Advantage Brazil

Overall, the five-times winners and defending champions are still the favourites. But that is also because the field is not especially distinguished.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, admittedly under questioning at a Press Conference, has declared that England can beat Brazil and win the 2006 World Cup. In your dreams. But then, managers are presumably paid to be optimistic.

True, Brazil, of late, have not looked quite the cast iron certainty they may have seemed a year ago or even at the start of the current year. In the first place, the powerful, left-footed, previously prolific Adriano has gone off the boil with Inter in Italy and seems keen to leave. In addition, Robinho, the gifted Santos striker who joined Real Madrid last summer in a blaze of goals, hope and glory, has failed to settle down in Spain and it remains to be seen whether wearing the yellow shirt of Brazil will revive his form. The previously incisive and influential attacking full-backs, Cafu — long injured this season — and Roberto Carlos — who can surely not be interesting Chelsea as reported — have been showing signs in their 30s of wear and tear. If Cicinho, now the right-back at Real Madrid, is preferred to Cafu at some stage, I don't think his defensive abilities can be compared with his prowess at bursting forward. As for Roberto Carlos, even those once terrifying, swerving free kicks no longer seem to be hitting the target. As against that is the marvellous Ronaldinho, who is fresh from a glorious season with Barcelona and who well deserved on form his title as the best player in the world. Ronaldinho is capable of winning any game with his imagination, his speed of thought, movement and his goals. While, behind him, the young attacking midfielder Kaka, though not always at his best for Milan in recent European Champions League games, remains a formidable force when he breaks through with pace and guile from midfield. Would I still make Brazil the favourites? Overall yes, but that is also because I don't frankly think the field is especially distinguished.

Jose Pekerman, the quietly effective manager of Argentina, points out that Argentina beat Brazil in the long drawn out South American qualifying competition. Pekerman has, since he took over in 2004, done his best to emphasise the attacking, technical, creative qualities in Argentina's football, rather than embrace the more cautious approach of his predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa. Above all, he has restored that exquisite playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme to the team with great benefit. We did not see Riquelme at his alluring best in the two semifinal matches for Villarreal against Arsenal in the Champions League. It could be a different experience in Germany.

Will Lionel Messi be fit for the tournament? The teenaged outside right is, for me, among the game's leading players. But, having been injured all those months ago playing against Chelsea in the Champions League, Messi still wasn't fit enough to play for Barcelona in the final against Arsenal in Paris. His place went to Ludovic Giuly, whose goal was so contentiously ruled out against Arsenal in that final and who for reasons obscure to me has not been picked in the French squad for Germany. I thought he had excellent games both that evening and still more in the first leg semifinal in Milan when he whacked home Barcelona's winning goal, having switched to the left. Fast, clever and bright, it baffles me that Giuly cannot find a place in the French roster, not least when the team for some time now has not been firing on all cylinders.

Can Thierry Henry at last find his Arsenal form — yes, I know he missed those recent chances in Paris — for France? This greatly gifted attacker owes the French team a few good games, having been such a disappointment in the 2002 tournament — even having been sent off — and again in 2004 in Portugal in the European Nations Cup. There seems to be excessive optimism in England about the team's chances, though at least things are looking brighter for the injured Michael Owen, who swears he will be fully fit. As for Wayne Rooney, he too, after his metatarsal injury, expresses hope that he will be able to play perhaps as early as England's third group game. But even if his injury mends, I fail to see how he could possibly be match fit.

On the positive side the dynamic, omnipotent, hard-shooting Steven Gerrard should be motoring the midfield unlike in the 2002 World Cup, which he alas missed due to injury. In Portugal, Gerrard's horribly careless back-pass, which never reached his goalkeeper, cost England a goal against France. In parenthesis, France that day at least had a Zinedine Zidane in menacing form, with his creative skills and deft free kicks much missed by France in 2002. But the Zidane of today is a pale creature in comparison with his salad days. It seems to me that for England, Eriksson himself is the problem rather than the solution, with his passivity in the face of problems; as depressingly seen both against Brazil in Japan and Portugal in Lisbon. Nor do I see a ghost of an improvement when his sidekick Steve McClaren takes over after the World Cup. What, pray, has McClaren contributed when things were going wrong? It is alarming to know via the Middlesbrough captain Gareth Southgate that early this year McClaren simply lost the plot, forcing the senior pros to steer the ship. As for Boro's inept performance against Seville in the Final of the UEFA Cup in Eindhoven, when they crashed 4-0, what kind of an omen was that?

Eriksson's fatuous choice of 17-year-old Theo Walcott before he had played a single first team game for Arsenal, and without even having watched him, seems sillier than ever. It is a desperate attempt by a cautious Swede to seem dashingly experimental. Walcott, I am sure, is one for the future, but why pick him now, that too in the World Cup? It would have been better to pick West Ham's strong, traditional centre forward, Dean Ashton, who was so effective in the Cup Final against Liverpool.