WADE PRETORIUS looks at the form and path to the final before ranking his favourites to go all the way at the World Cup in Russia.
UPDATED POWER RANKINGS
1. England – Yes, England. Erase their dour loss to Belgium from your mind for a minute and look at their path to the final. Beat Colombia, and then Switzerland/Sweden and you are two games away from seeing the English media go absolutely wild. The team are doing their best to go under the radar and they’ve avoided any real hiccup or scandal. The back three have coped well and the midfield are creating enough chances. Not the best side but none of the pre-tournament favourites have excelled, throwing this thing wide open.
2. Belgium – May regret beating England as they should face Brazil in the quarters. Then again, they have a perfect record and a strong lineup – far more impressive than the rest from the evidence of the group stage. Romelu Lukaku’s fitness is a concern but Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens look like they will be a handful for any defence.
3. Brazil – The sort of self-appointed underdogs have flattered to deceive at this point but, unlike Germany, are still in this. Neymar is getting stronger with each game and Philippe Coutinho remains a massive threat from outside the box. The defence looks good but can they beat Mexico and Belgium? Even if they do, they’re still two wins away from lifting the trophy.
4. Croatia – We shouldn’t be surprised at how easily they qualified. A well-balanced team but the major question will be posed by Spain – who should beat Russia – in the quarters. If they win that, then I could be bumping them to the top of this list.
5. Portugal – Teams at the top half of the draw don’t have it easy but Portugal won’t mind – they always seem to be doing it the hard way. Cristiano Ronaldo’s form, backed up by a good defensive effort so far, means they make the list. Two massive games lie in wait with Uruguay first and then the winner of Argentina vs France.
6. Uruguay – Made light work of an easy group and will be a threat to Portugal and then the winner of Argentina vs France – both of whom are dropped from my list after less than impressive group-stage performances. Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez are capable of scoring goals from nothing; in playoff matches, chances at either end will be scarce, making this side very, very dangerous.
PRE-TOURNAMENT POWER RANKINGS
1. Germany – The defending champions have not lost a match since their defeat at Euro 2016 and have built a strong squad around their heroes from 2014. The addition of Timo Werner as a striker to add to their already overwhelmingly strong attacking unit could be the difference.
2. Brazil – Tite has developed a strong unit led by Neymar and his allies in attack – Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho – but backed by a strong backline and much sturdier midfield.
3. Spain – The 2010 champions look like they will be contenders with David de Gea at the back with arguably the best defence in front of him. Isco and Andres Iniesta will provide Diego Costa with a number of chances and he could end as top scorer.
4. France – The mercurial French have an abundance of talent and if Paul Pogba finds some form to work the midfield around him, they could be tough to beat.
5. Belgium – The now perennial ‘dark horses’ enter as strong favourites with Lukaku the perfect foil for Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. The side ticks all the boxes and have a good path to the final.
6. Portugal – If they can win Euro 2016, then why not the World Cup? They seem to lift themselves for the big occasion and Ronaldo will be desperate to add his name to the mix in the Golden Boot race.
7. Argentina – If Messi can deliver like his arch-nemesis Ronaldo did at Euro 2016, then Argentina will be dominant. Backed up by a strong attacking lineup, much of their progress will be dependent on their midfield playmaking.
8. England – Easy to laugh at their failures but this side strikes a different chord. Harry Kane leads a well-balanced side but questions remain on their centre backs and obviously, their response to pressured situations after the group phase.