Who will turn on the heat next summer?

For the first time since 1958, Italy won’t figure in the World Cup. The team joins other major outfits such as the Netherlands, Hungary, Chile and the United States, to name a few, on the sidelines. And what of the other big teams that qualified for Russia 2018? A lowdown on their chances next summer.

A shoulder to cry on... a distraught Gianluigi Buffon exemplifies the mood in the Italian camp after the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Italy crashed in the play-offs, losing 1-0 and being held to a goalless draw by Sweden.   -  Getty Images

No Italy this time for the first time since 1958. The Azzurri, having been well beaten in Spain — likely contenders — crashed in the play-offs, losing 1-0 and being held to a goalless draw by a resurgent Sweden. All those years ago, Italy in the qualifiers were sensationally beaten in Belfast by surely the best ever Northern Ireland team, captained and inspired by the fluent, inventive right-half, Danny Blanchflower. It took two bites at the cherry. The initial game was ruled no better than a friendly since Zolt, the Hungarian referee, had his plane impeded by fog. That game was a bad tempered 2-2 draw, but when it was replayed as an official qualifier, the gallant Irish won. At the end of the match, spectators, infuriated by some of the Italian methods, invaded the field. It was then that the noble Danny entrusted every member of the Italian team to the protection of an Irish player and they all got off the field undamaged.

The current Italian team, alas, has no Andrea Pirlo to keep the wheels turning from midfield with his immaculate passing. Nor have they the dynamic force of Antonio Conte, now in charge of Chelsea, to drive them on. And the years have clearly and inevitably taken their toll on the emblematic goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, now in his late 30s and no longer able to fling himself about the goal to keep out shots and headers as for years he did so splendidly.

Russia 2018: World's best relaxed over WC draw

Recently, in the space of a few days, we saw two of the chief contenders engaged in friendly matches at Wembley against an England side devoid of half its usual components. Gareth Southgate, the manager, gambled boldly and bravely on the young, and to some surprise managed a goalless draw against both opponents. True, the Germans were without certain important elements such as Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos, but the team they fielded was strong and experienced. England stood up to them well, and in the towering, powerfully built and inventive midfield attacker Ruben Loftus-Cheek, currently on loan from Chelsea to Crystal Palace, had one of the salient players on the field. He even dared to nutmeg some opponents. It would have been interesting to see what he could do against a full-strength Brazilian team which monopolised the ball — yet could have lost in the death throes had young substitute Dominic Solanke have been a little quicker — but all too early Loftus-Cheek suffered a painful foul from behind from the outstanding, ultra expensive Brazilian Neymar and was forced off the field. With Tottenham’s prolific Harry Kane and versatile Dele Alli in the full team, England at last seem capable of rendering a decent account of themselves in Russia, though they are hardly among the favourites.

Having the cheek to stand up to a powerful Germany... in the towering, powerfully built and inventive midfield attacker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, England had a live-wire on the field in the friendly against Germany at Wembley.   -  Getty Images

Brazil, as we know, slumped to a horrific 7-1 defeat by Germany in their own Belo Horizonte in the last World Cup, though Neymar, brutally fouled in a previous game, wasn’t fit to play. How well one recalls his first appearance in England on the Arsenal ground in a friendly when his frequent diving elicited the noisy scorn of the London fans.

Neymar is of course a very different proposition now, while the fact that the gifted but ever controversial David Luiz never got off the Wembley bench was significant. There has never been any doubt about his great talents as a footballing, elegant centre-back, but his penchant for taking extravagant risks make him potentially a tactical disaster; as indeed he was in the last World Cup. Tite, now the manager after distinguished years with the Corinthians of Sao Paolo, has instilled discipline into the team, without sacrificing its flair as did a previous incumbent, the former World Cup-winning captain, Dunga. But while Joe Hart, restored to the England goal after certain lapses in form, defied the Brazilians on several occasions, and the young Gabriel Jesus, now at Manchester City, is a rapier in attack, the fact that they could not score against England suggests that they are not unbeatable in Russia.

Germany? Some thought that they were not at full throttle at Wembley, but this is a thoroughly compact and incisive team which, when Muller is there in attack as he wasn’t at Wembley, will test any opposition. Yet I feel moved to say that had the last World Cup final been decently refereed, their goalkeeper Neuer should have been sent off early in the second half for a shocking flying foul against Argentina’s Higuain. Then Argentina, who lost only in extra time, would surely have succeeded. Against England at Wembley, they didn’t have as much of the ball as Brazil, but the all-round ability of the side, both tactically and individually, is beyond all doubt. With Muller, Julian Draxler and the newcomer Wagner in attack, Arsenal’s gifted but inconsistent Ozil functioning so well at Wembley and a compact defence, progress in Russia should be guaranteed. But once again, the fact that Germany couldn’t score against such a depleted England team must encourage their future opponents.

World Cup Draw: Like the full complement of teeth, we have 32!

Spain have revived after the last World Cup, and in Francisco Isco of Real Madrid have one of the best young attackers in Europe. Italy in the qualifiers could do nothing with him in Madrid, where he scored two of his team’s three goals.

Denmark? They won’t win it but could have the best run in a major tournament since their players virtually came off the beaches to contest the European finals after Yugoslavia, enmeshed in the civil war, had to drop out of the finals. Although their star turn Michael Laudrup refused to play, his brother Brian was a star turn and arguably the player of their successful tournament. Now they have a star in form in the ebullient shape of Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, a born inside-forward who has suddenly turned into a formidable goalscorer; a hat-trick in the playoff against a Republic of Ireland team, beaten 5-1 in its own Dublin. About his constructive talents there has never been any doubt, but now as he said happily after those three goals, he has decided to shoot as well. Impressively.

Though it can call again on the prolific Lionel Messi and the insidious Aguero, this doesn’t seem to me an Argentina team capable of making a strong challenge. But Messi, so brilliant in the last World Cup, so disappointed after the final, can win any game.