The countdown to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will begin in earnest when the draw for the group stage takes place in Doha on Friday. From that point on, each team can work out how it will navigate its path to the final on Dec. 18. But the tournament promises to be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, with no outstanding favourite to win the trophy.
Euro 2020 winners Italy proved with their shock playoff exit against North Macedonia that there are no certainties at the highest level of international football. The Italians would have been well backed to follow their European success by winning a fifth World Cup in Qatar, but instead, Roberto Mancini and his players will be on vacation when the tournament gets underway on Nov. 21.
The established European heavyweights of Germany and defending champions France will be expected to go all the way, but can Spain or England make good on their potential? Will Brazil or Argentina be strong enough to end South America's 20-year wait for a world champion? And will Africa's strongest teams break new ground by reaching the semifinals or beyond?
Here is an early look at how some of the top teams are shaping up ahead of Qatar 2022.
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Hansi Flick's team were the first to secure their place at Qatar 2022 [Qatar qualified automatically as hosts] when they confirmed qualification on Oct. 11, bouncing back emphatically from their early exit at Euro 2020 following a round-of-16 defeat against England. And Germany go into Tuesday's friendly against Netherlands on a run of eight successive wins since Flick replaced Joachim Low as coach, in which they have scored 33 goals and conceded just two.
The four-time world champions can still count on the experience of Manuel Neuer, Antonio Rudiger, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller and Ilkay Gundogan, but emerging stars such as Jamal Musiala, Lukas Nmecha and David Raum are now bolstering the younger element of the squad which already contains Leroy Sane, Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz, depending on the 18-year-old's recovery from a recent cruciate ligament injury.
Having been embarrassingly eliminated at the group stage when defending their title at Russia 2018, Germany will believe they have a point to prove in Qatar and they are strong enough to go all the way.
Since losing a friendly against Peru in September 2019, Brazil have lost just twice in 27 games and both of those came against old rivals Argentina. So how strong are the five-time world champions?
Largely as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil's fixtures over the last two-and-a-half years have been restricted to games against fellow South American opposition. Since losing to Belgium in the 2018 quarterfinals, Brazil have played just once against European opponents -- a 3-1 win against the Czech Republic in March 2019 -- so their run of two defeats in 27 doesn't look particularly impressive, especially when you consider the two losses have come against their biggest rival.
Nonetheless, Brazil are second in the FIFA World Ranking and their squad has obvious quality in every department. Coach Tite has two world-class goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson; defenders like Marquinhos and Eder Militao; a midfield including Fabinho and Casemiro; and attacking talents including Neymar, Vinicius Jr., Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Martinelli.
But Brazil's World Cup hopes at the last four tournaments have ended with defeat against Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and France respectively, so they will have to find a way to beat Europe's best to win in Qatar.
On paper, Didier Deschamps' reigning world champions are the best squad going into the World Cup, but that was also the case at Euro 2020 and they were eliminated in the round of 16 by Switzerland in a penalty shootout. France are unbeaten since that early exit, however, and they returned to form by winning the Nations League against Spain last November.
It is difficult to find a weakness in Deschamps' squad, which has arguably become even stronger since 2018. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan, defenders Jules Kounde and Theo Hernandez, and forward Christopher Nkunku have all made their debuts since the World Cup win, bolstering a squad that already boasted world-class players like Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante. With such quality around, France are likely to be favourites to take home the trophy again.
Every major tournament over the past decade has been billed as the one in which Belgium will upset the old order by adding their name to list of winners, but it hasn't happened for the No. 1 ranked team in the world.
Qatar is likely to be the final shot at glory for many of Roberto Martinez's squad. Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are all in their 30s, with only midfielder Youri Tielemans (24) suggesting he is capable of emulating the greats of the country's golden generation.
But while Belgium are an ageing force, they are a team of undoubted quality and a favourable draw would give them a shot. And while striker Romelu Lukaku continues to struggle at Chelsea, his formidable record of 68 goals in 101 games for Belgium proves that Martinez has a goal scorer he can rely on.
Under Gareth Southgate, England have become a team that performs at major tournaments after failing to live up to the hype (often self-generated) in so many previous World Cups and European Championships. Reaching the World Cup semifinals in 2018 was followed by runners-up spot, after a penalty shootout defeat against Italy, at Euro 2020. England are on an upwards trajectory and developing into a team which could go all the way this year.
Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden are world-class attacking players, while Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice are proven midfielders at international level, but the age-old issues continue to haunt England.
Can they keep the ball well enough to control games against the best opponents and is Southgate bold enough as a coach to win a major tournament? The answer to both questions was 'no' at Euro 2020, but even if England don't win in Qatar, they should reach the semifinals.
Much like rivals Brazil, Argentina are a traditional South American powerhouse carrying the burden of huge expectation at home, but have struggled to beat the best teams in Europe when the heat is on. They at least go to Qatar having ended a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021 and that success has eased the intense pressure on 34-year-old Lionel Messi to deliver for his country.
Coach Lionel Scaloni has a huge challenge ahead, though, if he is to guide Argentina to a first World Cup title since 1986. Argentina are on a 30-game unbeaten run, dating back to a Copa America defeat against Brazil in July 2019, but the Finalissima [winners of European Champions vs. Copa America] clash against Italy at Wembley in June may give a clearer sense of how strong they really are.
The 2016 European champions must overcome North Macedonia, who have beaten both Germany and Italy away from home in the last 12 months, to qualify for the World Cup via the playoffs this week. But if Fernando Santos' team confirm their place in Qatar, they will automatically find themselves among the favourites.
Perhaps for the first time since the 2006 World Cup, Portugal's fate will not be solely reliant on the performances of star man Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal now have real depth in all areas, including defenders Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo, midfielders Ruben Neves and Renato Sanches, and an array of attacking quality including Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Pedro Neto.
But they have to get there first, and it could be the 37-year-old Ronaldo's final chance to win the World Cup.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Spain came within a penalty shootout of reaching the Euro 2020 final, losing to Italy in the semifinals, and their run to the last four was a surprise considering the transitional feel of Luis Enrique's squad. The 2010 world champions will not be bracketed among the leading contenders to win in Qatar, but their progression at Euro 2020 highlighted the quality within Enrique's squad.
Spain's problem is a lack of firepower up front. Without a reliable goal scorer, they will struggle to go all the way, but a team with the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Aymeric Laporte and Ferran Torres could do well with a good draw.
The USMNT still have to finish the job of qualification, but barring a six-goal defeat in Costa Rica this week, Gregg Berhalter's team will make up for the failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament by booking their place in Qatar.
Don't expect the U.S. to win the World Cup this year, but they won't have the huge pressure they experience in the CONCACAF region and can play with the freedom of underdogs. As a result, the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Gio Reyna will be dangerous opponents for more fancied teams.
SENEGAL / EGYPT
Africa's two strongest teams, who contested February's AFCON final, are battling head-to-head for a place in Qatar after being drawn together in the playoffs -- Egypt are 1-0 up from the first-leg in Cairo -- so one heavyweight won't make it to the World Cup. But whichever team goes through will be a threat in the early rounds.
Egypt have the goals and flair of Mohamed Salah, while Senegal have Sadio Mane up front and Edouard Mendy in goal. Qatar 2022 would have been better with both Egypt and Senegal at the tournament, but whichever nation makes it will be a team that many want to avoid.
Iran have never made it through the group stage at the World Cup, despite qualifying six times since the 1970s. But only hosts Qatar will have bigger support than their Gulf neighbours and, as one of Asia's traditional heavyweights, the Iranians could exploit relative home advantage to go one better than in 2018, when they drew with Portugal and missed out on the knockout stage by a point.