Moscow– Germany will aim to be the third country to successfully defend their crown while other traditional powers Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France will also fancy their chances when the 2018 FIFA World Cup starts here on Thursday.
Precisely 1,432 days after Mario Gotze scored in extra time of the 2014 final to hand Germany their fourth World Cup title, the 32 qualified nations are all set to write yet another chapter in the storied history of most popular game on the planet.
Hosts Russia and minnows Saudi Arabia will set the ball rolling when they clash in the tournament opener in front of a packed Luzniki Stadium here.
Brazil, who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1958 and 1962, were the last team to retain their title. Italy were the first to achieve the feat when they won consecutive titles in 1934 and 1938. But Germany, probably the most consistent team at the World Cup have the ability to match that feat.
Having reached at least the semi-finals of every major tournament since Joachim Loew took over as coach in 2006, the Germans will be a confident bunch in Russia.
The world’s top ranked team have the ability to make strategic adjustments while facing different opponents. They have the ability to make the transition between the 3-4-3 and 5-3-2 formations which allowed them to beat Italy for the first time in a major tournament at Euro 2016.
A lot of the attention will be on five-time champions Brazil, the most successful team at the World Cup.
Given their proud history and superb recent form, it comes as little surprise that Brazil will be among the favourites.
The South American giants will be keen to forget 1-7 humiliation to Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup on home soil.
Brazil had to endure a difficult qualification campaign and were languishing in sixth place of the South American qualifying group at one stage.
Former coach Dunga was sacked after the team failed to reach the knockout phase of the 2016 Copa America. Current coach Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite, has managed to transform the team to some extent.
Since then, Brazil have won nine consecutive World Cup qualifiers, thus becoming the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They had also reclaimed the world No.1 spot for the first time since 2011.
The main concern for Brazil fans is the form of attacking fulcrum Neymar, who is recovering from a broken fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward has not played too much since February and it remains to be seen how he shapes up during the initial matches.
Argentina are the other giants from South America who are title contenders in every World Cup they play in.
The two-time World Cup winners have lost in the finals of three consecutive major tournaments in recent years. They were runners-up at Brazil 2014 besides losing in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016.
Their fate in the tournament will depend on the form of their attacking talisman Lionel Messi. The dimunitive FC Barcelona star has struggled to replicate his club form with his national team.
Russia 2018 will probably be his last chance to show that he has the ability to live up to the massive weight of expectations that comes along with the famed Argentina jersey.
If he is successful in leading Argentina to their third World Cup crown, Messi will finally remove the biggest blemish that has scarred his otherwise illustrious career.
Spain meanwhile, will be reeling from the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament. He was at the helm of the Spanish squad since 2016, and was unbeaten in 20 games.
New coach Fernando Hierro will have a tough task as he will have to boost the team’s morale and take an ageing squad as far as he can into the tournament.
France, on the other hand, will gun for glory a full two decades after lifting the World Cup on home soil.
They have a talented squad but will be keen to avoid the infighting and internal fissures that have proved costly on occasion. France coach Didier Deschamps will be keen to avoid the embarrassment of the 2002 World Cup, when players refused to train and the then defending champions had to face an embarrassing early exit.
Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane are expected to pair up in the centre of defence while Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe will be the full backs.
Manchester United star Paul Pogba is expected to be the midfield fulcrum since Dimitri Payet has been sidelined due to injury. N’Golo Kante and the veteran Blaise Matuidi will be other stars in the French midfield.
France have a lot of options upfront in the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele. Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin have had good seasons in the French top flight and will be good options on the bench.
Apart from the major traditional powers, reigning European champion Portugal and two-time World Cup winners Uruguay may be considered as outside challengers.
After their unexpected triumph at Euro 2016, Portugal will head to Russia with almost all of their hopes resting on the shoulders of their captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, winning the World Cup may prove to be too tall a task for the five-time World Player of the Year and his teammates.
Uruguay meanwhile, will depend a lot on the partnership between star forward Luis Suarez and the veteran Edinson Cavani. They have several other stars well, including experienced Atletico Madrid defenders Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin.
The promising Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus and Lucas Torreira could be the ones to watch out for in midfield.(IANS)