno Fernandes. Perhaps he'll lean on his usual reactive, physical style. Whichever he chooses, the fact Portugal can win two ways makes them a contender.
4. France (Stay)
France's results during this preparation period have been largely fine; wins against the Republic of Ireland and Italy were followed by a draw with the USA.
That said, of all the strongest teams heading to the tournament, Les Bleus arguably have the most question marks hanging over their personnel and starting XI.
What shape the midfield and forward lines take isn't totally clear, while Djibril Sidibe's battle with Benjamin Pavard for the right-back berth has been tight. Then there's the transfer speculation hanging over certain players—notably Antoine Griezmann, per AS—which could cause issues.
Perhaps the group games solve the former issue, ready in time for the knockouts; there's little manager Didier Deschamps can do about the latter one, though.
3. Germany (Stay)
Germany's pre-tournament performances haven't been great, but we've learnt over time that it's not necessarily an issue for them. In 2014 they drew 0-0 with Poland and 2-2 with Cameroon amid a fairly turgid March-June period, then won the World Cup in July.
Coach Joachim Low caused a big stir by leaving Leroy Sane out of his 23-man squad for Russia—a decision that led to outrage on social media—but he believes in his options of Marco Reus, Julian Draxler and Julian Brandt more, and belief is key for Low. It's often a case of "what have you done for me lately?" as opposed to a matter of club form with him.
The defending champions have been immeasurably buoyed by goalkeeper Manuel Neuer proving his fitness; he's available and set to captain the side. He was called into action plenty of times as Die Mannschaft struggled past Saudi Arabia on Friday, flashing his sharpness.
2. Brazil (-1)
If Neymar's sharp return to football is anything to go by, Brazil will serve us up a treat this summer in Russia.
A jinking run and rasping finish put the Selecao ahead against Croatia in a World Cup warm-up game to announce his return to football—the first match he'd played since February—and he followed it up with a delightful goal against Austria in their 3-0 victory on Sunday.
It might seem strange to remove Brazil from top spot in the wake of this, but it's important to remember manager Tite has been dealt another blow since we last ranked the nations: Dani Alves' injury.
Whoever replaces him—Danilo or Fagner—can't be expected to reach the Paris Saint-Germain man's level, and the presence of either represents a (relative) weak point in the side.
1. Spain (+1)
Given the star power on show, the incredible strength in depth and the form in which certain players ended the season in, Spain are good value for the No. 1 spot in these rankings heading into the finals.
They feel "together" under Julen Lopetegui and boast incredible players in every position. In our recent World Cup 100, we rated at least one of their players from each area of the pitch among the strongest going to the tournament.
Organising a friendly against Tunisia ahead of the finals was a smart move, as The Lions of Carthage sat in and made themselves difficult to break down. It's exactly what group-mates Morocco and Iran will do, so Lopetegui will have been relieved when Iago Aspas broke the deadlock and delivered a win late on.
You'd expect La Furia Roja to up the tempo considerably in Russia, with the likes of David Silva and Isco sparkling, rather than going through the motions. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez are game-changers from the bench.
In assessing the foremost contenders to lift the trophy in July, Germany, Brazil and Spain complete a de facto top three, and there's little between them. How you order each might be up to personal preference, gut feeling or a bit of both..and we're backing the Iberians as the strongest outfit on paper.