Germany

They will do well because…

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– Despite a loss of key personnel since the 2014 triumph, Germany’s likely starting XI may actually be their most balanced one this decade. Where a classic #10 like Mesut Özil was an awkward fit on the left side of attack in 2014 (and Julian Draxler had mixed success at Euro 2016), the mercifully fit Marco Reus is finally there to drift as he so naturally and adroitly can. Where İlkay Gündoğan and his well-rounded game was out injured in 2014 and 2016, he is now (also mercifully) there to provide the passing quality that Sami Khedira lacks, the movement that Toni Kroos can sometimes lack and the energy that Özil certainly lacks. And where Germany have really only had one offensively adept fullback playing at a time in World Cups since 2006, they now have Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector, both of whom have major tournament experience under their belts after Euro 2016.

– If that’s not enough, Thomas Müller is returning to the competition in which he has thrived most ‒ another five goals in Russia would make him the first player to score as much in three separate World Cups, surpassing Miroslav Klose’s record of scoring four or more goals in three World Cups. And as tough as it may be for Germany to be without Klose’s poaching and experience in the World Cup for the first time this century, Timo Werner could make up for it with his movement and link-up play, making a style already high in fluidity even smoother to watch. He’s also a promising enough goalscorer in his own right in the national team so far, with eight in 14 appearances.

– All of this, by the way, is backed up by some impressive depth (some of which won last year’s Confederations Cup) and overseen by the same coach who has done a largely progressive job since taking charge in 2006 (and as assistant in 2004-2006). Everyone is on the same page under the coach who has been in the setup since 2004 and they now have the monkey of not actually winning a major title in this prosperous time off their back.

They will disappoint because…

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– Despite a highly promising starting XI and a nice continuation of where they’ve long been going… the loss of key personnel since the 2014 triumph really will matter. Specifically, they’re now without:

Philipp Lahm, the captain (and his leadership would come in handy right now with the Özil/Gündoğan controversy and iffy lead-up form)
Bastian Schweinsteiger, his successor and vital as a defensive midfielder in the 2014 final
A guaranteed-to-be-fit-and-sharp Manuel Neuer, the current captain
Klose & his all-time record 16 World Cup/German record 71 international goals
Benedikt Höwedes, who played every minute in Brazil
Mario Götze and his title-winning goal
André Schürrle and his title-winning assist and three goals earlier in the tournament

(You could also argue somewhat for Mertesacker’s importance then as a squad leader and defensive insurance, which they may need again (albeit in quicker form) if the fitness and pace concerns of Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels flare up.)

Most of these players were absent for various reasons in Euro 2016 and…Germany missed them and what they provided in 2014. Assuming Neuer’s fine, I actually wonder most about Schürrle, a player who had a sneakily important World Cup four years ago (and was on the bench as Germany fell short in the last two Euros). He may not be one himself, but in a team devoid of a real #9 beyond a 36-year-old Klose in Brazil, he provided elements of one that were important when Klose wasn’t around, most of all in a very dicey contest against Algeria. Schürrle can’t complain much about being overlooked for this tournament after a poor season with Borussia Dortmund, but having filled in quite well in 2014 and with 22 goals in 57 games to his name for Germany, keep his absence in mind if Germany need help from the bench and none of the newer guys can sufficiently come to the party.

– Perhaps the biggest reason is historical. No team has gone back-to-back in winning World Cups since the 1958-1962 Brazilians ‒ the well-rounded teams the five-time champions have produced to date, and still so strong in 1962 that they could do without Pelé after his early injury in Chile (otherwise they retained far more key players from 1958 than Germany have from 2014, and in Garrincha they possessed an all-time individual difference maker that this Germany seemingly lack). Italy 1934-1938 were the only other team to go back-to-back and, besides some curious officiating, those titles were won in tournaments with a far smaller field devoid of some of the world’s strongest teams of the time (1930 champions Uruguay, 1930 runners-up Argentina at full-strength, the British home nations and Austria after the 1938 Anschluss).

Defending titles is tremendously hard ‒ reaching the top of the mountain takes its toll psychologically, it sometimes requires certain luck that is unlikely to occur again straight after and opponents put even more effort into nullifying defending champions. Simply put, the next back-to-back World Cup winner will surely have to be something special…and Löw’s Germany may need to pull out some new tricks quickly to get to that level.

– If nothing else, Löw deserves bad karma for categorising midfielders and forwards together in his squad announcement. Give the fluidity a rest, Jogi.

Brazil

They will do well because…

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– Had you told me two years ago that Brazil, with much the same personnel, would be the favourites for the World Cup now… I would have probably stopped listening to you and gone to look back wistfully at Brazil’s best teams from yesteryear. And yet, two years later, I’m in full agreement about their favouritism. Of all the likely contenders in Russia, Brazil’s form since Tite’s appointment after the 2016 Copa América Centenario has been the strongest between then and now: three-goal wins over Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador (the latter two away from home), Peru’s only qualifying defeat during their own big renaissance over the last two years (again away from home) and going unbeaten in a confederation loaded with far more potholes than the tame groups that Spain, Germany and Belgium coasted through. Besides a 1-0 defeat to Argentina in an end-of-season friendly without Neymar (and which Tite did not want organised in the first place), the friendly form has just about matched the competitive.

– Where the football was such an unconvincing slog under Dunga, it’s worked like a treat under Tite despite often featuring the same names. The power of humble, open-minded coaching here, as Tim Vickery explains very well here.

– Brazil’s two best attempts to win a second World Cup in Europe after the 1958 triumph were hampered each time by issues plaguing their young bright hope up front ‒ Careca being out injured for the mesmerising 1982 team, and Ronaldo’s (still curious) troubles before the 1998 final. This time Gabriel Jesus is ready to go and Brazil looks to possess the top level #9 they have so critically missed this decade.

– Neymar’s injury was possibly a blessing in disguise providing his fitness holds up, with one of the game’s elite players now heading into the World Cup with three months of rest. 16 years ago, a not too dissimilar situation ended up helping Ronaldo and Rivaldo lead Brazil to World Cup glory in a tournament beset by player burnout.

– Additionally, even if something is to happen to Neymar or Gabriel Jesus, the alternatives are rather handy in Philippe Coutinho moving further forward from midfield and Roberto Firmino coming in up top. And if Brazil need something else from the bench to turn a game around, the likes of Douglas Costa’s talents out wide and Fred’s all-round midfield game could do the trick. Throw in Fernandinho as deeper midfield cover, Filipe Luis and Marquinhos as defensive backup and Manchester City’s Ederson being merely second choice to the excellent Alisson in goal, and this is not a team lacking in options.

– David Luiz is no longer in defence.

– Lastly but not insignificantly, there is the underrated catharsis of an Olympic gold medal on home soil two years ago, with current Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Marquinhos part of that success themselves. Such an achievement was always going to be a relief for a football nation that had spent decades frustrated by their failure to win the last international competition beyond their reach, but it was particularly welcome in a decade with so many depressing tournaments for Brazil (the rather deceiving 2013 Confederations Cup aside). For all the good things Tite brought to the senior team, there was surely some knock-on effect in a badly needed boost in self-esteem after the misery of the 7-1 of 2014 in particular.

They will disappoint because…

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– Brazil under Tite have not found themselves having to turn games around an awful lot ‒ trailing early in Uruguay and withstanding good fights from Colombia home and away was tricky, but they still weren’t the no-room-for-error situations that will be the case if Brazil find themselves in trouble in the second half of a knockout game. Brazil’s mettle in high pressure major tournament moments this decade has frankly been awful: a drastic loss of composure in the 2010 quarter-final defeat once some things started to go wrong, missing four straight penalties in the 2011 Copa América shootout defeat to Paraguay, the 7-1 of 2014, two more missed penalties in another Copa América shootout defeat to Paraguay in 2015 and a lack of any response in the early 2016 Copa exit. Are there the right characters in this team to get things right in such moments now? Will Neymar’s temperament as captain pull through the demands of a World Cup?

– Brazil have also gone into each of the last three World Cups since the 2002 triumph as favourites or near favourites very much on the back of strong form over the previous year or two. Somewhere in the world, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Dunga are probably bitterly bemused over all the good press for Tite when the lead-in form has on paper been similar to what they presided over going into 2014 and 2010. That would be to greatly overlook and dismiss the value in how things have been done, but in fairness this Brazil still have much work to do to fully validate the hype and positivity.

– The midfield mix, which has not heavily changed since Dunga’s time in charge, will finally struggle when it meets one of the international game’s better midfields in Russia. Strong as South American international football is, the midfields themselves have been fairly unremarkable overall, especially with Chile’s demise. What the likes of Spain, Germany or an in-form Croatia could throw at Brazil in the middle of the park could prove to be a critical shock to the system for Tite’s outfit, and if so, Brazil’s re-learning process of how to build a World Cup winner will have to extend to 2022.

– Right-back is now up in the air after Dani Alves’s injury and with a relative lack of proven alternatives in Danilo and Fagner. Brazil might be stacked in general but no longer so in the area they had been so stable in going back to Jorginho in the early ’90s.

Belgium

They will do well because…

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– There is now the major tournament experience almost completely lacking in 2014, when Belgium returned to the major tournament spotlight after a decade of qualifying failure. For all the things that were wrong structurally and tactically in Brazil under Marc Wilmots, simultaneously dealing with big expectations as a highly talented group while also only starting to figure out the subtleties of major tournament football as a collective can be a tricky experience for the players themselves. This excuse has no validity now ‒ most of the squad have been there already (or at least at Euro 2016), they know what sort of obstacles to expect in five weeks of condensed tournament football and many of the key players are in the prime of their careers.

– Whatever doubts one can have over Roberto Martínez at this level, he’s an improvement on Wilmots and brings some badly needed new things to the table. The most obvious change is formation ‒ 3-4-3 with plenty of varied attacking options instead of the basic, fairly static 4-3-3 that was significantly held back by both fullbacks being natural centre-backs. When this 3-4-3 Belgium gets into a groove you sort of feel for the opposition having to deal with Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard in a well-balanced front three, Kevin de Bruyne behind it so intelligently finding and passing into space and then another attacker in Yannick Carrasco arriving late into attack from left wing-back (Thomas Meunier from the right isn’t too bad at that, either). Throw in the greater maturity of each player since 2014 and the end result can be a significant step up from the predictable attacking avenues Belgium went through in Brazil and France.

– Romelu Lukaku will either be ready to produce on the big stage after disappointing so much in 2014 and 2016, or there will now be other penalty box killers ready to pick up the slack through a whole tournament. Along with the plethora of attacking midfielders who can chip in, Michy Batshuayi is a stronger reserve striker than Divock Origi was four years ago and Dries Mertens is coming off a late-career surge as a false nine at Napoli, where he’s scored 56 goals across the last two seasons.

They will disappoint because…

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– However much he may improve Belgium’s attack, Martínez was a curious appointment for Belgium when his oversights as a coach have generally been where the Red Devils were caught out defensively in Euro 2016 against Italy and Wales. Possibly exacerbating this is the deployment of three central defenders when Belgium’s stocks there are not quite as strong (or fit) as they were earlier this decade; Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen are being held together by duct-tape these days and if neither are available, the rather unproven Dedryck Boyata or Leander Dendoncker will come into the heart of defence (my own idea of moving the multi-talented Axel Witsel into a libero role of sorts there, in turn making room for Mousa Dembélé in midfield, is not on the radar, unfortunately).

– The defensive question marks also extend to the flanks. Meunier is stronger going forward than defensively, but at least he’s a genuine fit for the wing-back role. Carrasco on the other side has already been exposed at times in a weak qualifying group and with Jordan Lukaku overlooked for the final 23, there are no reasonably balanced alternatives for the role; Nacer Chadli has filled in at times but is another winger, and while Jan Vertonghen was probably the best of Belgium’s centre-backs who awkwardly played out wide in 2014 and 2016, it was as a fullback while still in his twenties.

– The captaincy armband has been an awkward fit for Eden Hazard and his inconsistent form, Lukaku needs to do more to not stifle Belgium’s attacking movement against embedded defences (as well as not fail to finish chances in big moments, as was the case with a good headed chance against Wales in 2016) and Marouane Fellaini remains close to game time as one of Martínez’s dubious plan Bs. To win major tournaments you generally need your coaching situation to at least match the talent at hand, but the Belgian FA’s idea of suitable national team coaches has been behind the pace of the talent that has come through for the last decade. Ultimately, it’s fair to be more pessimistic than optimistic about Martínez being the one to make up for that.