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Brazil, Argentina are clear favourites; Spain, Germany and Belgium rely on total football

<br>In total, 32 countries will compete for the coveted trophy that symbolises supremacy in the sport called "The Beautiful Game" by legendary stars like Pele and numerous fans around the globe. As the clock ticks down for the kick-off, everybody is thinking about which teams are favourites to go all the way and which will be the dark horse and cause a few surprises in the mega-event.

Defending champions France, after emerging victorious in 2018, will be again among the favourites, but many nations have their sights set on lifting the trophy on December 18.

Here’s a look at the top contenders for the title:

BRAZIL: The South American powerhouse is the eternal favourite at the football World Cup. The five-time winners currently boast strength in depth — with the likes of Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Alisson at their disposal. However, they have not savoured World Cup glory since 2002.

The Neymar-led side will begin its campaign against Serbia on November 24 before facing Switzerland and Cameroon in Group G.

Brazil, the most successful nation in the World Cup, are deservedly among the favourites for Qatar 2022 World Cup after a qualifying campaign that included 14 wins, three draws and not a single defeat. The team’s only blemish in the 2020s so far is the Copa America final defeat to Argentina at Rio’s Maracana stadium in July last year.

Brazil have an abundance of versatile attacking options and the fluid nature of manager Tite’s set-up lends itself to using Richarilson or Gabriel Jesus as centre-forwards.

Tite has already announced that he will step down after the tournament and he — along with 216 million football-mad Brazilians –will not be satisfied with anything less than a triumph in Lusail on December 18.

BELGIUM: Ranked second in the world football rankings, Belgium cruised through the qualifying stage, going undefeated in eight games, and finishing at the top of their group with a goal difference of 19.

Roberto Martinez, now in his seventh year as head coach of the national team, favours a 3-4-2-1 formation with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard the creative forces behind striker Romelu Lukaku. In defence, they are heavily reliant on veteran duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, who play in front of star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

The team’s golden generation core of De Bruyne, Hazard, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Courtois, Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel are all in their 30s and Lukaku is 29.

SPAIN: Coached by former captain Luis Enrique, the 2010 champions qualified for Qatar from the Group of Death, fighting past sides like Sweden, Greece and Kosovo. It was the typical group where you could drop points, and Spain did, being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Greece and slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Sweden.

Both of those games highlighted Spain’s main weakness. Enrique’s side likes to control the ball but sometimes fails to turn that control into clear-cut chances. Forward Alvaro Morata is almost certain to start and his record of 27 goals from 57 appearances in the national team is impressive.

With Gerard Moreno struggling for fitness, Spain’s options in attack are limited, especially with Mikel Oyarzabal missing out due to injury. However, the team is relying on playing total football and is ready to take any opponents in its stride.

GERMANY: Former Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick has adapted well after replacing Joachim Low, and the return of Thomas Muller to the fold has given the Germans a lot of experience and made them clear favourites in the world cup.

It has to be said that their group, which contained North Macedonia, Romania, Armenia, Iceland and Liechtenstein wasn’t the most demanding. Coach Flick can count on pace and movement in attack with players such as Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane, although Timo Werner’s ankle injury means he misses the mega event.

Antonio Rudiger hasn’t had a great start at Real Madrid in the new season, but is a guarantee for his country in central defense alongside Niklas Sule, while Jonas Hofmann looks solid on the right and David Raum is the favourite on the left side.

Behind them, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are both guarantees in goal. Jamal Musiala can offer excellent support and Kai Havertz offers adaptability in the front line ahead of the experienced Ilkay Gundogan and Joshua Kimmich.

ARGENTINA: Two-time champions Argentina will kick off their campaign against Saudi Arabia on November 22 before also facing Mexico and Poland in Group C. Brazil, France and England will be the biggest obstacles to Argentina’s hopes of ending a 36-year FIFA World Cup title drought in Qatar.

Lionel Scaloni’s men are undefeated in their past 35 games, a sequence that includes the 2021 Copa America final against Brazil. They are just two games shy of the record for the longest run of international matches without defeat, currently held by Italy, who are unfortunately not qualified for this mega event.

Lionel Messi will be playing in his fifth and almost certainly his last World Cup, having appeared on football’s biggest stage for the first time at the 2006 tournament in Germany. The closest he has come to lifting the trophy was in 2014 when Argentina lost the final to Germany following an extra-time goal from Mario Goetze.

"If I have to put some above others I think Brazil, France and England are a little bit above the rest. But the World Cup is so difficult and so complicated that anything can happen. Whenever we talk about candidates, we always talk about the same teams," Messi said in an interview with the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL).

Apart from these obvious choices, the defending champions France, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Harry Kane’s England and runners-up in 2018 Croatia are also among the contenders.

–IANS<br>inj/bsk

CELEBRITY GALLERY

Nikki Tamboli

Hina Khan

Rubina Dilaik

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

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