These kinds of pieces need to come with disclaimers. And lots of them.
Here’s one to start: we’re through one set of fixtures at the World Cup, minus group H, whose teams, let’s be honest, wouldn’t look out of place in your inter-firm 5-a-side league.
Some teams have overachieved, some teams have underachieved and some teams are just plain Saudi Arabia.
But the point remains – based on what we’ve seen so far, these are the top ten most likely teams to win the tournament. Strap yourselves in, the hype bus has arrived.
Look, they’re a nation with terrific underage structure. They’re evidently well-coached and they’ve got plenty of goals in that side. They can play low block against the best in the world and they’ve pace in abundance on the break. Now it appears they’re certs to qualify from the group, they’ll be dangerous in one-off ties against anyone.
Is this rich? A big side who have actually won in the opening round and who were one of the big favourites before a ball was kicked, are now only ninth favourites? Well, they look disjointed. Deschamps picks his teams from a bingo ball machine and as good as Griezmann is, they’ve got no focal point. Paging Olivier Giroud.
No Icardi, no party. Yes, they’ve got Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, but they’re missing a bit of magic inside the box and they look mentally weak. Angel Di Maria needs to play to maintain their width or they’re facing more congestive messes against sides who set up similarly to Iceland.
No width, Neymar’s a fraud, they can’t even blame David Luiz, Gabriel Jesus is five-foot-nine and can’t hold the ball up. They need Bobby Firmino and teams to play higher against them to find any success. As Brazil often find out, not every nation is adventurous as the South American teams they usually face.
Subasic, Lovren, Modric, Mandzukic. The spine is in place. They’ve got flair through Perisic and they look a real unit. Of course it’s hard to judge them until they’re properly pressed, but the early signs look good for the nation who finished third in their maiden tournament in 1998.
They were probably the most disappointing side thus far in terms of expectations versus reality. They were lethargic and played at such a slow place, it’s almost as if they’re protesting the Leroy Sane omission. Conspiracy theorists unite.
After Spain, has any nation a better squad than Belgium? Probably not. Is there a weak link? Not really, apart from the fact Axel Witsel is liable to break any man in half at any given time.
And if teams do play low block against them, they’ve a hidden weapon in shape of an overgrown hedge that is actually Jose Mourinho’s plaything.
World Cups are built on moments of greatness. No side, regardless of ability, have a player so well-versed in the spectacular as Cristiano Ronaldo. They have a solid spine, too and looked decent alongside a nation that will appear higher in this list than them. They shouldn’t have won the Euros, but they did. They shouldn’t win the World Cup, but…
An Irishman inflating England’s chances of a World Cup? I know, I know.
Here’s the thing though – they look a different side. Yes, they panicked somewhat when they conceded an equaliser, but that’s par for the course in this World Cup so far. Only France found a way through of all the big nations when they went behind and even that was a complete fluke. Guardiola’s (yes) calming influence on this side is obvious and three at the back will play into their hands when they tackle bigger fish later on.
For all the trouble and turmoil, Fernando Hierro still looks the most likely to be lifting this trophy in a month’s time. They’ve got the best squad, they’ve got enough goals in the team through Costa and their supporting cast is one of the best ever underage squads to play the game. We haven’t even seen Marco Asensio yet and he’ll be the best player in the world when the big two finally bugger off. Tough to beat.