Ranking every World Cup team heading into the group stage draw as Brazil land at No1

Alex Rea 1/12/2017
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The World Cup draw takes place in Moscow on Friday with each of the 32 teams set to find out their group stage fate.

From the four pots eight groups will be drawn from A-H with the opening clash featuring hosts Russia to be played on June 14.

The allocation of the pots is done by using the FIFA rankings system and of course, have been dissected and debated.

But the rankings don’t necessarily reflect the true position of the 32 sides so we’ve gone ahead and analysed is 1-32 with their actual ranking in brackets.

Here is the final in our four-part series with rankings 1-8.

1. Brazil (2)

Brazil have reinvented themselves under Tite, rising from the depths of insignificance to become one of the most vibrant teams in international football.

And ‘team’ is the crucial word there because the dependency on Neymar has been dialled down. A front three contrained Neymar, Philippe Coutniho and Gabriel Jesus has revived this fallen giant.

In Jesus, they have an injection of youth and pace at centre-forward and in Coutinho and Neymar flair and vibrancy.

Behind that trio is balance. Casemiro is a shield in the front of a backline marshalled by Joao Miranda who is enjoying the form of his career at Inter Milan.

They were the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and their 3-0 triumph over Argentina showed the 2014 World Cup semi-final humiliation is a thing of the past.

Obviously Brazil are still carved in the image of Neymar but in comparison to say Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he doesn’t carry the hope of his nation alone.

He’ll be 26 when the tournament kicks off, at the peak of his powers and he’ll be thirsty to overthrow the aforementioned pair by proving he is the best player in the best international team.

Neymar

Brazil star Neymar

2. Germany (1)

Dominant and devastating in qualifying, the German machine just continues to motor along.

Undoubtedly the best side Europe has to offer, Jogi Low has overseen a successful squad overhaul following the international retirements of vital veterans Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Per Mertesacker.

Emre Can, Leroy Sane and Leon Goretzka are now establishing themselves in a well-oiled unit and the experience of Toni Kroos, Matts Hummels and Thomas Muller has ensured a smooth transition.

Crucially, Germany now have a strength they’ve seldom had – pace. Timo Werner has added an edge to their steel scoring seven in 10 appearances and the Leipzig man is a genuine centre-forward who likes to run in behind.

They ended the qualification campaign perfect but no team has defended the World Cup since Pele’s Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

Timo Werner

Germany striker Timo Werner

3. Spain (6)

Having reversed the rotting decline which set in under Vicente del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui has now built a team ready to mount a stronger challenge than the teams which failed to defend their world title in 2014 and its European crown in 2016.

An interchangeable midfield is their biggest quality as Lopetegui has been gifted the luxury of four world-class creative midfielders in Isco, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Andres Iniesta.

Ahead of them, Alvaro Morata gives them a genuine option at No9 and seems a far better fit in this side than Diego Costa ever did.

At the back, David De Geas is arguably the world’s best goalkeeper while Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique anchor a sturdy defence.

La Roja navigated calmly through a qualifying group which contained four-time champions Italy with nine wins from 10 and it’s safe to say the Spaniards have their mojo back.

Spain midfielder Isco

Spain midfielder Isco

4. France (9)

The depth of French talent is simply ludicrous. It’s not gross hyperbole to say they could field three separate XIs worthy of challenging the world’s best and with a healthy stock of talent comes every element which marks a successful side.

From youth to experience, to skill and organisation, Les Bleus are a force to be reckoned with.

But there have been issues in qualifying with lapses in concentration and a lethargic approach casting doubt over their credibility as a genuine football superpower.

However, it hasn’t negated the growing hype and naturally, led with quality like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, the expectations are high.

If Didier Deschamps can iron out the vulnerabilities, come next summer they’ll be warranting a place in the top-three.

France duo Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante

France duo Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante

5. Belgium (5)

The Red Devils are effectively the younger brother of France in that Roberto Martinez has so many options in an attacking sense with Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku.

They breezed through qualifying and the country’s exceptional generation of talent stand a good chance of competing for their first ever piece of major silverware.

The consensus is they have produced a team which is among the best in the world but that same narrative creatives pressure and they crumbled at Euro 2016.

Two years older and wiser, they will be better prepared for Russia.

Belgium playmaker Kevin De Bruyne

Belgium playmaker Kevin De Bruyne

6. Portugal (3)

Switzerland won their first nine qualifiers but lost in Libson to hand top spot to Portugal after a thrilling two-horse race.

As European champions, they command respect and with Cristiano Ronaldo heading up a side which is blessed by a veteran core (Joao Moutinho and Pepe) and youthful exuberance (Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva), Fernando Santos has a promising group of players to take to Russia.

Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo

7. Argentina (4)

Disaster was averted in qualifying as Jorge Sampaoli eventually guided his side safely to next year’s tournament.

They should in theory be a contender next year with Sampoli introducing a high-pressing, possession-heavy, direct-attacking style of football in place of the more conservative approach of old.

But it is yet to truly click and the likes of Paulo Dybala and  Mauro Icardi are still in the fledgling stage of their international careers.

Of course, they still have Lionel Messi and as Barcelona have shown so far this season, sometimes that’s all you need.

Argentina skipper Lionel Messi

Argentina skipper Lionel Messi

8. Poland (7)

Robert Lewandowski scored 16 goals in qualifying – no one scored more from Europe – and as Poland’s record goalscorer he is the man to be feared.

His stunning form for Bayern Munich hasn’t necessarily translated into a major international tournament, though, with Euro 2016 a disaster after he scored just once.

Still, he has talent behind him with Napoli’s attacking midfielder Piotr Zielinski and goalscoring-centre-back Kamil Glik the other big names as the Poles embark on their first World Cup since 2006.

Poland's record scorer Robert Lewandowski

Poland’s record scorer Robert Lewandowski

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Young heroics shame under-performing Man United stars

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Young at heart: Manchester United's Ashley Young (Getty).

The look of sheer disbelief on Jose Mourinho’s face said it all.

Eyes widened and face contorted in shock, the Manchester United manager could scarcely believe the inch-perfect free-kick Ashley Young had just delivered into the top corner during Tuesday’s 4-2 triumph at Watford.

This incredulity at the staggering events of Vicarage Road was undoubtedly multiplied by the fact the 32-year-old had only moments before lashed a thundering skimmer past the helpless Heurelho Gomes for the opener, while his deflected effort at the weekend provided the only goal of a stodgy 1-0 win against promoted Brighton.

Beyond providing fresh viral content for the insatiable vultures callously manning Twitter’s plethora of ‘football banter’ accounts, the reaction of the ‘Special One’ spoke volumes.  For all that is to be lauded about Young’s latest renaissance, true title pretenders should not be leaning so heavily on him.

Do not forget, we are talking about a veteran right winger who has been shunted into left-back/ left wing-back.

A learned diligence in defence, boundless energy and punishing accuracy on crosses have been behind the player’s re-emergence.

But in a squad assembled at lavish cost, something has gone wrong for Young to be a leading figure.

His displays directly shame the likes of specialists Luke Shaw and Daley Blind. The former has steadily become persona non grata since being signed for £30 million (Dh183.9m) in June 2014.

They also embarrass mothballed playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan and even Romelu Lukaku, a striker who Mourinho jokes desperately requires a new boot deal to replicate his electric start in red.

These are the players who should be deciding United’s matches. Not Young, for whom United supporters have grown wearily to like after years stained by diving and underperformance following a 2011 arrival from Aston Villa.

Full-back is a position of growing importance as the trend continues for midfields dominating the centre ground. Premier League leaders Manchester City lavished £131.5m (Dh647.1m) this summer on positions Pep Guardiola has always valued.

Young’s simultaneous rise in importance is just another mark of disparity between the two rivals.

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Ranking every World Cup team heading into the group stage draw as Russia land at 28th

Alex Rea 29/11/2017
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Russian roulette: Fyodor Smolov

The World Cup draw takes place in Moscow on Friday with each of the 32 teams set to find out their group stage fate.

From the four pots eight groups will be drawn from A-H with the opening clash featuring hosts Russia to be played on June 14.

The allocation of the pots is done by using the FIFA rankings system and of course, have been dissected and debated.

But the rankings don’t necessarily reflect the true position of the 32 sides so we’ve gone ahead and analysed is 1-32 with their actual ranking in brackets.

First up is teams 25-32…

25. Costa Rica (26)

Spain’s 5-0 thrashing of the Costa Ricans in a friendly last month hardly bodes well but when stakes are riding high, the underdogs can bite.

They set the United States on the way to a surprise qualifying exit after coming away with a 2-0 victory from New Jersey and held runaway group leaders Mexico to a draw at home.

And if you need reminding of what they did three years ago, only penalties prevented Costa Rica from advancing to the World Cup semi-finals at the expense of the Netherlands.

Their strength is in their experience as the average age of players among their qualifying squad, marshalled by former Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz.

Oscar Ramirez has carried on the good work of 2014 coach Jorge Luis Pinto but with little fresh talent to emerge since then, it is reasonable to wonder if lightning can strike twice.

Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz

Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz

26. South Korea (59)

South Korea became the only side outside of Europe and South Korea to have featured in every tournament since 1986, despite a rocky qualification.

They needed Syria’s failure to beat Iran to get through the Asian qualifiers after a 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan and they don’t look strong enough to fair any better than their weak surrender in the group stage four years ago.

The Premier League trio of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung and Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong, give them crucial experience from Europe.

Son in particular will be their dynamic star man and is the top-scoring player in Premier League history.

Son Heung-Min of South Korea

Son Heung-Min of South Korea

27. Tunisia (27)

A fifth World Cup beckons for Tunisia and it will be their first in 12 years but for the Eagles of Carthage to take flight they will need to avoid significant resistance in the form of a tough group.

Wahbi Khazri has rebounded from his nightmare spell at Sunderland with Ligue 1 club Rennes and he heads up a new generation of Tunisian stars while former Monaco man Aymen Abdennour carries their main goal threat.

Only two players called up for the last round of African qualifying games had more than 50 caps so inexperience is their main issue.

But having beaten the likes Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea to make it to Russia they’ll be entering the tournament with little fear.

Tunisia's midfielder Wahbi Khazri

Tunisia’s midfielder Wahbi Khazri

28. Russia (65)

As a host nation, expectation will be high but it really shouldn’t be.

National pride will be at stake and with the luxury of being in Pot 1 they will hope to make an impression in the group stages at the very least.

The complexion of this side has changed drastically since reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and they are actually the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams.

As captain, Igor Akinfeev bears the burden of pressure but his shoulders have collapsed when it comes to the big games with mistakes tarnishing an otherwise talented stopper.

There are problems off the pitch, too with reports of disputes between senior players and coach Stanislav Cherchesov refusing to go away.

They lack any creative guile and will pin a lot of their hopes on the resurgent Krasnodar forward Fyodor Smolov.

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev

29. Peru (11)

Peru possess one of the meanest defences in South American football with Ricardo Gareca’s men only conceding seven goals in eight games in 2017.

However, there are huge concerns even before they step foot in Russia next year.

Paolo Guerrero is likely to be banned for a FIFA doping offence and although he’s appealing it’s unlikely the 33-year-old captain will be successful.

Their aging winger Jefferson Farfan is beginning to see his powers wane now aged 33 and despite Gareca bringing a sense of organisation they lack any real attacking thrust.

The Peruvian’s are somewhat destined to fall flat in Russia.

Peru's Jefferson Farfan

Peru’s Jefferson Farfan

30. Saudi Arabia (63)

Saudi Arabia are onto their third coach in three months with Bert van Marwijk’s replacement Edgardo Bauza sacked after a series of poor post-qualifying friendly results.

Former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi has now taken charge but a tall order awaits despite Saudi Arabia topping their qualification group to edge out Japan and Australia.

Mohammed Al-Sahlawi is the talisman. He scored 16 goals in qualification – joint highest throughout all the confederations – but the squad lacks European experience and the managerial chaos has hardly helped matters.

Saudi's Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

Saudi’s Mohammed Al-Sahlawi

31. Australia (39)

The foot of the post denied Syria progression to the final play-off at Australia’s expense with the rising star Omar Al Somah cruelly thwarted.

However, the Soceroos made no mistake against Honduras winning 3-1 over the two legs.

They’ve since had manager Ange Postecoglou step down and their softening attack still relies on a 37-year-old Tim Cahill.

Australia's record scorer Tim Cahill

Australia’s record scorer Tim Cahill

32. Panama (56)

Panama celebrated their qualification to a first-ever World Cup by declaring a national holiday.

They won’t catch any breaks in Russia, though.

Luis Tejada is their key man with 43 goals for his country but they are a veteran side who have been known to crumble with their 4-0 thrashing by the USA a testament to that.

Panama forward Luis Tejada (L)

Panama forward Luis Tejada (L)

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