Goal's team of global experts conduct a health-check for 10 of the leading contenders for next summer's tournament in BrazilWith the final domestic season before the 2014 World Cup up and running, attentions turn to qualification for the tournament, with two sets of key fixtures coming up over the next few days which will go a long way to deciding who will be out in force in Brazil.
Goal takes a look at each national team's state of health, considering their qualification campaigns, key players' form and fitness, morale, recent results, on and off field issues, as well as any potential disruptions over the next nine months. And with the help of our experts around the globe, we rank them accordingly from 1 to 10, with number 1 being the team with the most settled squad, in the best shape and condition, and 10 the team with the biggest problems.
Please note that the ranking is based strictly on the criteria above and is not an indication of a team's favourites' tag or where they are expected to finish in the finals.
Last Five: W W W D D
With three games still remaining in Group I, Spain stand in a strong position at the top of the sector. The World Cup holders regained first place by beating France in Paris back in February and finish with two games at home following Friday's trip to Finland. Home matches against Belarus and Georgia will round off la Roja's qualifying campaign and three wins will see the world and European champions advance to Brazil 2014 as group winners. With France just a point behind, however, Spain cannot afford to slip up in any of their remaining fixtures.
Either way, Vicente del Bosque's side will be expected to progress to the World Cup next summer and they will be looking to prove a point after losing the Confederations Cup final 3-0 to Brazil in late June. Key issues will concern goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, who has lost his place at club level with Real Madrid, as well as the strikers, after David Villa, Fernando Torres and Roberto Soldado all failed to completely convince at the Confeds.
Last Five: D L W W W
Germany coach Joachim Low may have taken his fair share of criticism in recent months following a string of calamitous defensive performances, but there can be no doubting the wealth of quality at his disposal. Qualification for the World Cup has seen a shift in personnel of sorts. The likes of Marco Reus and Marcel Schmelzer are now fully-fledged first-teamers, while Ilkay Gundogan is making a strong case for a starting berth.
There have been some worries, though. Holger Badstuber's long-term absence leaves his participation in Brazil in doubt, while Bastian Schweinsteiger has missed an extraordinary number of games through injury in recent months. With or without the Bayern duo and despite some shakey showings in friendlies, their performances in qualification, the freak 4-4 draw against Sweden aside, have been highly impressive.
Their path to the tournament could be assured as soon as Tuesday and Low will have a full nine months to fine tune his troops before their opening game.
||Brazil||Last Five: W W W W L
Brazil's place at the 2014 World Cup has been assured since 2007 when they won the right to host the tournament.
They may not have had to endure a gruelling qualification process together, but Luiz Felipe Scolari has settled on a core group to the squad, one that he guided to victory in the Confederations Cup in June. The euphoria of that win, which included triumphs over Italy, Uruguay and reigning World champions Spain, took a dent with defeat away to Switzerland last month, however.
One of the Selecao's issues evident in that game was a lack of striking options and with Fred joining Dani Alves and Hulk on the injury list, such worries may surface again. Jo or Alexandre Pato, who has struggled for game time since moving to Corinthians, will now have to prove themselves worthy. Questions may also be asked as to whether the likes of Marcos Rocha, the Barcelona right-back's replacement, have the experience to warrant a place in the squad while Rafael da Silva still remains an outcast following his Olympic final disaster.
Yet the support of the home fans proved immense at the Confederations Cup. The vast crowds roaring the national anthem will provide plenty of motivation for the players to push for a place in the final next summer. And with such a following it will be tough to stop them from doing just that.
Last Five: L D D L W
Italy could qualify for the World Cup finals as early as Tuesday if they take maximum points from their forthcoming home fixtures against Bulgaria and Czech Republic, and there is no reason to believe they cannot do exactly that given their current superiority in Group B. While they may have been underwhelming at times away from home, that typical Azzurri knack of getting the job done has ensured that they have remained unbeaten so far in the face of a string of big-name opposition. It would be a monumental surprise should Cesare Prandelli's men not be in Brazil next summer.
Once there, anything is possible for this outfit. With their run to the final of Euro 2012, they proved once more that Italy can overcome the odds to succeed in major competitions, and they have to be fancied to do well next year. Even their indifferent start in the Confederations Cup was quickly forgotten thanks to a magnificent performance against Spain in the semi-final. Prandelli has continued to stick by his ethical stance in dropping anyone who causes trouble at club level, with Pablo Daniel Osvaldo the latest to have been ostracised, but that has brought the unit closer together. All eyes will naturally be on Mario Balotelli when judging Italy's chances, but the coach has so far been extremely successful in his management of the AC Milan striker, with Balotelli rewarding him by becoming the youngest Nazionale player ever to net 10 goals.
||Argentina||Last Five: D D D W W
With Brazil having qualified automatically for next year's World Cup as hosts, Argentina are currently top of the nine-team competition to make it to next year's summer showpiece. Alejandro Sabella's side sit three points clear of Colombia (one game less) at the top of the standings, with Ecuador (also one game less) and Chile two further back. Uruguay, in fifth, are 10 points adrift, but have also played one game less. In theory, then, Argentina could drop to fifth (a play-off position), although the Albiceleste would have to lose all of their remaining three games for that to occur. Qualification, then, is set to be sealed sooner or later and the first opportunity comes next week away to Paraguay. Argentina then host Peru on October 11 before finishing up away to Uruguay four days later. The 1978 and 1986 World Cup winners have lost just once in the current campaign - a surprise 1-0 defeat at Venezuela back in October 2011.
Having drawn their last three games in qualification and scored only twice in those matches, Argentina will hope to rediscover form in front of goal in their remaining three fixtures and are boosted by the return to full fitness of Lionel Messi, who looked back to his best as he hit a hat-trick against Valencia for Barcelona last weekend.
Last Five: W W W W D
Netherlands are well on their way to sealing qualification for the World Cup and could book their ticket for next year’s tournament if they beat Estonia and Andorra in the upcoming two games. Holland have won all six qualifiers so far and have yet to be really tested for the first time.
Key players such as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie have been in fine form in the opening weeks of the 2013-14 campaign and national team coach Louis van Gaal has little reason to worry about either attacker. Van Gaal will be less satisfied with Wesley Sneijder’s situation, though. The playmaker has been struggling to find his best form since his move to Galatasaray and was even left out of the initial squad for Friday and Tuesday’s games, only being handed a recall following injury to Georginio Wijnaldum.
Morale will be quite high following Oranje’s fine results ever since their disastrous Euro 2012 campaign. Despite the major squad overhaul Van Gaal opted for after replacing Bert van Marwijk at the helm, Holland’s rejuvenated team have been a very entertaining side that seems to be enjoying their football.
Netherlands have traditionally been plagued by infighting, but things have been pretty quiet in recent years. The internal problems that allegedly hurt their Euro 2012 ambitions have disappeared and the players seem to be united in their goal to qualify for Brazil as soon as possible.
There’s little doubt Holland will make it to the World Cup following their perfect campaign so far and they need just two wins from their remaining four matches to secure their place.
Last Five: D W W W W
Belgium are fast becoming the worst-kept secret in international football. With six wins from seven World Cup 2014 qualification matches, Marc Wilmots’ men sit top of Group A and look set to seal their path to Brazil at a canter ahead of Friday’s trip to Scotland.
The Rode Duivels’ squad is littered with a blend of experienced class and exciting young talent. Captained by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, the names of Mousa Dembele, Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke form a fluid and forward-thinking spine, anchored by new Manchester United signing Marouane Fellaini.
Disputes between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and Waloons (French speaking) members of the squad have marred previous tournaments, but just as the Belgian people have embraced the nation’s language divide, so too have their football team.
That cultural harmony, coupled with the confidence yielded from an unbeaten qualification campaign to date, should see Belgium installed as dark horses next summer and have the rest of the world looking over their shoulders as the ‘golden generation’ threaten to come of age.
Last Five: D W W W D
What a difference a goal makes.
Having lost a friendly to Ecuador and gained just one point from qualifiers against group leaders Russia and Northern Ireland, Portugal were facing the prospect of slipping three points behind Israel when losing 3-2 in Tel Aviv, but a truly last-gasp goal from Fabio Coentrao earned the Seleccao a crucial draw - and kick-started a turnaround in fortunes.
Since that late drama in March, Paulo Bento's side have gone four games without defeat, conceding just the one goal in a recent friendly draw with Netherlands. What's more, their 1-0 win over Russia moved Portugal to the top of Group F (albeit having played a game more than Fabio Capello's side) putting their World Cup qualifying destiny firmly back in their own hands.
Having tightened up at the back, Portugal have also shown signs of improvement in their profligate attack of late. Not only have they managed eight goals in their last five games, but the domestic form of their forward line - even with Cristiano Ronaldo's relatively goal-shy start to 2013-14 - leaves much to admire. Helder Postiga joins up with the squad off the back of an impressive personal display against Barcelona for new club Valencia, while the likes of Danny and Hugo Almeida have been heavily amongst the goals at the start of the season for their respective club sides, lightening the burden on the Seleccao's talismanic skipper. What's more, the squad as a whole seems to have gelled in recent months - Ronaldo's twitter picture showing a smiling group of the players earlier this week only serves to underline the boost in morale.
Make no mistake: Portugal have not booked their seats on the plane to Brazil just yet. But if - as expected - they secure maximum points in Belfast on Friday, and with home fixtures against Israel and Luxembourg to come, they will fancy their chances of pipping Russia to top spot in the group and sealing their place in next summer's finals. Exactly what they can achieve in 2014 remains tough to predict, but as Euro 2012 proved, a healthy and happy Portugal featuring an inspired Cristiano Ronaldo are enough to challenge the very best sides.
Last Five: W L L L D
France are already resigned to the prospect of a qualifying playoff as there is little confidence around the country that Spain will drop any more points before the autumn is up. Les Bleus have been steady in their competitive matches to date but have never threatened to really blow any opposition away and there are critics who fear the worst for Didier Deschamps’ side should they have to go into an elimination matchup. A brief but ill-fated tour of South America in the summer only gave them more ammunition to throw at the team after two lacklustre defeats.
Although Franck Ribery recently won Uefa’s Best Player award, he remains a polemic figure in his home nation as he has rarely shown his Bayern Munich form in the blue of France. Karim Benzema, meanwhile, continues to retain the coach’s faith despite a miserable scoring drought for his country stretching back to June 2012 – a run of 14 matches. With Olivier Giroud on a hot-streak for Arsenal, the pressure will be on for the Real Madrid man to be dropped and that could be a cause of some tension in a camp that is not habitually considered on edge.
Last Five: W D D D W
England’s qualification for the World Cup is, somewhat strangely, in doubt. Far from bygone days of overconfidence, many fans, and those in the media, believe Roy Hodgson’s side have got a struggle on their hands to get to Brazil.
Perhaps Montenegro’s home defeat to Ukraine in June may have slipped under the radar, but it has put England back in control; win the rest of their games and they’ll finish top. The games are not against Europe’s minnows, but they’re certainly not that difficult, either. The Three Lions face Moldova, Montenegro and Poland at home, and Ukraine away next Tuesday.
Morale is no doubt high within the camp – they always say so - but there’s no denying that there is a certain degree of antipathy surrounding England games these days.
The upcoming fixtures are likely to be cagey affairs as Hodgson contends with injury to several first-team players, including Wayne Rooney. The manager described the recent goalless draw between Manchester United and Chelsea as ‘outstanding’, and that genuinely does tell you almost all you need to know about his outlook.
Should England make it to Brazil, there’s nothing to suggest they will avoid the customary knockout in the second-round/quarter-final.