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Lionel Messi's form, France woes and Spain starlets: How England's World Cup rivals look

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

There's under two months to go until the start of the World Cup in Qatar and England are amongst the favourites to win it, with Argentina, Spain, France and Brazil also in the mix

With the World Cup fast approaching, England will be looking to finalise their preparations ahead of attempting to win the tournament for the first time since 1966.

The Three Lions reached the semi-finals of the World Cup back in 2018, losing out to Croatia, who were then beaten by France in the final. Gareth Southgate's side got one better at the European Championships last year and progressed all the way to the final before being defeated on penalties in demoralising fashion by Italy.

There is some expectation flying around the Three Lions this time around and it will be considered a failure if they don't at least better how they did in Russia four years ago. However, the competition is set to be fierce in Qatar with a number of countries in form ahead of the tournament, which gets underway on November 20.

So, with that in mind, Mirror Football have looked at how some of England's competitors are shaping up.

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Argentina - Messi flying

One of the favourites for the tournament, Argentina look well-placed to challenge for the trophy they last won back in 1986. This is mainly down to Lionel Messi's up-turn form at the start of the season, vastly improving on what was an underwhelming first campaign at Paris Saint-Germain.

The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner has scored six goals and chipped in with eight assists in his first 11 games and is slowly getting best to his best, having netted just 11 times across the entirety of last season. It isn't a coincidence that Messi's form has improved with the World Cup around the corner, though, as he tries to keep himself in the best possible nick both physically and mentally.

Messi now has a balanced and happy Argentina squad around him - something he hasn't always had in previous tournaments. Manager Lionel Scaloni has galvanised the group and promoted some talented youngsters, with Argentina finally looking like a team with established internationals all over the pitch.

At the back, Lisandro Martinez and Cristian Romero have impressed for Manchester United and Tottenham this season, while Emiliano Martinez has been a consistent performer for Aston Villa over the past few years. That is a core set of three players that is capable of setting the tone to keep clean sheets and help ease the burden on the attacking areas where Argentina have always seemed to flourish.

Messi usually starts as a second striker just behind Lautaro Martinez, but his role requires little to no defensive running, meaning he can use all of his energy on his attacking ability. There are four midfielders in the side, with Angel Di Maria on the right, Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes in the middle, while Giovani Lo Celso usually plies his trade on the left-hand side for his nation.

Acuna is set to start at left-back, while Atletico Madrid's right back Nahuel Molina completes a defence that has improved in recent years. Argentina begin the tournament by facing Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on November 22, before playing Mexico and Poland to end the group stages.



Spain - Youngsters improving

It has been over a decade since Spain won the World Cup in South Africa, with a Barcelona-dominant XI lifting the trophy as they outclassed opponents both on and off the ball. Six Catalans started the win over Netherlands as Andreas Iniesta scored the winner and they will need players from the same club to play an important part again if they are to succeed at this tournament.

Pedri, who played a starring role at Euro 2020, is the player that keeps them ticking in the midfield, while teammate Gavi has also turned into someone Spain may have to rely on. The former won the Young Player of the Tournament at the Euro's, having helped Spain to the semi-finals. Ansu Fati is the final main Barcelona asset that Spain are likely to use in their starting XI, although Sergio Busquets and Ferran Torres will be pushing for important roles.

Fati, however, has not been included in this week's Nations League matches due to an ongoing knee injury with Luis Enrique pressing the precaution button to ensure he doesn't play too many games. Another absentee from the squad to face Portugal and Switzerland is Sergio Ramos, with the PSG defender unlikely to be on the place for this winter's tournament in Qatar.

Up front, former Liverpool striker Iago Aspas has been tipped to lead the line, with no other Spanish national scoring more goals than the Celta Vigo forward in LaLiga last season. Aymeric Laporte is likely to partner Pau Torres in defence, with Rodri alongside Pedri and Gavi in midfield.

Spain have a real chance of challenging at the World Cup and have a real talented blend of youth and experience, with Unai Simon expected to be in goal. Enrique's side face Costa Rica up first, before playing Germany and Japan.



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Brazil - Tite's selections

Brazil's record last season makes impressive reading: 10 wins and three draws from 13 matches, with 30 goals scored and just four conceded. It might be thought then, that the team would be sailing in the calmest of waters in the build-up to the World Cup.

But that is possibly not the case with coach Tite, who has shook the boat with some of his recent selections. Arsenal trio Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel and Gabriel Martinelli have all been left out of the squad for two friendlies against Tunisia and Ghana, with Tite also selecting just one recognised right-back in the squad.

There is a disappointment, too, for Phillipe Coutinho traditionally a favourite of Tite, but he has lost out to Everton Ribeiro of Flamengo, who has been recalled after his team's recent run of excellent results. Coutinho, however, has been out of form at Aston Villa and hasn't been able to replicate his early form during his time at the club.

Roberto Firmino has also been recalled to the squad, having netted five goals for Liverpool so far this season, with Jesus the one dropping out. The three Arsenal omissions could be down to a club request, although that would seem unlikely given they already have a number of players out on international duty.

Brazil's front line is arguably the most dangerous at the tournament, with Neymar, Antony, Vinicius and Raphinha in what is a potent front four with pace, trickery and goals. Tite will no doubt be hoping that quartet can start the World Cup on fire and guide them to glory, with Serbia up first on November 24.



France - Mbappe fallout

There has been plenty of talk in recent days about Kylian Mbappe's fallout with the French FA as the 23-year-old refused to take part in a photoshoot due to image right issues. France were set to take part in a team photo day on Tuesday ahead of their two Nations League matches this week with Mbappe amongst Didier Deschamps' squad.

However, Mbappe wasn't involved after the Federation reportedly refused to 'modify the agreement' of image rights of the players. According to L'Equipe, Mbappe's representatives are also unhappy no agreement could, as requested, be reached ahead of the World Cup.

The forward's frustration and subsequent row has been bubbling since March after he boycotted a marketing campaign which involved betting and fast food companies. Could this have an effect on the France squad and Mbappe's performances?

Mbappe is one of, if not, the world's best forward on his day and will be integral to France's hopes of defending the trophy. He won the Best Young Player Award at the World Cup in 2018, after scoring four goals with Mbappe impressing in a front line alongside Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud.

Fast forward to 2022 and France's front line could be completely different, with Ousmane Dembele and Christopher Nkunku pushing for starts, while Karim Benzema will be an integral member of the squad if he is fit.

With France winless in their opening four Nations League matches and in need of an upturn in form to avoid relegation to League B, their upcoming games against Austria and Denmark should offer plenty of clues. They begin their defence of the World Cup against Australia, before taking on Denmark and Tunisia.




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Date: 22/9/2022

Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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