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How England’s main World Cup rivals are shaping up

Brazil, France, Argentina and Spain are the favourites alongside England ahead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Argentina are unbeaten in their last 35 matches, a run stretching back to July 2019. Last year, they won their first Copa America title since 1993.

After reaching only four World Cups from 1930-74, Spain have appeared at every tournament since. Qatar will be their 12th World Cup in a row.

Five-time winners Brazil have scored 18 goals in their last five games. They even left the in-form Gabriel Jesus out of their squad this week.

France haven’t won any of their last four competitive matches. Their poor run includes home defeats by Denmark (2-1) and Croatia (1-0).

Sportsmail takes a look into the Three Lions main 2022 Qatar World Cup rivals, as the tournament edges closer.

MESSI IN TOP FORM FOR A FINAL FLING

The idea that Lionel Messi has one last great tournament in him is what is fuelling Argentina’s belief that they can win the World Cup in Qatar.

His blistering start to the season with six goals and eight assists in his first 11 games is not just a huge improvement on his underwhelming first season in France, it is also an illustration of how his priority these days is to time his form and fitness to be in top shape for this tournament.

There is also the feeling in Argentina that while this isn’t Messi in his prime he will benefit from a functioning team and a happy camp — something that has not always been the case in previous editions.

Coach Lionel Scaloni has surrounded himself with loyal and capable assistants. Pablo Aimar, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala have 224 caps between them and if the defensive steel that the latter two always demonstrated as players can transfer itself to the current group, then with Messi’s magic at the other end of the pitch they have a chance.

Scaloni’s task is to create an ecosystem around Messi that asks as little as possible of him defensively and gives him maximum freedom in attack, without debilitating the team because of it.

Messi’s final days at Barcelona were marked by criticism that without the ball the team were playing with 10 men, a luxury they couldn’t afford. Scaloni wants a team capable of defending without Messi, and one that attacks through him.

The 35-year-old’s nominal starting position is just behind striker Lautaro Martinez and it’s the Inter forward who has to work back when the team needs nine outfield players behind the ball.

Behind Messi there are four midfielders. The evergreen Angel Di Maria plays on the right with Atletico Madrid schemer Rodrigo De Paul partnering Juventus midfielder Leandro Paredes in the middle, and Giovani Lo Celso, the Tottenham midfielder on loan at Villarreal, on the left.

The idea is that this quartet make a solid bank of four in front of the defence when Argentina don’t have the ball and that when they attack, Lo Celso can tuck in and get close to Messi and attacking full back Marcos Acuna can offer width on the overlap.

The back four has a familiar look to it. Former Manchester City centre back Nicolas Otamendi, now 34 and plying his trade at Benfica, is still first choice to hold things together alongside Tottenham’s Cristian Romero.

Acuna is on the left and Atletico Madrid’s right back Nahuel Molina completes a defence that has Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez behind it. Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister has impressed Scaloni and will feature prominently off the bench.

Argentina’s opener against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on November 22 appears to be a sell-out and demand for their second group game against Mexico four days later has been greater than for any game in the group phase. They will have a huge following in Qatar.

Scaloni’s side play their final Group C match against Poland in Doha on November 30. Their last tournament outing ended in them lifting the Copa America last year without playing their best football.

The same formula will do again if it gives them their third World Cup and Messi’s first, at what will be his fifth and surely final attempt.

IF THE KIDS COME GOOD, SPAIN CAN REIGN

It has been 12 years since Spain won the World Cup in South Africa with six Barcelona players in the starting XI. If they are to rule in Qatar they will need players from the same club to play an important part again.

It is Pedri, who turns 20 in November, Ansu Fati, who will be 20 at the end of next month, and Gavi, who is only 18, that look most capable of turning them into contenders.

Last year Pedri became the youngest player to compete in a European Championship and was named young player of the tournament as Spain were beaten semi-finalists at Wembley.

He has developed at Barcelona under Xavi adding a greater goal threat to his already sublime passing game.

Alongside him in midfield will be the rambunctious Gavi who has just signed a four-year contract, complete with a €1billion release clause and Xavi’s old No6 shirt.

Fati is the third Barca jewel in Spain’s crown although last season’s left knee injury have both his club coach and Spain manager Luis Enrique Martinez exercising extreme caution so as not to overload him with games.

He has been left out of this week’s Nations League matches despite the fact that his family, keen to see his return to international football, had bought tickets for Spain’s game in Portugal.

Another absentee from the final squad face Portugal and Switzerland this week was Sergio Ramos. No news there, except for the fact that he had been named in the coach’s 55-player shortlist but not in his 23-man squad.

That seemed a clear indication to the 36-year-old that the door has not been closed on him making the cut for Qatar if he continues to play well for PSG

Former Liverpool striker Iago Aspas is most Spaniards’ pick as the country’s best forward and no Spanish national scored more goals last season.

But he is consistently overlooked on the grounds that his club side Celta Vigo play solely to his strengths and Spain can’t.

Likewise, players who barely play for their club sides such as Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio and Barcelona’s Jordi Alba are all still squad fixtures.

Betis striker Borja Iglesias has been called up for a debut and could end up leading the line with Fati and Villarreal’s exciting winger Yeremy Pino, who turns 20 just before the tournament.

Sergio Busquets or Manchester City’s Rodri will anchor midfield and if Ramos doesn’t return another City player, Aymeric Laporte, is likely to partner Pau Torres in central defence. Second guessing a best XI is not easy with youth and injury doubts fogging predictions.

If the Barca three come good Spain have a real chance. If not they will be relying on Luis Enrique’s ability to get the team to perform at a level greater than the sum of its parts to register any sort of progress.

VINICIUS CAN HELP LIMIT RELIANCE ON NEYMAR

Brazil manager Tite likes to say that the Qatar World Cup marks a full cycle for him and his players. He began coaching the squad in 2016, in the middle of the preparations for the World Cup in Russia.

By full cycle, he means the chance to prepare the team during the four years between tournaments and they have been playing well ahead of two warm-up friendlies in France, against Ghana and Tunisia.

Brazil came through the tough South American qualifying campaign unbeaten. Their form is strong and there is a degree of confidence in the team. They won 14 of the 17 games. Argentina also came through unbeaten but drew six.

Tite has just five defeats in his six years in charge of Brazil: the World Cup elimination by Belgium, the loss of the Copa America final to Argentina and three friendlies against Argentina (twice) and Peru.

His most trusted player is Neymar (right), but the emergence of attacking players such as Vinicius Junior, Raphinha and Antony will help share the burden of expectation and help to ease what is known in Brazil as ‘Neymar dependence’.

‘Of course, yes, you always have to depend on great athletes,’ said Tite, on the subject. ‘How can a great team do without Neymar? Or Coutinho. The great team and the great squad depends on its great athletes.

‘Just as it will depend on Vini Jnr’s growth and on Raphinha’s affirmation and on Thiago Silva’s consolidation. The dependence is not only on him but on this entire structure.’

It appears that Tite is almost settled on the players that will go to the World Cup.

There are now 29 Brazilians in the Premier League and, despite not calling up the Gabriel trio from Arsenal for these friendlies, Jesus probably has a guaranteed spot in the World Cup squad, with Magalhaes in with a chance and Martinelli likely to be a near miss.

Most of the players Tite trusts are in England, especially the two goalkeepers Alisson and Ederson, and midfielders Casemiro, Fred, Bruno Guimaraes, Philippe Coutinho, Fabinho and Lucas Paqueta.

In attack, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino is still fighting for a spot and will need to show something as Brazil take on Ghana in Le Havre on Friday and Tunisia at the Parc de Princes in Paris on Tuesday. Antony, Richarlison and Jesus, if fit, will be in Qatar. Thiago Silva provides the defensive security alongside PSG’s Marquinhos.

Tite, however, always keeps in his mind the possibility that a player in good form can also be called into the squad.

‘I cannot close the possibility of a great athlete emerging,’ says the Brazil boss. ‘The bar is getting higher and higher. Soon a player may appear playing very well.’

The only certainty, however, is that Tite will not continue as the manager after the World Cup, no matter the result, as disclosed in an interview in February and he has not changed his mind.

‘There is no chance of continuing,’ he said. ‘Absolutely not. With body and soul I want to do the best possible job for the national squad (at the World Cup). Then I want to be at peace. I want to sleep in peace.’

POGBA SAGA THREATENS TO DERAIL FRANCE

As a storyline, it would have been rejected out of hand even by the writers of Dream Team.

One star player forced to deny his brother’s accusations that he had used witchcraft against another? The player in question held at gunpoint in a separate incident and forced to hand over money? Too far-fetched, surely.

But this had nothing to do with Harchester United. This was about reigning world champions France, and two of the planet’s most famous players — Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe.

Earlier this month, Pogba’s brother Mathias published videos on social media promising ‘great revelations’ about the Juventus star — including that he sought to put a curse upon Mbappe, something Paul has strenuously denied.

‘It is his word against the word of his brother,’ said Mbappe. ‘I am going to believe my team-mate. He called me, he gave his version of the facts.’

According to reports in French newspaper Le Monde, Pogba said in a police statement he agreed to pay £85,000 after being held at gunpoint during an alleged extortion attempt. Mathias Pogba has been charged for his alleged involvement in the extortion plot, and is being held in police custody.

It is an extraordinary story that risks having a profound effect on the France squad, regardless of whether Pogba (below) is selected, and would be enough to destabilise many teams.

But for Didier Deschamps’ side, it is one of a number of sagas that threaten to overshadow their attempt to retain their World Cup crown.

There are major issues off the field too, after France’s sports minister last week ordered an investigation into the French FA (FFF), whose president, Noel Le Graet, has faced claims of sexual harassment.

The federation have also announced they will sue So Foot magazine, after they published a six-page investigation.

And to cap it off, Mbappe and the FFF are involved in an image rights dispute that saw the Paris Saint-Germain star threaten to pull out of a planned team photograph this week.

Player for player, this squad remain the most talented in the business, despite injuries currently ruling out several key men including captain Hugo Lloris and star striker Karim Benzema.

The presence of Real Madrid midfielders Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga, along with star forwards Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Christopher Nkunku and Antoine Griezmann, means this is still a formidable group, but whether they can ignore all the outside noise remains to be seen.

With France winless in their opening four Nations League matches and in need of an upturn in form to avoid relegation to League B, their upcoming games against Austria and Denmark should offer plenty of clues.

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