GERMANY, FRANCE, BRAZIL, SPAIN, ARGENTINA - WHO IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE WORLD?
ENGLAND are preparing to take on the top two sides in the FIFA rankings at Wembley Germany and Brazil - but who do you rate as the best international team in the world?
With the 32 teams for next summer's World Cup almost finalised, we take a closer look at the five favourites to win the tournament and ask you to have your say...
Despite suffering heartache in the semi-finals of Euro 2016, you could say Germany have got even better since winning their first World Cup as a unified country in Brazil in 2014.
Not only did their 10 wins in a six-team group equal the UEFA record, but their tally of 43 goals is the most in European Qualifying ever for either the World Cup or a European Championships [a mark also achieved in 2018 qualifying by Belgium]. It is Germany’s third perfect run to a World Cup - no other European nation has done it more than once. No side even came close to matching Germany’s average possession percentage of a colossal 73.63, or their 449 touches in their opponents’ box, but their disciplinary record could be a problem - no European side conceded more fouls in UEFA qualifying. They will take some beating in Russia.
“I do think the European teams are slightly stronger than the best South American sides right now,” says Soccer Saturday’s Charlie Nicholas. “And I’d probably edge towards Germany with their young talent looking ready to pounce at the right time this summer.”
Key player - Toni Kroos
The joint-favourites for next summer’s tournaments have a plethora of talent in the ranks, but in Toni Kroos, they have the orchestrator-in-chief, happy to sit deep and allow the more creative players to work their magic.
The joint favourites will still be smarting from their Euro 2016 final heartache against Portugal, having been so heavily fancied to secure another piece of silverware from a home tournament. Qualification for Russia 2018 was no easy ride, with huge question marks raised as Luxembourg held Les Bleus to a shock 0-0 draw in Toulouse in September.
Yet, top spot was secured in Group A, and with an embarrassment of riches, especially in the striker department, expect a wounded animal to bite back in Russia.
Key man - Paul Pogba
With so many options at his disposal, coach Didier Deschamps has chopped and changed his line-up on a regular basis, but one player who more often than not starts, when fit, is Pogba. Whether it be on the left or centrally, Deschamps often works his system around Pogba, and with so much talent at the feet of the Manchester United midfielder, why not?
Back to their best. After faltering under previous coach Dunga, the arrival of Tite in June 2016 saw the five-time world champions completely transformed as they went on to win eight consecutive matches and secure their berth in Russia.
They have rediscovered their ruthlessness of old. Despite having become the first nation to qualify for the finals in Russia, they put Chile to the sword in their final qualifier, ensuring Los Che missed out. However, under Tite, they are still an unknown entity in tournament football, which sees them sit behind Germany and France in the betting.
“Brazil are the team you’d least like to face right now,” says Soccer Saturday’s Paul Merson. “The way they went through their group was very impressive, especially the way you consider the way Argentina struggled. I’ve never seen anything like the result they had against Germany, in front of a football-loving nation of fans - you wouldn’t wish that on anybody. They’ll certainly be even more desperate to put things right come this summer.” Key man - Gabriel Jesus
Brazilians love their No 9s. Jogo Bonito hasn’t quite been the same with Ronaldo leading the line, but in Gabriel Jesus, fans craving a return to the glory days have a beacon of hope.
Seven goals flowed for the Manchester City teenager in qualification, but it is his relationship with close friend Neymar that is whetting the appetite of fans back home.
Group G was always going to be a straight shootout between Spain and Italy, with La Roja comfortably sealing top spot by five points. They may have a new coach at the helm after the eight-year tenure of Vincente del Bosque, but little has changed. Julen Lopetegui’s men completed 333 passes more than anyone else in UEFA qualifying, and were the only side to finish the campaign with a pass completion rate of over 90 per cent. Yet, despite climbing back up to eight in the latest FIFA rankings, Spain’s poor showing at last summer’s European championships, when they crashed out in the round of 16, means they lag behind in the betting.
Key man - Isco
Having been very much on the periphery for both club and country, the Real Madrid forward has stepped up his game this season, and is Spain’s joint-top goalscorer in qualification. His performance against Italy in the 3-0 win at the Bernabeu.
A look at the favourites to win next summer's World Cup