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Which of the contenders are in the best shape for World Cup?

World Cup talk is starting to dominate the conversation in football’s leading nations as the big kick-off on June 14 approches.

From favourites Brazil and Germany to hosts Russia and perennial under-achievers England, we shine the spotlight on some main contenders; what shape are they in? How many injuries do they have? And what selection issues are keeping the managers up at night?

BRAZIL

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN

The first team to qualify for the World Cup back in March, Brazil have enjoyed an impressive renaissance since their 7-1 humiliation against Germany on home soil four years ago. 

They can pick players from Europe’s top clubs all over the pitch; Ederson, Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Marcelo, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino included.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Neymar is missing from the upcoming friendlies against Russia on Friday and Germany next week because of an ankle injury sustained at the end of February.

Though he should be fit for the finals, there will be a concern if he can get enough games for PSG to be 100 per cent match sharp.

Brazil are still haunted by Neymar’s ankle and foot injury during the last World Cup which may have cost them home glory.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Coach Tite has already named 15 of the players he will pick in his World Cup squad, a decision that exudes confidence.

Picking a starting XI will be harder because he has so many good players to choose from, starting at goalkeeper where Manchester City’s Ederson and Alisson of Roma are both Champions League quarter-finalists and considered world-class.

There is a dilemma up front, Firmino or City’s Gabriel Jesus; while 2014 captain Thiago Silva isn’t guaranteed a starting place.

GERMANY

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

World Cup holders, No 1 ranked team with FIFA and bookmakers’ favourites to retain the trophy. In other words, they’re in pretty good shape!

A new generation of players headed by Leroy Sane, Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner has been added to the 2014 stalwarts though there will be concern over the lack of a proven international striker to replace Miroslav Klose.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Manuel Neuer, widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, hasn’t played since September because of a fractured foot, though he is upbeat about returning before the end of the season.

Winger Marco Reus has had terrible problems with his ankle and though he’s over the worst, he misses Germany’s friendlies against Spain and Brazil with a groin strain.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

If Neuer returns, will he automatically go back in goal when Barcelona’s No 1 Marc Andre Ter Stegen is having such a good season.

How loyal should Joachim Low be to his 2014 heroes? World Cup final goalscorer Mario Gotze can’t get in the current squad but Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are still in, though neither are at the level they were.

Is 22-year-old Werner of Leipzig ready to step into Klose’s shoes up-front or would Germany be better off playing with a false nine?

FRANCE

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

They have one of the best squads on paper but will be disquieted by their dismal showing in the Euro 2016 final on home soil when they lost to Portugal. 

Still haven’t found the best way to get the best out of individual talents like Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann in a team structure.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Left back Benjamin Mendy hasn’t played since September following a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.

He is back in training and desperate to play again after the international break but Pep Guardiola is urging caution after such a long and serious lay-off.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Didier Deschamps has centre-backs who play for Barcelona (Samuel Umtiti) and Real Madrid (Raphael Varane), so where does that leave Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny? 

The manager has expressed concern about Pogba’s confidence being dented by his poor form at Manchester United. At Euro 2016, he played too deep, finding the right role will be crucial.

ENGLAND

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

Things have taken a downturn in recent months with many of Gareth Southgate’s ‘reliables’ either injured or on the bench at their clubs; Phil Jones, Danny Rose and Adam Lallana among them. 

One plus is that England have never coped with high expectation so general pessimism may be good.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Harry Kane’s return from an ankle injury is essential and Southgate also namechecked Jones, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph as those who could make the plane even though they are unavailable for this month’s friendlies against Holland and Italy.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Any of the four goalkeepers named in Southgate’s latest squad – Jack Butland, Joe Hart, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope – have a shot at being No. 1 this summer.

A central midfield position alongside Eric Dier looks up for grabs with Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson hopeful. Southgate has already stated he will play three centre backs but none of the several contenders have cemented their place.

BELGIUM

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

Packed with star quality from Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany at the back to Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku further forward.

They qualified emphatically and this Golden Generation will know it’s now or never.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld has played only twice since November 1 and suffered hamstring problems. Even if he makes Russia, he’ll be undercooked. 

Kompany is fit but given his history, breaking down mid-tournament will always be a worry.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Roberto Martinez will be up at night working out how to squeeze all his good players into the line-up. If Alderweireld and Kompany are fit, he could use Vertonghen at left-back or play three central defenders.

Does he pick Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele alongside Axel Witsel or sacrifice one of them for more attacking flair?

ARGENTINA

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

Heavily over-reliant on Lionel Messi who virtually dragged his country to the finals single-handed with a hat-trick against Ecuador on the final day of qualification.

Weak in certain areas and while goalkeeper Sergio Romero is No. 1 for his country, he’s second-choice for Manchester United.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

You can’t doubt the patriotism factor with Argentina and Sergio Aguero is in the squad to face Italy on Friday even though he missed his last game for Manchester City through injury. Still, it helps the Italian fixture is in Manchester!

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Who partners Messi up front? Legendary manager Jorge Sampaoli, credited with ‘inventing’ pressing football, is spoilt for choice with Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain leading contenders. Paulo Dybala of Juventus doesn’t even make the latest squad.

PORTUGAL

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

Struggled in qualification and needed to beat Switzerland in the play-offs to qualify. 

However, they were also written off before Euro 2016 and ended up winning their first major international trophy.

Any line-up containing Cristiano Ronaldo – who ended up as a touchline cheerleader after getting injured in the European final against France – has a chance.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Veteran defender Pepe, now 35 and playing in Turkey with Besiktas, has become increasingly injury prone and is unlikely to be called upon by coach Fernando Santos because of the risk factor.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

Where does Ronaldo play and which system will get the best out of him? 

Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva will have a part to play and young striker Andre Silva is rediscovering form after a difficult start at AC Milan.

SPAIN

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

The transition from the tiki-taka World Cup winners has not been easy; no side could lose giants like Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xabi Alonso and Xavi without a dip in form. 

However, the new generation of David De Gea, Isco and Marco Asensio are giving grounds for optimism with stalwarts Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta still around.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

Sergio Busquets has a toe injury sustained against Chelsea in the Champions League but should be fit well in time for the World Cup.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

What to do with Diego Costa? The Brazilian-born striker was an unpopular choice for Spain four years ago and blamed for their early exit.

But at 29 and in decent form for Atletico Madrid, he has been given another chance by Julen Lopetegui for Friday’s friendly against Germany.

The conundrum is that selecting a target-man like Costa might compromise Spain’s famed possession game, exemplified by David Silva and Iniesta.

RUSSIA

WHAT SHAPE ARE THEY IN?

Russia are ranked 63rd in the world – that’s more than 30 places behind Scotland. 

Only their opponents in the opening game of the tournament, Saudi Arabia, are lower-ranked of the 32 World Cup nations. Have failed to win any of their three latest friendlies against Iran, Argentina and Spain.

ANY BIG INJURY PROBLEMS?

The likely absence of Zenit striker Aleksandr Kokorin after rupturing knee ligaments in the Europa League last week is a massive blow.

WHAT ARE THE DECISIONS TO BE MADE?

How to fill the gap vacated by experienced defenders Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutsky, who retired from international football after Russia flopped at Euro 2016. 

They finished last in Group B which also featured England and Wales.

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