Winter warmers

Mark Pougatch looks ahead to a World Cup with a difference and finds a raft of live contenders

WORLD CUP 2022  Qatar, 21st Nov – 18th Dec

Brazil @ 9/2
France @ 6/1
England @ 6/1
Spain @ 17/2
Argentina @ 9/1
Germany @ 10/1
Belgium @ 12/1
Netherlands @ 12/1
view odds

“Just remind me: why is the World Cup being held in the winter?” How many times have you heard that cry as we approach the summer?

This year’s World Cup is entering uncharted territory for the game and is going to throw up some very specific issues. The Premier League season will stop after the weekend of 12-13 November, the World Cup starts just barely a week later on 21 November, and after the final on 18 December the Premier League players will be back in action on Boxing Day. You can just imagine the worries of the international managers watching their players in domestic action in the autumn, knowing that any injury is likely to throw their World Cup preparations into meltdown given there’s so little wriggle room for recovery.

Where are England now? On the positive side, there’s a connection with the public these days that’s authentic and affectionate. Gareth Southgate’s greatest achievement may yet be re-establishing that link between a nation desperate for success and a group of players who’ve successfully left their club rivalries at the door. If you’ve watched England close up as long as I have, you will know that’s not always been the case.

But no amount of the fans singing, “Southgate, you’re the one” or the players taking on the media at darts is going materially to affect what happens on a football pitch. England’s strengths remain what they were last summer: Harry Kane’s goals, Raheem Sterling’s reliability, Jordan Pickford’s late-season form, a plethora of right backs, the brio of Phil Foden and Mason Mount.

There’s a connection with the public these days that’s authentic and affectionate. 

The question marks, though, are also the same. Can England keep the ball smartly enough in midfield? Are they mature enough to keep probing even if they’re in the lead? Witness how they dropped deeper and deeper in the Euro 2020 final after taking that early lead, inviting Italy to take the initiative. And, most significantly for the England head coach, what to do about his centre backs?

Harry Maguire has never let England down but has endured a horrendous season at Manchester United. His relationship with John Stones has been the cornerstone of the England XI and the alternatives, good players though they are, lack either genuine conviction or experience at international level. It all adds up to England being a serious live contender in Qatar, but maybe not in the top bracket of favourites.

Chief among those from Europe have to be the defending champions, France. They lost their way in the Euros against Switzerland and threw the game away, which seemed to trigger a chaotic falling-out among the players. Kylian Mbappé was horribly off colour that night, but that scar seems to have healed and this French team look as if they have all the component parts – and more – to be feared this winter.

Karim Benzema’s stellar form for Real Madrid will have gladdened Didier Deschamps heart and there is such strength in depth in French football at the moment with some incredible young talent pushing hard for a World Cup place like William Saliba, Mattéo Guendouzi, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga to go alongside the tried and trusted. The Cockerel has every right to have a little strut in its stride.

Spain will be fascinating. After the fading of the Golden Generation (theirs actually won plenty), the Spanish marked time before the latest batch put the world on notice at the Euros. Watching them up close at Wembley in the semi-final against Italy, I couldn’t help but feel they’re just a proper goalscorer away from being a major threat again. The way they kept the ball in their midfield was so impressive, particularly when you bear in mind two of them have only just cut their mother’s apron strings: Pedri, who bossed that semi-final, is only now 19 and his Barcelona teammate Gavi 17.

If Álvaro Morata or Ferran Torres or Gerard Moreno can regularly find the back of the net, the Spanish will be on the charge again.

Of the rest of the European nations, Germany are roughly sixth favourites. Hansi Flick’s stick of rock inevitably has the name of Bayern Munich running through it, and they may well benefit from not being talked up as much as usual. Thomas Müller, Kai Havertz, Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry are all established attacking names very familiar to us, and the dashing Marco Reus has been given the chance to play his way to Qatar.

Toni Rüdiger will set the tone for their defence and only a fool would write them off completely – don’t expect Müller to miss again like he did at Wembley against England on that memorable afternoon.

The Dutch will be immeasurably better for the return of Virgil van Dijk – they will need his calmness and belief as much as anything after their horrible implosion at the Euros.

Meanwhile, it’s surely the last chance for their neighbours Belgium to win something with their brilliant group of players. My question mark over them has always been about their defence. They threw away a two-goal lead to lose the Nations League final to France, but if they can keep the genius Kevin de Bruyne fit and Romelu Lukaku is focused and firing they’ll always pose a threat – especially if Eden Hazard relocates his mojo in the next six months.

It’s 20 years now since a South American country won the World Cup, O Fenomeno Ronaldo’s goals winning Brazil’s fifth title in Yokohama. Brazil are the current favourites, having scored almost three goals a game during their unbeaten romp through qualifying. Coach Tite can choose either of the Premier League’s best two goalkeepers in Ederson or Allison; the defence is built around Marquinhos of PSG; Real Madrid’s Casemiro and Fabinho – so magnificent for Liverpool this season – give them structure in midfield; and then up front the options stack up excitingly.

This is probably Neymar’s last shot at global glory and he’ll have support from the wonderfully elusive and scintillating Vinícius Júnior. Brazil have underwhelmed since that 2002 triumph – they simply haven’t been consistent or resilient enough to mount a proper challenge. It’s high time the Seleção lived up to the reputation of their famous jerseys.

Argentina sit between Spain and Germany in the betting (and after England) and they too were unbeaten in South American qualifying. After a forgettable season with PSG, Lionel Messi will be looking forward to a fifth World Cup with a crop of exciting young players. Emi Martinez and Cristian Romero have shown how good they are in the Premier League, there’s plenty of experience in players like Ángel di María, and aggression and goals up front in the Serie A pair of Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martínez. I don’t expect them to win the World Cup, but they’re always the toughest of opponents.

So the global football calendar marches to a very different beat this year. It will be odd to be gearing up for the world’s best come November, but it will be dark early, the wind will be howling outside and the rain teeming down, and there will be World Cup football on the television for company. That can’t be all bad!

Mark Pougatch presents ITV’s football coverage.

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