The World Cup picture

Teams across the world are shaping up well for the next year’s tournament in Brazil. Brian Glanville gives us a rundown of the contenders as well as the pretenders.

No European team has ever won the World Cup in South America and I don’t expect to see it happen this time. Germany and Holland are probably the strongest European challengers and both must be taken very seriously but Brazil, the host, Argentina, with Lionel Messi this time allowed as he wasn’t by Diego Maradona in South Africa to play his favoured, ubiquitous game, will be very serious challenges to the host country. Nor should we forget Uruguay, even though they have the humiliation of having to play off against modest Jordan to qualify, having finished no better than fifth in the South American group.

More significant surely was the fact that in their final group game in Montevideo they actually defeated their foes from across the River Plate, Argentina 3-2. True the Argentines had already comfortably qualified and had nothing at stake but perhaps pride. But Uruguay as we know can still deploy two of the finest attackers in the game, Luis Suarez, in dazzling form for Liverpool after his long suspension, and Edinson Cavani, transferred for a fortune in the summer from Napoli to Paris Saint Germain. Not that even these two can always be relied on. In the 2012 Olympic tournament in Britain, they both figured in the Uruguayan team which was so surprisingly beaten by a odd lot of footballers making up the Great Britain team.

Brazil of course have the wonderfully elusive Neymar, who like Messi shows so reassuringly that slight physique is no barrier in soccer to the highest achievement. He makes excellent use of space on the left flanks, yet it is a little sad to see that Brazil, with their tradition of superb right wingers, embodied by Julinho, Garrincha and Jairzinho, still bewilderingly elects to do without them, putting the onus on overlapping fullbacks who for all their pace and skills can never quite do what a natural winger can.

And you do wonder whether Brazil will be taking risks with the use in central defence of Chelsea’s David Luiz. Beyond doubt a hugely talented footballer who breaks fluently and menacingly into attack but by the same token too often leaves dangerous gaps. Alan Hansen, once a notable centre-half for Liverpool and Scotland, recently on television expressed horror at the way at Stanford Bridge, Luiz simply stood and watched when Cardiff City struck a goal down the middle.

His team-mate, Oscar, is an attacking midfielder of unusual skills and awareness, well capable of breaking through to score important goals though such is the range of Brazilian talent in his position that even he cannot be sure of a place.

Germany look the strongest of the European contestants, with no obvious weaknesses and a midfield stronger than ever now that Philip Lahm has moved there from his previous role as an attacking full back. Bastian Schweinsteiger remains a power in that area, Mario Gotze cleverly makes the bullets for the attack to fire, Thomas Muller, a lively figure in South Africa, is as quick and incisive as ever, Toni Kroos is equally on song for Bayern Munich, while, there is an interesting new figure in Bayer Leverkusen’s 25-year-old right winger, Sidney Sam, son of a Nigerian father and much fitter than in the recent past thanks to exercises on his spine.

The Dutch will hope to put the bleak memories of the last EURO finals behind them and to reaffirm the form they showed in the South African World Cup. Certainly Robin van Persie this season has been a dynamic figure both for them and for Manchester United. The 8-1 victory over Hungary was formidable. And Arjen Robben still works his left footed spells on the right wing.

Argentina may have lost that match to Uruguay, but manager Alejandro Sabella, once a Sheffield United footballer, has good reason to be optimistic. Messi, revitalised by Sabella at this level hadn’t scored an international goal for 16 games, but now having been made the captain, he is scoring regularly. Adding to the strike force of Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Though defeat by modest Venezuela and a draw at home to Bolivia puts the recent loss to Uruguay suggest they are hardly invisible. While Sabella’s tendency of using five defenders in away games has met criticism.

England have found a new star at just their right moment in the young Spurs outside right Andros Townsend, suddenly an ace after the club had sent him out on loan no fewer than nine times. All credit to him and his seemingly impregnable self confidence that his morale was unaffected. His close control, his exuberant pace and his bold willingness to run at the opposition make him a formidable new weapon for Roy Hodgson who had the courage to give him his debut in a vital game against Montenegro (but how did they contrive then to lose 5-2 at home to a struggling Moldova).

But Hodgson must have the will to put young Jack Wilshere into his midfield; alas, the only English player of true constructive skill, even if it means omitting an enforcer from central midfield. England won’t win the Cup, but they shouldn’t disgrace themselves, Especially if keeper Joe Hart can show the form he did against Brazil in Rio last summer rather than the fallibility more recently evident with both club and country.

Spain? Always a force, though in the image of Xavi, perhaps, a slightly declining one. And will Italy bring back the 37-year-old Francesco Totti, in dazzling form for Roma, despite his years? Mario Balotelli could guarantee them goals; if he can only keep his head.

And what of Belgium. On the face of it a team of all the talents, arguably its best since the World Cup finals of 1986 when Diego Maradona of Argentina came up with that irresistible goal. In their qualifying group Belgium ended despite their nine point lead at the top, with a bewildering 1-1 draw at home with a Wales team of minimal standing. But the Belgians have the likes of Eden Hazard, the powerful and precocious Romeleu Lukaku and the subtle attacker Kevin Mirallas. Great potential, but Wales surprised them; and most of us.