Challenging Brazil — but who?

First touch... Markus Siegler, Model Heidi Klum, Reinhold Beckmann and Franz Beckenbauer (from left) touch the World Cup trophy. In the rear is one of the official mascots `Goleo'.-AP First touch... Markus Siegler, Model Heidi Klum, Reinhold Beckmann and Franz Beckenbauer (from left) touch the World Cup trophy. In the rear is one of the official mascots `Goleo'.

NOW that the draw for the 2006 World Cup finals has been made — and please don't ask me by what perverse alchemy England were rated number two — I still can see nobody to beat Brazil. In their Group F, only Croatia looks likely to make much of a challenge, and this isn't a Croatia to compare with the excellent 1998 team under the wily Blazevic, which humiliated Germany and gave France such a fright.

Even in the slightly suspect full back positions, where Cafu is now in his middle thirties and Roberto Carlos, he of the dynamic swinging left footed free kicks, is running out of steam, bright young men are coming through. One of them, Cicinho, is shortly due to join Roberto Carlos at Real Madrid, though he is a right back, so no challenge.

Brazil have a cornucopia of attacking talent and it seems plain enough that the manager Carlos Alberto Parreira will go with the prevailing wind. Long ago when first installed in office he was all for what he strangely considered to be European football, seemingly based on power and physique. But he had changed his philosophy by the time it came to the 1994 World Cup, when, in fact, he was lucky to qualify at all, installing the brilliant little striker Romario at the last anxious moment after falling out with him, Romario then getting both goals to beat Uruguay in Rio and qualify Brazil for the USA.

In the last World Cup, you may remember, Big Phil Scolari, a coach notorious in his time with Gremio for encouraging his players to commit fouls in midfield, was ultimately obliged to let such virtuosi as Ronaldo, Rivelino and Ronaldinho have their attacking fling.

Now Rivaldo, never a favourite of Brazilian fans, is out of the squad but it has been reinforced by the dazzling attacking play of Kaka from behind the front line, the elegant skills of young striker Robinho, and the power with left foot and head of Adriano, who recently, in the space of a few days, headed Inter's goal in a 1-1 European Cup draw at Rangers, then got the winner against Milan in the Milanese derby.

The only real rivals I can see at the moment are the Italians, where Marcelo Lippi has at last produced a team that is the sum of its talented parts. The Czechs may well give the Italians a run for their money, especially now that Pavel Nedved has changed his mind and come out of international retirement, but I cannot see Ghana and the USA halting the progress of the Azzurri.

The ever-controversial Alex Del Piero seems at last to have hit this true form out on the left. In the 1998 tournament, the then manager, Cesare Maldini, perversely preferred him to the far more effective Roberto Baggio.

In the ensuing European Championships, he became a pilloried figure through missing two fine chances against France in the Rotterdam final. But he is sparkling with Juventus, and there is now a formidable new striking partnership up front.

The huge Luca Toni like so many ultimately successful Italian players has taken years to rise from the anonymity of obscure clubs but now he is scoring freely for Fiorentina with foot and head and getting goals for the national team too. Well abetted by Alberto Gilardino who after scoring so freely with Parma has moved up market to Milan.

Ghana might spring a surprise, but I hope Michael Essien, the hard man of midfield, doesn't commit the appalling kind of fouls he has inflicted at Stamford Bridge on Bolton's Ben Haim and Liverpool's German international Dietmar Hamann, lucky not to have his career ended.

Out of Africa, always something new, wrote the illustrious Roman, Pliny and this time we have the fascinating prospect of no fewer than four new African entrants, the others being Ivory Coast, in Group C with difficult opponents in Holland and Argentina, Togo, astounding eliminators of gifted Senegal and Angola, equally remarkable eliminators of the star encrusted Nigeria.

It is never wise to underestimate first time contestants from sub-Sahara. Remember how in 1990, in the opening game, Cameroon turned over the holders, Argentina? How Senegal in the last World Cup similarly and deservedly beat the holders, France, in the curtain raiser? The veteran Angola striker Akwa has been getting goals for them for years and will have to be carefully watched, as will the big, powerful Monaco striker, Adebayor of Togo. They could cause problems in Group G where France's unbeaten record in their qualifying group was somewhat misleading, five of their matches being drawn. And Zinedine Zidane, he too emerging from a brief international retirement, looks a jaded figure.

Argentina have the splendid Juan Roman Riquelme to inspire their attack, but I am not convinced by an oddly vulnerable defence. England are managed by Mr. Quarter Finals, Sven Goran Eriksson, who as a Swede must encounter Sweden, who haven't lost to England for years and have the tall menace of Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. I've no faith in Eriksson as a tactician and wish he'd give young, lively Shaun Wright Phillips a place on the right wing, rather than his beloved Beckham. But if Michael Owen can only come fully fit to his third World Cup — he wasn't last time — and Steven Gerrard, who missed the 2002 tournament, is on song, progress could be made. But beyond the quarter-final? I wish I could be more optimistic, but under Eriksson in 2002 and two years later, in Portugal, it hasn't happened yet.

Holland have possibilities, if Arjen Robben runs into form on the wing. Portugal romped through their group and have brilliant marksman in Pedro Pauleta and a match-winner on his day in the very capricious Cristiano Ronaldo. Well organised Mexico could trouble them in Group D.