World Cup qualification: Portugal, Mexico and Italy face varying degrees of trouble
Lionel Messi has won it all at club level but has never dominated a World Cup (AFP/Juan Mabromata)
Holders France hope to retain their title but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar could be missing the two most recent European champions as Portugal and Italy must both battle through play-offs to qualify.
That left fans with the prospect of no Cristiano Ronaldo in Qatar next winter and the Azzurri, who thrilled during their run to Euro 2020 glory, potentially missing out on two straight World Cups for the first time in their history.
Here AFP Sport looks at the state of play for some of the big guns who have booked their place on football’s biggest stage.
Les Bleus will be hoping for a more inspired defence of their world title than the performances they dished up at Euro 2020, which brought on a full-blown crisis following their humiliating elimination at the hands of Switzerland.
Winning the Nations League brought some enthusiasm back to Didier Deschamps’ side, as did the sterling performances from Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema which led them to the title.
However despite a wealth of world class talent France still seem to be less than the sum of their parts.
After reaching the last four at the last World Cup and losing the Euro final on penalties at Wembley, England’s talented pool of players should surely be one of the teams to beat in Qatar.
Gareth Southgate has a bumper crop of top level players from which to fashion a team, which as expected eased through a mostly weak qualifying group.
However a safety-first approach has at times held back the Three Lions’ undoubted attacking threat, and one of Europe’s best strikers in Harry Kane, when the chips are down.
Luis Enrique’s faith in Spain’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of young talent looks to be paying off, with his team looking like a dark horse in Qatar after creditable showings both at the Euro and the Nations League.
Only beaten by France in the Nations League final thanks to superb saves from Hugo Lloris and an Mbappe goal which they thought should have been chalked off for offside, Spain impressed with their passing football and bold selection of inexperienced youngsters like Gavi in key roles.
The one thing they lack is a proven goalscorer, with Alvaro Morata still not convincing up top.
Hansi Flick has Germany firing again after taking charge of the team following their last-16 Euro 2020 exit at the hands of England, which brought down the curtain on Joachim Loew’s 15-year tenure.
The Germans have put together six straight wins — rattling in 27 goals in the process — since Flick took the reins, and they look a rejuvenated outfit ready to make a mark after poor showings in recent tournaments.
Coach Tite can already start planning for next winter’s tournament after qualifying with six games to spare last week, a 1-0 win over Colombia ensuring Brazil’s spot.
They have a comfortable six-point lead at the top the 10-team CONMEBOL group following their 0-0 draw with fierce rivals Argentina on Tuesday.
Just four goals conceded suggest that Brazil will be tough to beat, while an attack led by Neymar carries enough threat to challenge anyone.
Lionel Messi and company are on a 27-match unbeaten run after Tuesday’s draw with Brazil, alongside defeats for Chile and Uruguay, secured their passage to Qatar.
Early qualification for the World Cup caps a fine year for Argentina, who won their 15th Copa America in July with victory over Brazil at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium.
It also gives Messi one last chance to shine on the biggest stage of all and put to bed the one doubt around claims that he is the greatest ever player — that unlike Diego Maradona he has never truly done it at a World Cup.