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first_imgWhich of the contenders are in the best shape and who, like England, still have plenty of unanswered questions?WORLD Cup talk is starting to dominate the conversation in football’s leading nations as the big kick-off on June 14 approaches.From favourites Brazil and Germany to hosts Russia and perennial under-achievers England, we shine the spotlight on all the main contenders; what shape are they in? How many injuries do they have? And what selection issues are keeping the managers up at night?BRAZILWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?The first team to qualify for the World Cup back in March, Brazil have enjoyed an impressive renaissance since their 7-1 humiliation against Germany on home soil four years ago.They can pick players from Europe’s top clubs all over the pitch; Ederson, Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Marcelo, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino included.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?Neymar is missing from the upcoming friendlies against Russia tomorrow and Germany next week because of an ankle injury sustained at the end of February.Though he should be fit for the finals, there will be a concern if he can get enough games for PSG to be 100 per cent match sharp.Brazil are still haunted by Neymar’s back injury during the last World Cup which may have cost them home glory.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?Coach Tite has already named 15 of the players he will pick in his World Cup squad, a decision that exudes confidence. He even named his starting XI in February.‘The 11 who will start are Alisson; Marcelo, Miranda, Marquinhos, Daniel Alves; Paulinho, Renato Augusto and Casemiro, Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus,’ he said in an interview with UOL Esportes.In reality, it might not be so simple. Injuries aside, Manchester City’s Ederson could push Alisson of Roma as goalkeeper, while Firmino or Jesus up front is a tough decision.ONE REASON WHY THEY’LL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIANothing creates interest and excitement like seeing the yellow shirts of Brazil in a World Cup and it will be the same when they start against Switzerland on June 17.Pele coined the phrase ‘Beautiful Game’ and it’s up to Neymar and Coutinho to carry on the tradition; of football being played as a samba, or on the beach, and to win of course.GERMANYWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?World Cup holders, No.1 ranked team with FIFA and bookmakers’ favourites to retain the trophy. In other words, they’re in pretty good shape!A new generation of players headed by Leroy Sane, Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner has been added to the 2014 stalwarts though there will be concern over the lack of a proven international striker to replace Miroslav Klose.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?Manuel Neuer, widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, hasn’t played since September because of a fractured foot, though he is upbeat about returning before the end of the season.Winger Marco Reus has had terrible problems with his ankle and though he’s over the worst, he misses Germany’s friendlies against Spain and Brazil with a groin strain.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?If Neuer returns, will he automatically go back in goal when Barcelona’s No.1 Marc Andre Ter Stegen is having such a good season?How loyal should Joachim Low be to his 2014 heroes? World Cup final goalscorer Mario Gotze can’t get in the current squad but Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are still in, though neither is at the level he was.Is 22-year-old Werner of Leipzig ready to step into Klose’s shoes up front or would Germany be better off playing with a false nine?ONE REASON THEY WILL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIAPremier League fans will know there are few more exhilarating sights than Sane at full pelt. If he can maintain his form for the World Cup, Germany’s technical players Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan will be given the space to have a field day.FRANCEWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?They have one of the best squads on paper but will be disquieted by their dismal showing in the Euro 2016 final on home soil when they lost to Portugal.Still haven’t found the best way to get the best out of individual talents like Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann in a team structure.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?Left back Benjamin Mendy hasn’t played since September following a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.He is back in training and desperate to play again after the international break but Pep Guardiola is urging caution after such a long and serious lay-off.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?Didier Deschamps has centre-backs who play for Barcelona (Samuel Umtiti) and Real Madrid (Raphael Varane), so where does that leave Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny?The manager has expressed concern about Pogba’s confidence being dented by his poor form at Manchester United. At Euro 2016, he played too deep, finding the right role will be crucial.ONE REASON THEY WILL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIAMbappe is the world’s second-most expensive player, Ousmane Dembele of Barcelona the fourth.They are aged 19 and 20 respectively, and if they want to be considered the long-term heirs to Messi and Ronaldo, they’ll have to put on a show this summer.ENGLANDWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?Things have taken a downturn in recent months with many of Gareth Southgate’s ‘reliables’ either injured or on the bench at their clubs; Phil Jones, Danny Rose and Adam Lallana among them.One plus is that England have never coped with high expectation so general pessimism may be good.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?Harry Kane’s return from an ankle injury is essential and Southgate also namechecked Jones, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph as those who could make the plane even though they are unavailable for this month’s friendlies against Holland and Italy.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?Any of the four goalkeepers named in Southgate’s latest squad – Jack Butland, Joe Hart, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope – has a shot at being No.1 this summer.A central midfield position alongside Eric Dier looks up for grabs with Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson hopeful. Southgate has already stated he will play three centre backs but none of the several contenders has cemented his place.ONE REASON THEY WILL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIAKane on form is among the best No.9s in the world and England are strong in the attacking third, with Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford all capable of causing damage if given the service.PORTUGALWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?Pipped Switzerland to the top of their qualifying group only on goal difference, but didn’t set the world alight against relatively weak opposition.However, they were also written off before Euro 2016 and ended up winning their first major international trophy.Any line-up containing Cristiano Ronaldo – who ended up as a touchline cheerleader after getting injured in the European final against France – has a chance.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?Veteran defender Pepe, now 35 and playing in Turkey with Besiktas, has become increasingly injury-prone and is unlikely to be called upon by coach Fernando Santos because of the risk factor.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?Where does Ronaldo play and which system will get the best out of him?Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva will have a part to play and young striker Andre Silva is rediscovering form after a difficult start at AC Milan.ONE REASON THEY WILL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIAThis will be Ronaldo’s fourth World Cup and at 33 years old may be his last. For all the posturing and preening, enjoy him while you can.Talents like him and Messi only come around every 20 years, if you’re lucky. By the way, tomorrows friendly between Portugal and Egypt – Ronaldo vs Mo Salah – could be tasty.ARGENTINAWHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?(They are) heavily over-reliant on Lionel Messi who virtually dragged his country to the finals single-handed with a hat-trick against Ecuador on the final day of qualification.Weak in certain areas, and while goalkeeper Sergio Romero is No.1 for his country, he’s second-choice for Manchester United.ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?You can’t doubt the patriotism factor with Argentina, and Sergio Aguero is in the squad to face Italy tomorrow even though he missed his last game for Manchester City through injury. Still, it helps that the Italian fixture is in Manchester!Lionel Messi fired a hat-trick as Argentina sealed their World Cup spot with a win over Ecuador.WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?Who partners Messi up front? Legendary manager Jorge Sampaoli, credited with ‘inventing’ pressing football, is spoilt for choice with Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain the leading contenders. Paulo Dybala of Juventus doesn’t even make the latest squad.ONE REASON THEY WILL STEAL THE SHOW IN RUSSIAOne word: Messi. Already Argentina’s leading scorer, Messi recently notched his 600th career goal.If he does win the World Cup, he’ll overtake Pele and Diego Maradona to be the greatest of all-time.last_img read more