How the World Cup favourites are shaping up

At least five teams have the quality and experience to feel they can win the trophy come July 15.

Brazil appears to have every base covered and is one of the favourites to win the tournament.   -  AFP

The phoney war is over and most of the big guns have arrived in Russia ahead of the start of the World Cup on Thursday. AFP Sport takes a look at how the favourites are shaping up.

Brazil

In 2014, Brazil was being widely tipped for success on home soil but its campaign unravelled in spectacular fashion with a 7-1 semi-final defeat to the eventual winner Germany. Now the five-time champion looks the real deal again. Coach Tite has transformed its fortunes and it is in a confident mood.

The absence of the injured Dani Alves at right-back is a blow but Neymar has proven his fitness in recent friendly matches, scoring in wins against Croatia and Austria. His goal in Vienna on Sunday, after his first start following a foot operation three months ago, was stunning.

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus has been the most prolific goalscorer during Tite's time in charge, in which the team has won 17 out of 21 matches.

“We are handling the expectation. It's good. We are going to challenge ourselves,” said the coach after Sunday's final warm-up game. “There is only one little detail. A new stage begins now.”

Germany

Germany is the holder and its reputation as a team that always delivers on the big stage tempers the doubts arising from its performances in recent friendlies.

Joachim Loew's side went five games without a win before labouring to a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in its final warm-up in Leverkusen on Friday.

The fact that first-choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has hardly played since September after injury is a concern but the Germans have made at least the semi-finals in each of the past four World Cups and are bound to feature prominently again in Russia.

And its recent friendly results? “I am conscious of the fact that in friendly matches it is not necessarily about the result,” coach Loew -- who has left Manchester City's Leroy Sane behind -- reminded Kicker.

Spain

Like Brazil, Spain has come to Russia with something to prove after a poor showing in 2014, when it was knocked out in the group stage.

It is yet to lose in two years under Julen Lopetegui, completing its preparations with a 1-0 win over Tunisia on Saturday in Krasnodar.

Group B: Another two-horse race

It was not the most convincing performance but Iago Aspas advanced his case for a starting role in attack in Friday's Group B opener against Portugal with a late winner.

Rodrigo of Valencia and the bruising Diego Costa are the other options up front for Lopetegui.

The coach has overseen changes but there are still likely to be as many as seven starters against Portugal who also started the 2-0 defeat against Italy at Euro 2016.

“Whatever we happen to do in this World Cup will depend on the answers we give on the field. We are going with a ticket to play three matches and the rest we have to earn,” Lopetegui told El Pais.

France

Optimism has been growing in France about the prospects of Les Bleus, but Saturday's 1-1 draw with the United States was a timely reminder for Didier Deschamps' side that it still has work to do.

It needed a late Kylian Mbappe goal to earn a draw in the final friendly, which followed wins against Ireland and Italy. Sports daily L'Equipe called it a “cold blast” before the French travelled to Russia on Sunday.

Group C: Les Bleus one of the favourites to win

Paul Pogba's performance in that game was a boost, though, and Deschamps appears to have found a formation that suits him.

A diamond midfield accommodates Pogba and allows Antoine Griezmann to play just behind Mbappe and Olivier Giroud up front, but there is maybe a worry in goal, where Hugo Lloris no longer looks so reliable.

Nevertheless, it is capable of reaching the last four.

Argentina

Argentina is lucky to be in Russia at all after a chaotic qualifying campaign and its build-up to the finals has been far from smooth.

The cancellation of last week's friendly against Israel in Jerusalem brought bad publicity and also denied Jorge Sampaoli's side much-needed match practice.

Group D: The group that has it all

The build-up has been further hampered by the loss to injury of Manuel Lanzini and critics say Argentina are relying solely on Lionel Messi for success.

That may be unfair though. Sampaoli has talent in his squad, including the exciting Giovani Lo Celso in midfield and an attack also featuring Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Angel Di Maria.

However, even if they manage to win a challenging group, Spain could lie in wait in the quarter-finals for the 2014 runners-up.