With the Copa America and European Championships over and done with, it is suddenly dawning on the footballing world that it is less than 18 months until the big one: the World Cup and a World Cup like no other. Qatar, the 158th biggest nation on earth with a population 3.3 million, will welcome 32 teams to the country in November with the searing heat of the Arabian peninsular meaning that next year a world champion will be crowned just in time for Christmas.
It may feel different but with just over 500 days to go the list of favorites looks rather familiar for those who have followed international football in recent years. Below we take our first attempt at ranking the best teams who could take to the pitch in Qatar next winter:
Defeat to Argentina in the Copa America final proved that the Selecao are not unbeatable but the manner in which they advanced to their date with Argentina, coupled with the sedate progress they have made through CONMEBOL's brutal qualifying group, augurs well for next winter. This is not a team light on options up front -- how could it be with Neymar at its heart? -- but it has been the defense that proved to be invaluable for Tite's side of late. In seven games they conceded just three goals and no side allowed opponents a lower expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot being a goal) tally per 90 minutes than Brazil's 0.6.
Ultimately Brazil will go into the tournament with world class options in goal (Alisson, Ederson), central defense (Marquinhos), midfield (Fabinho, Casemiro) and forward (Neymar). Beyond the sense that they could perhaps do with a one goal every two games striker to round out their attack there are few weaknesses to this team.
There may be no greater collection of talent come 2022 than the French side. To the constellation of stars they have unleashed over recent years one could add the likes of Dayot Upamecano, Houssem Aouar and Eduardo Camavinga. Kylian Mbappe could reach even greater heights if such a thing is imaginable while the likes of Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Antoine Griezmann will still be in their primes. All they need is a left back.
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Still there are causes for concern. Chief among them might be the disunity that emanated from the French camp at the Euros with no love lost between Mbappe and more than one of his teammates. That is coupled with a manager in Didier Deschamps whose inherent conservatism is such that a side whose core has been largely settled for multiple tournaments showed no discernible attacking patterns this summer. The holders may have the talent to grind their way deep into the World Cup but France may yet invite undue pressure against teams they could blow away.
Theirs is a familiar arc on the international stage. The likes of Germany and France grew accustomed to near misses and set backs before taking that decisive final step; there is no reason to feel that an England side that have shown such admirable composure and organization in the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 cannot go one step further in Qatar. They have a welcome mixture of players around their prime years such as Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Harry Kane along with young bolters from Bukayo Saka to Jude Bellingham via Phil Foden.
Like France there are questions to be asked over the manager's conservatism in attack though it should be noted that England went through the entirety of Euro 2020 without conceding a goal from open play. Their path to improvement seems clear: a slight loosening of the reins in attack, a season and a bit of development from their bright young things and perhaps a truly convincing alternative to Harry Kane. It does not seem beyond them.
Now that Lionel Messi finally has that international honor he has craved there may be a degree less pressure on him personally when he arrives in Qatar, though he will surely not take his foot off the gas in what may be his last chance to win the biggest prize of them all. Equally once you have won the Copa America the Argentine public will only expect better at the World Cup.
There are plenty of reasons to be more confident now than a month ago. The emergence of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and center back Cristian Romero offers solidity whilst coach Lionel Scaloni seems to have built a system that goes beyond previous tactical plans of "give it to Messi and hope" (not that that is not necessarily a formula for success). There are still questions to be answered about how exactly to build the attack around the greatest player of his generation but when the options include Nicolas Gonzalez, Lautaro Martinez and Lucas Alario these are at least good problems to have.
The European champions certainly merit serious consideration for the global crown in 18 months time. The likes of Federico Chiesa, Nicolo Barella and Domenico Berardi will be approaching the peak of their powers and if Euros 2020 and 2016 have taught us anything it is that the Italians tend to come to major tournaments armed with the best of the best among international managers. Roberto Mancini was head and shoulders above his opposite numbers this summer and it showed as Italy continually adapted their approach to gain an edge over their opponents.
What few question marks there are lie at both ends of the pitch? Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti struggled to stamp themselves on the latter stages of Euro 2020; Moise Kean aside there is perhaps not a young flyer ready to lead the Italian line. At the other end there is promise in abundance but can the next generation of Azzurri defenders really match Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, so exceptional as the victory over England wore on?
There may have been no more dangerous attacking force than Spain at Euro 2020. Their per 90 xG was the highest of any team at the tournament. They took lots of shots and hit the target often; when it clicked even teams as composed as Croatia had no answer. If international football were a league season you would rank them extremely high, not least because their 'new signing' Aymeric Laporte added welcome stability to the defense.
Perhaps the key issue that is holding Luis Enrique's side back is that they don't have that superstar at either end of the pitch who can bend a game to his will. Pedri certainly showed signs at just 18 that he will be that player one day but it would be unreasonable to simply assume that he can reprise his Euro 2020 form late next year. Perhaps the likes of Dani Olmo will take the leap that looks to be within their capabilities or Alvaro Morata will find a hot streak at the right moment. Success next year certainly seems within Spain's reach.
Cristiano Ronaldo's pursuit of the all time men's international scoring record presumably means that he will continue on to the World Cup -- by which time he will surely have the one goal he needs to overtake Ali Daei -- and it would be dangerous to write off a team that can surround one of the game's all time great scorers with such creative talent. Fernando Santos has 18 months to build chemistry among the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Diogo Jota but the truth is it was severely lacking at Euro 2020. It should be noted that Portugal led for just 40 minutes across four games in that tournament and rarely looked cohesive in their build up play.
There will be quick wins that could aid them in Qatar if they get there (Serbia are strong enough to potentially force them into second place in Group A and a playoff spot). Integrating Renato Sanches would allow for the chasm between Portugal's midfield and attack to be bridged and if Joao Cancelo or Ricardo Pereira had been available the right flank might not have been so easily exploited by Germany. Still for all the micro details it is the big picture that has you doubting Santos' side -- is there really a convincing style to this team?
For the time being it feels that Belgium's moment may just have passed them by. Make no mistake they certainly belong in the category of nations who could win the World Cup but where in past years they belonged in the very highest echelon of favorites come 2022 it may be that too many of this squad is on the downswing without the top tier talent to replace them. Of the Golden Generation only Romelu Lukaku will not be in his 30s in Qatar and it is fair to assume that the likes of Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard might be on the downslope of their career. Perish the thought, perhaps even Kevin De Bruyne will need managing through a grueling midseason tournament.
Nowhere is that issue more pronounced than in defense, where there are no obvious immediate successors to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Roberto Martinez believes that eventually Zinho Vanheusden will be that man much as Jeremy Doku looks ready to follow on from Hazard. But they will need their scrapes and bumps at tournament level just as those that came before them did. The World Cup may be where Belgium, briefly, drop back into the chasing pack.
The rebuild is surely coming for Germany now after Joachim Low exited Euro 2020 in disappointing fashion, abandoning his commitment to move on from the Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels generation until he second guessed himself late on. Much of what was good about Die Mannschaft this summer came from the young players Hansi Flick will surely build around, not least the vibrant Kai Havertz who seems to have found his natural role for club and country as a roaming, playmaking center forward.
Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka and Jamal Musiala could all be part of a dangerous attacking side in Qatar with Florian Wirtz one to keep an eye on over the coming months. There may still be questions about the defense however. Will Joshua Kimmich, among the best midfielders in the world, be pressed into a right back or wing back role to plug a gap? There is ball-playing quality in the squad and on its fringes but does the defense have sufficient pace? Flick may surprise us all, he proved at Bayern that he can get a great deal more out of talented squads, but for now it seems there is work to be done.
Something of a left field choice considering their mixed form but there is talent in abundance for Tata Martino to hone over the coming months. Crucially unlike others in the tier below them it is hard to see Mexico missing out on qualification for the World Cup. They ought to be in Qatar and with the likes of Jesus Corona, Hirving Lozano and Edson Alvarez they will have talent at the right age to make an impact on the tournament.
If Raul Jimenez were able to play a significant part in the tournament at some level approximating that which he has reached for Wolverhampton Wanderers, no guarantee after he fractured his skull last year, then they would have that precious tournament commodity of a reliable goalscorer. Jose Juan Macias' start with El Tri offers hope that they might have a supply of goals regardless. There are plenty of ifs and buts around this Mexico team but you can at least envisage a path to a deep run in Qatar.
In the mix
If any two teams might feel aggrieved to be below Mexico in the power rankings (they shouldn't, this is merely one person's opinion) it might be Colombia and Uruguay, both of whom looked impressive at the Copa America. In part they are lower down due to the sheer brutality of South American World Cup qualifying. Both look well placed to secure either a top four finish or the fifth place berth that takes them into an intercontinental playoff but neither will take their path to Qatar for granted.
Should they reach the tournament then Uruguay's defense can surely be relied upon but one wonders whether too many key players will be past their primes. Certainly the reliance on Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez does not augur well when the strike duo will both be approaching their 36th birthdays next winter.
Colombia started Copa America slowly, particularly at the back, but tightened up as the tournament wore on. That rather came at the cost of an xG that did not move above one in any of the knockout games. A hot streak by Luis Diaz rather covered that up.
Further north the United States men's national team will likely look at 2022 as a staging ground for the tournament they will host four years later but a run into the knockout stages ought not to be beyond a squad with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams. If Daryl Dike's form at Barnsley translates over the long run and he turns into the kind of goal scoring striker this team is missing then this may be a dangerous side in the making.
In Africa, the fact that World Cup qualifying has not begun and the Cup of Nations will not take place until January makes it a little harder to read the continent's standing. On paper 2019 African champions Algeria figure to be among the best performers in Qatar should they make it but it might be Senegal that perform best next winter, such that they are probably my first choice for an 11th team. If Sadio Mane recovers his form with Liverpool then their spine looks outstanding: a Champions League-winning goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly at the back, Idrissa Gueye anchoring the midfield and a dynamic attack including Mane and Ismaila Sarr of Watford.
The third round of qualifying in Asia has opened up an intriguing opportunity for Iran, who will hope to be alongside South Korea in topping Group A and booking their spot in Qatar. Dragan Skocic's side have won every game since the return of international football including a win in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The likes of Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh certainly should be a test for any opponents if they make the World Cup.
Finally in Europe, the Netherlands promise to be a dangerous opponent if they make it out of a tricky group including Turkey and Norway. With all due respect to Frank de Boer they may also have a better coach in the dugout than they did at Euro 2020. Denmark showed this summer that they are more than a match for traditional European powers and they should be an even more formidable side when Joakim Maehle, Kasper Dolberg and Mikkel Damsgaard have more games in their legs. They are also extremely likely to make it to Qatar with their three games having brought nine points, 14 goals scored and none conceded.