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Alamy Stock Photo The World Cup trophy (file pic)
# Opinion
Ranking the 16 teams left in the World Cup
Brazil and France are among the favourites to lift the trophy

16. Australia

For the rank outsiders, expectations were very low even in Australia ahead of the tournament. They don’t have the individual talent of previous years provided by the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill. Of their eight attackers, six play in Australia, as do two of their goalkeepers, while nine of their squad plough their trade either in Scotland or the Championship in England. Consequently, they have done very well to get this far, stunning a below-par Denmark and narrowly overcoming Tunisia after a comprehensive 4-1 opening loss to France. Nevertheless, a round-of-16 encounter with an improving Argentina is expected to prove a step too far.

15. Poland

Limped into the second round in unspectacular fashion. At one stage, it appeared they would go through by virtue of having picked up fewer yellow cards than Mexico. However, a late Saudi Arabia consolation afforded them the slightly more respectable veneer of progression via goal difference despite a tense climactic 2-0 loss to Argentina in which they produced surely the most conservative performance of the tournament so far. Any side with Robert Lewandowski will always be dangerous, though on the basis of their three games so far, the Poles don’t have much to offer beyond the Barcelona star other than a reasonably solid, workmanlike approach.

14. South Korea

After a disappointing opening that saw them draw with Uruguay and lose to Ghana, showed great resilience to beat Portugal on Friday, thus dramatically sealing a last-16 spot by virtue of goals scored. In their eighth appearance at the World Cup, it is only the third time they have made it past the group stage. They are unlikely to match their miraculous run to the semi-finals on home turf in 2002, particularly with Brazil up next in the knockout stages.

13. Senegal

Making just their third appearance at the World Cup, Senegal recovered well from the setback of a 2-0 defeat against Holland in their first game, beating Qatar convincingly and earning a hard-fought win against Ecuador. One of just two African teams left in the competition, the current Cup of Nations holders will be considerable underdogs against England but have pulled off shocks before, notably overcoming holders France in 2002, when they got as far as the quarter-finals.

12. Morocco

Unexpectedly topped their group, taking seven points from three games. But the caveat is that their two wins came against Canada, one of the worst sides in the competition, and a completely out-of-sorts Belgium team. It is just the second time they have made it out of the group stages in their sixth World Cup appearance (although they only first were eligible to qualify in 1962, having been considered part of France previously) while making it to the quarter-finals would be an unprecedented achievement. They will have to upset the odds again, however, with a strong Spain team standing in their way. 

11. USA

Were disappointing in the first game, drawing with Wales after failing to build on a strong opening half. They have been better since then, drawing with England amid a game in which they looked the stronger side for long spells, while they deservedly overcame Iran 1-0 to secure qualification in their final group match. Their main problem has been a lack of ruthlessness in the final third and they will be hoping key player Christian Pulisic wins a fitness race for today’s clash with the Netherlands — one of the less formidable of the top nations and a game they will fancy their chances of pulling off an upset. It’s been a largely disappointing tournament in general for CONCACAF teams, with Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica all exiting the tournament at the first hurdle, but a USA run deep into the competition would put a more positive complexion on proceedings.

10. Japan

Any team that tops a group featuring Germany and Spain deserves considerable respect, though they also lost to Costa Rica, so Japan still feel like one of the more enigmatic teams remaining in the tournament. With the exception of Qatar, AFC countries have generally performed better than expected — South Korea and Australia also have made the knockout stages, while Iran and Saudi Arabia at least have memorable respective wins over Wales and Argentina to look back on. Japan are clearly somewhat limited technically, they averaged just 18% possession against Spain, reportedly the lowest for a winning side since 1966, while their stats versus Germany were similar at 27%. However, their immense work rate, intelligent tactics and clinical finishing have taken them this far, and so any side will likely find them difficult to beat, including upcoming opponents Croatia. With confidence sky high, Hajime Moriyasu’s team will feel they can go even further in spite of their limitations and lack of superstars.

9. Switzerland

Coming through a gruelling five-goal thriller with Serbia to secure qualification highlighted their resilience, setting up a tough-but-winnable last-16 showdown with Portugal. The Swiss are competing in their 12th World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals on three occasions — though the most recent of those was in 1954, the tournament they hosted. Although with the likes of Fabian Schär, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri in encouraging form of late and starring in Friday’s dramatic win, now might be their best chance in a long time to end their 68-year wait to reach the final eight.

8. Croatia

Weren’t completely convincing in the group stages — against Belgium in particular, Romelu Lukaku missed some gilt-edged chances to send Roberto Martinez’s men crashing out unexpectedly early. And while Luka Modrić, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren have seen better days, they have still proven they are more than good enough for this level. Consequently, Croatia deserve to be respected, even if the prospect of repeating their run to the final four years ago feels highly fanciful. Then again, for a country with a population of less than four million, they have consistently exceeded expectations, qualifying for seven of the last eight World Cups and producing a third-place finish at France ’98 in what was another remarkable achievement.

7. Netherlands

Got the job done efficiently in the group stages, earning seven points from a possible nine. However, their performances have not been as stylish as some had hoped, leading to antagonistic exchanges between Van Gaal and journalists in press conferences. Newcastle and Man United-linked attacker Cody Gakpo has been one of the most impressive young attackers at the tournament so far, scoring in all three of their games, and while the team haven’t fully taken flight yet, the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Steven Bergwijn can be similarly influential on their day. Beating USA should be the least of their ambitions, with a potential mouth-watering tie against Argentina in the quarters.

6. Portugal

Whether Cristiano Ronaldo is more of a hindrance than a help to teams these days is debatable, but the 37-year-old free agent has not hampered Portugal significantly so far. Friday’s loss to South Korea was offset by the fact that they had already qualified on the back of hard-fought wins against Ghana and Uruguay. Players such as Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo have plenty of top-level experience so it would be no surprise to see Fernando Santos’ men go deep into the competition. Some pundits had them as ‘dark horses’ to win ahead of the tournament, and their performances so far have for the most part backed up that view. Third place at their debut in the 1966 tournament is still their best-ever World Cup placing, while they have only gone beyond the round of 16 once since then, coming fourth in 2006.

5. Argentina

Their status as some critics’ pre-tournament favourites seemed completely undeserved when they imploded in their opening game against Saudi Arabia. However, with Lionel Messi increasingly influential, back-to-back wins have seen the South Americans safely through to the knockout stages. With so much expectation and hope to finally see Messi lift the trophy, the psychological toll appears to be affecting them at times and may be the biggest stumbling block in their journey toward success. Like many of the top sides, they have seemed to lack a truly top-class out-and-out striker since Sergio Aguero’s retirement — neither Lautaro Martínez nor Julián Álvarez have been entirely convincing in the role thus far, despite the latter’s goal against Poland. On the other hand, the prospect of matching the great champions of ’78 and ’86 while consolidating Messi’s reputation as the greatest footballer ever could conversely have a galvanising effect as they grow into the tournament.

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4. Spain

Hugely impressive in the 7-0 win over Costa Rica, but less so in their tougher group games, drawing 1-1 with Germany and losing 2-1 to Japan, thereby only stumbling over the line by virtue of their superior goal difference to Hansi Flick’s side. At the moment, a World Cup win feels like a big ask, with more questions than answers. Are Ferran Torres and Alvaro Morata really good enough to be relied upon at this level, particularly when you compare them to the strength of England, France and Brazil’s respective attacks? Do prodigiously gifted talents like Gavi and Pedri have enough top-level experience to get them over the line? Can shifting Man City midfielder Rodri into the backline to accommodate 34-year-old Sergio Busquets really work? Is Luis Enrique’s idealistic approach likely to pay dividends? At this point, repeating their first and still, only World Cup success of 2010 looks like a tall order, if not an impossible outcome. 

3. England

Exactly how good England are is still tricky to discern. At times in the group stage, they looked as accomplished as anyone in the tournament, though the calibre of opposition was questionable, as they comfortably overcame Iran 6-2 and Wales 3-0, though they were made to appear ordinary against an effervescent USA outfit. For all their remarkable depth of talent in the final third, you suspect the defence could make or break them ultimately. Both Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker made the Team of the Tournament at the last Euros and will need a similar level of performance this time around, with the Man United man needing to forget about some bad moments at club level since then.

2. France

Along with Brazil, France are probably the most impressive team so far. They looked strong in their opening wins over Australia and Denmark, while not too much can be read into the loss versus Tunisia given that they fielded a significantly weakened team. Even without the injured Karim Benzema, their attack is looking formidable, with Kylian Mbappe registering three goals from two starts and Olivier Giroud also chipping in with two. Despite the absence of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, their midfield also appears sound, with Antoine Griezmann, in particular, impressing in a playmaker role. The main caveat is that they have yet to be really tested by top-class opposition — they were put in a relatively weak group with the Danes especially disappointing and out of sorts.

1. Brazil

The bookies’ favourites prior to the tournament have generally backed up that status. Despite issues surrounding the fitness of star man Neymar, they have come through a difficult group in convincing fashion, earning hard-fought but deserved victories over Serbia and Switzerland, while the loss to Cameroon won’t ring alarm bells, given that 10 changes were made to the starting XI with qualification already secured. It’s very hard to see an obvious weakness in their team and accordingly, the Selecao may be set to add to what is already a record haul of five World Cup wins.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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