By Michael Hincks
How are World Cup favourites faring? Assessing form and fixtures of Germany, Brazil and more
Last Updated: 23/03/18 10:19am
The World Cup is under three months away, but how are the favourites faring going into March's international friendlies? Michael Hincks takes a look…
Germany (Current odds - 9/2 with Sky Bet)
Upcoming friendlies: March 23: Spain (H) - March 27: Brazil (H)
World Cup Group F: Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Joachim Low's side are favourites to defend their crown in Russia. Having breezed through qualification - winning all 10 games - the German's are among a number of nations who are seeking sterner tests in the upcoming international break.
Currently top of the FIFA world rankings, Germany host Spain (No 6) and Brazil (No 2) in Dusseldorf and Berlin respectively, and having not met the Brazilians since demolishing them 7-1 on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final, this is one friendly fixture with added spice. Germany's Twitter account were all too keen to post a tongue-in-cheek reminder some two weeks ago...
Germany wobbled after World Cup glory four years ago, losing to Argentina, USA, France, England and Slovakia in friendlies, also falling to Poland and the Republic of Ireland in Euro 2016 qualifying. They went on to lose 2-0 to France in the semi-finals of that tournament, leaving doubts over a successful World Cup defence.
However, since falling to that Antoine Griezmann double in Marseille, Germany have bounced back to go on a 21-game unbeaten run, most recently drawing friendlies against England and France.
Heading to Russia, Low will boast a squad of experienced World Cup winners with a dash of youthful input. Leading in that regard is 22-year-old Timo Werner, who made his debut against England one year ago, and went on to score seven goals in 10 appearances in 2017. Bayern Munich and Liverpool continue to be linked with the RB Leipzig forward, but his first focus this summer will be to fire Germany to a record-equalling fifth World Cup.
Brazil (Current odds - 5/1 with Sky Bet)
Upcoming friendlies: March 23: Russia (A) - March 27: Germany (A)
World Cup Group E: Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Much like Germany, Brazil impressed in qualifying for the World Cup, losing just once en route to topping the CONMEBOL table by 10 points. However, lacklustre displays at the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas - beaten by Paraguay on penalties in the quarter-final before exiting the group stages a year later - will have their fervid followers fearing similar disappointment in Russia.
Under coach Tite, however, there is a reason to be cautiously optimistic. Since the 56-year-old took charge in June 2016, they have won 13 of 17 games, losing just once. The upcoming friendly against Germany will be an indication of how far they have come under his stewardship, though it will be the World Cup where the jury is truly out.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over the fitness of talisman Neymar will likely stretch into June. After the PSG striker's operation on a fractured metatarsal was deemed a success in early March, the initial forecast of a three-month spell on the sidelines would see him return just in time. Any potential absence would see the odds somewhat lengthen.
France (Current odds - 11/2 with Sky Bet)
Upcoming friendlies: March 23: Colombia (H) - March 27: Russia (A)
World Cup Group C: Australia, Denmark, Peru
With a squad the envy of nations the world over, France could field two different starting XIs capable of World Cup success. However, this strength in depth has somewhat muddled Didier Deschamps' thoughts in recent years, and it has consequently produced some startling results.
Draws against Belarus and Luxembourg - plus defeat to Sweden - meant World Cup qualification was only confirmed after an edgy win in Bulgaria and hard-fought victory over Belarus.
Questions will continue over what exactly is France's strongest XI. The presence of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembele, Kingsley Coman, Florian Thauvin and Nabil Fekir (the list could go on) highlights the attacking headache alone that confronts Deschamps.
But for many, it's a pleasant conundrum, and given that the team have embarked on a seven-game unbeaten run, there's a sense that a cohesive France side have the ability to see off every challenge in Russia.
Spain (Current odds - 6/1 with Sky Bet)
Upcoming friendlies: March 23: Germany (A) - March 27: Argentina (H)
World Cup Group B: Iran, Morocco, Portugal
The 2010 world champions have gone 16 games unbeaten under Julen Lopetegui since their Euro 2016 exit to Italy. Spain even took four points from the Italians in their two heavyweight meetings during the World Cup Qualifiers, and a friendly victory over France last year outlined their intent on reclaiming the crown this summer.
The familiar faces of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba allow Spain some consistency in defence, while Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets remain the midfield maestros of choice. However, there will be concern for Lopetegui up front.
Alvaro Morata has faded throughout the season at Chelsea, while the goals have dried up for Valencia striker Rodrigo in 2018 - though four goals in his last three La Liga games could be a sign of a timely return to form.
Positive performances against Germany and Argentina could quell these attacking fears, while one Diego Costa will look to have a say upon his return to first-team action with Atletico Madrid. With six goals in 14 games to date, the ex-Chelsea striker could well be the answer.
Argentina (Current odds - 15/2 with Sky Bet)
Upcoming friendlies: March 23: Italy (N - Etihad Stadium) - March 27: Spain (A)
World Cup Group D: Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria
After scraping through qualifying, Argentina have emerged as fifth-favourites for the World Cup. There's one reason for that - Lionel Messi.
The little magician secured Argentina's spot in Russia with a hat-trick against Ecuador, hauling his nation from the brink of humiliation to a third-placed finish in the South American standings. As Chelsea learned to their peril in the Champions League, Messi is capable of single-handedly deciding games, and it is this lethal quality which keeps them in contention.
A Messi-less Argentina lost 4-2 to Nigeria in a November friendly, highlighting their issues without the Barcelona star, but he's set to feature against Italy and Spain this month, with Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria also featuring in Jorge Sampaoli's squad.