The World Cup favourites have played their final games before they have to name their provisional squads, as an action-packed international break comes to an end.

Hat-tricks, thrashings, tactical concerns, selection dilemmas – it’s been a revealing week about some of the contenders for the trophy.

BBC Sport, in conjunction with BBC Radio 5 live’s Euro Leagues Football Show, has looked at the seven favourites – excluding England – to see how they are shaping up for the summer in Russia.


Argentina have lost two of their past three games

In a nutshell…

Two-time champions Argentina lost the 2014 final to Germany. At the age of 30, this is the last World Cup where Lionel Messi will be at the peak of his powers – in fact, the Barcelona forward says he could quit international football after the tournament. They were torn apart 6-1 by Spain without the injured Messi on Tuesday.


Argentina almost didn’t qualify. A Messi hat-trick in their last qualifier, a 3-1 win against Ecuador, took them to Russia. In November, they beat the World Cup hosts and lost to Nigeria in friendlies. And in the recent batch of games – both of which Messi missed with a minor injury – they beat Italy 2-0 without overly impressing, before being demolished in Madrid.

What sort of shape are they in?

Argentina are putting all their eggs in the Messi basket really. So much so that boss Jorge Sampaoli is considering not even bringing Paulo Dybala or Mauro Icardi, two of the top five scorers in Serie A, to Russia. Sampaoli, who only took over for the last four qualifiers, is unsure either player can adjust to his system.

Sampaoli says “this is going to be Messi’s team” but conceded in his forthcoming book: “Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed. As a result, he can’t enjoy his talent. The negativity surrounding international football damages Messi.”

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

Julien Laurens: “I was not so keen on those Sampaoli quotes about this being Messi’s team. I don’t think that’s the right message to send. It’s like they’ve got 10 players and Messi.

“But this is Argentina, they have amazing players everywhere on the pitch. OK, they have the best ever. Even for Messi, I don’t think it’s a good thing – it just adds more pressure.”

James Horncastle: “Can you find a way to play both Dybala and Messi in the same team? Dybala likes to occupy the same spaces and play in the same way as Messi does. Do they step on each others toes? Obviously Messi is the better player. Does that preclude Dybala from going to Russia? I don’t think it does.

“But it’s very clear the striker Sampaoli trusts most is Gonzalo Higuain because of the all-round game he brings, his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team. He works so hard that when he does get a chance on goal, he’s too tired and misses it.”

What’s next?

Argentina, unlike most other World Cup teams, are only expected to play once more before the tournament – away to Israel on 9 June.


Belgium’s decision to play only one friendly in March – against Saudi Arabia – has been criticised

In a nutshell…

Belgium have never won a major tournament, with their best World Cup run a 1986 semi-final spot. They have probably their most talented squad of all time – filled with Premier League stars – and will be hoping to build on quarter-final eliminations in their past two tournaments.


Belgium stormed into the World Cup with nine wins and a draw from 10 qualifiers, finishing nine points clear of Greece. Since then they have drawn against Mexico, beaten Japan in November and thrashed Saudi Arabia 4-0 – their only friendly in this round of games – on Tuesday.

What sort of shape are they in?

Different year, different manager, same story. Marc Wilmots’ tactics were criticised after last-eight exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. Roberto Martinez replaced him before 2018 World Cup qualification, and they are now unbeaten in 16 games. But after a 3-3 draw with Mexico in November, playmaker Kevin de Bruyne said: “We still put too much on our talents. As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico.”

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

Julien Laurens: “When you have a player like Kevin de Bruyne publicly questioning your tactics and formation, I think you should worry. I’m not a big fan of Martinez. Wilmots was terrible; I think Martinez is not much better.

“Every single other manager says the two friendlies in March are so important because it’s the last games before you announce your World Cup squad. What do Belgium do? They don’t have the first game when everyone plays on Friday and then the second game – no offence to Saudi Arabia – is against Saudi Arabia.

“They have the talent to win the World Cup but I’m not sure about the dynamic.”

What’s next?

Belgium play three friendlies in June – against Portugal, Egypt and Costa Rica – before their World Cup opener against Panama.


Brazil did not miss Neymar in their recent friendly wins

In a nutshell…

The most successful team in World Cup history with five trophies. On a good run of results – including a friendly win over Germany – they will be looking to rebuild that reputation after their 7-1 thrashing by the same opponents in their home tournament four years ago. Joint favourites with Germany to win.


Brazil went unbeaten in their final 17 World Cup qualifiers (only losing the opening game to Chile) to finish 10 points clear of second-placed Uruguay. Since then they have beaten Japan and drawn against England in November, before a 3-0 win over Russia and 1-0 victory over the world champions in Berlin.

What sort of shape are they in?

The big question is about the availability of Neymar, who Brazil are hopeful will make the World Cup. Their fourth top scorer of all time, despite only being 26, is recovering from successful surgery on a broken foot and might not return for Paris St-Germain this season. In February, boss Tite revealed the names of 15 players who were guaranteed a place in his squad, injuries aside.

Brazil have great strength in depth in some areas – Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino are probably battling for one starting spot up front, while Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson is likely to be back-up for Roma’s in-form Alisson Becker.

Tite admits his side are still haunted by 2014, saying “the 7-1 from the World Cup is like a ghost”.

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

James Horncastle: “I think Brazil have more balance than people give them credit for. We talk about their talent going forward – Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, Willian. But if you look at what they’ve got in midfield, Fernandinho can balance the team. And Shakhtar midfielder Fred – I don’t think it’s a coincidence Pep Guardiola wouldn’t mind having him at Manchester City next season.”

Raphael Honigstein: “Brazil look much more a team than Argentina do. We have to see how Neymar comes back and in what kind of condition.”

BBC World Service’s Fernando Duarte was at the 1-0 win over Germany: “It was more important psychologically than technically, but a few things stood out. Willian has cemented a place in the starting XI and it also seems Roberto Firmino’s great season at Liverpool still isn’t enough for him to pip Gabriel Jesus to the striker position.

“Manager Tite will also struggle with the fact Coutinho slotted in well on the left side of the pitch – Neymar’s favourite spot.”

What’s next?

Brazil play friendlies against Croatia and Austria in June before their World Cup campaign.


Kylian Mbappe scored twice against Russia – but can Didier Deschamps work out how to get the best out of his stars?

In a nutshell…

France have won the World Cup once, when they hosted it in 1998. They have a talented crop of players, including three of the five most expensive footballers in history, but there are question marks about how to turn these stars into a team.


France qualified for the World Cup with seven wins from 10 games, finishing four points above Sweden. In November, they beat Wales and drew with world champions Germany in friendlies. But they blew a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at home to Colombia on Friday, before following that up with a 3-1 win over Russia.

What sort of shape are they in?

They’ve got the players but can Didier Deschamps work out his best XI? Paul Pogba was dropped for the Colombia friendly with his “complicated situation” at Manchester United – although he returned to score against Colombia.

Les Bleus were error prone at the back in the loss to Colombia at Stade de France. Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane or Laurent Koscielny at the back?

And, while a nice problem to have, who misses out from Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Lemar, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud?

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

Julien Laurens: “Hugo Lloris said ‘Colombia are a squad who aren’t as talented as us but at least they play like a team – and that’s not what we did’. He was spot on. He was really angry and to make Hugo Lloris angry, you need to push a lot.

“Colombia changed their tactics at half-time and Deschamps didn’t react to it or change anything, even though he looked at his team collapsing and crumbling.

“I’m not sure the 4-4-2 is strong enough to win you a World Cup. They were overrun against Colombia. A big country like Germany, Brazil or Spain, you might struggle there.”

What’s next?

France play friendlies at the end of May and the start of June against three teams who have not qualified for the World Cup – Republic of Ireland, Italy and the United States.


Germany would have equalled the longest unbeaten run in their history, had they not lost to Brazil on Tuesday

In a nutshell…

The current holders and one more World Cup will equal Brazil’s record of five. They are ranked as the number one team in the world and joint favourites, with Brazil, to lift the trophy in Russia.


Germany won all 10 World Cup qualifiers to cruise into this summer’s tournament. They were unbeaten in 22 games following friendly draws against England, France and, on Friday, Spain – but then lost 1-0 to Brazil on Tuesday.

What sort of shape are they in?

One of the main questions about their squad is will Manuel Neuer be fit from his broken metatarsal in time? Their undoubted first-choice keeper before his injury has not played since September – but the form of Marc-Andre ter Stegen means he might have to settle for a place on the bench, if he returns at all.

In Timo Werner, who has scored seven goals in 12 caps, they finally have the proper striker they missed in their Euro 2016 semi-final run. Mario Gotze, who scored the winner in the 2014 final, might not even go to Russia because of his poor form, while Marco Reus was not in their most recent squad.

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

Raphael Honigstein: “The big question is does Sami Khedira still have the engine and ability to link up two different parts of the same team? I think Ilkay Gundogan still has a chance to make a claim to be a different type of midfielder next to Toni Kroos, but then do you need Emre Can to add the height and muscle?

“If Manuel Neuer returns by April, I think there’s enough time for him to go to the World Cup. If he plays two games and is Manuel Neuer as we know him, Joachim Low will take him. Otherwise, he’ll stay behind.

“Timo Werner was one of the real winners of the Spain game. He didn’t score but he caused so many problems for Spain. He’s definitely on the plane.”

What’s next?

Germany play Austria and Saudi Arabia in June before the World Cup starts.


Cristiano Ronaldo had scored in nine consecutive games for club and country before his blank against the Netherlands

In a nutshell…

Portugal have reached the semi-finals of the World Cup twice, in 1966 and 2006. They went out in the 2014 group stages – but come into the tournament as European champions. Plus they have Cristiano Ronaldo.


Portugal squeaked into the World Cup thanks to a 2-0 win over Switzerland in their winner-takes-all final group game. In November, they beat Saudi Arabia and drew with USA. This month, Ronaldo scored twice in injury time as they beat Egypt 2-1 – but they followed that up with a hugely unimpressive 3-0 defeat by the Netherlands, who have not even qualified.

What sort of shape are they in?

As always, Ronaldo – even at the age of 33 – is pivotal to their hopes. Their talisman, whose double against Egypt made him the third top scorer of all time in international football, has scored 20 goals in 16 games for Portugal since Euro 2016. But a combination of injuries and loss of form to other players, including Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches, means Fernando Santos says he is only 70% sure of his World Cup squad.

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

James Horncastle: “Let’s remember how Portugal got to the final of the European Championship and won it. It wasn’t just Ronaldo. They shared the goals around the team. They were the ugly duckling in that tournament. They’ve got undoubted talent.

“Andre Silva has come into form for AC Milan and had a good record in qualifying. As a natural striker, that’s something a bit different from the team they had who won the European Championship.”

What’s next?

Portugal play three friendlies in May and June before the World Cup – against two of England’s group opponents, Tunisia and Belgium, as well as Algeria.


Spain were irresistible against Argentina, with Isco hitting a hat-trick

In a nutshell…

The 2010 champions were eliminated in the group stages last time, but look much stronger heading into the 2018 event – culminating in Tuesday’s 6-1 demolition of Argentina. They are yet to lose in 18 games under boss Julen Lopetegui, scoring in each of them.


Since finishing top of a qualifying group containing Italy, with nine wins and one draw from 10 games, Spain have extended their unbeaten run to 18 games. A win over Costa Rica and a draw against Russia in November was followed by a draw with world champions Germany and the Argentina rout in Madrid.

What sort of shape are they in?

Spain looked good in qualifying and in their recent friendlies. Andres Iniesta is still pulling the strings, Isco has hit goalscoring form and highly decorated centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique remain in front of David de Gea, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.

The main query is who will play up front. Alvaro Morata was not even named in their recent squad following his poor Chelsea form. Valencia striker Rodrigo started against Germany and Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa got the nod against Argentina – with both players scoring when they got the chance.

BBC Euro Leagues Football Show analysis

James Horncastle: “The striker position has been a difficult one for Spain for a number of years. Lopetegui was the youth team manager and got a lot out of Morata when they won the Euro Under-21s in Israel a few years ago. The issue he’s got is that the guy he knows and trusts isn’t playing regularly enough or showing what we know he can show at Chelsea.”

Raphael Honigstein: “You feel it’s an unresolved issue for Spain. Who is the best striker to fit their system? Diego Costa is so different, he adds a lot but maybe doesn’t link up perfectly and Rodrigo is the opposite. He’s a quick, small, flexible striker but doesn’t give you anything at corners or free-kicks – the ugly, dirty goals you sometimes need.

“In theory, Morata is the best of both worlds on paper. He can lead the line and he can play – but not if he’s totally shot on confidence.”

What’s next?

Spain play Switzerland and Tunisia in friendlies before the World Cup.

How are England’s World Cup opponents faring?

See above for Belgium.


Tunisia’s fans invaded the pitch after their recent win over Costa Rica in Nice

Tunisia – who went through qualifying unbeaten – are in the World Cup for a fifth time, but have never gone past the group stage. They are unbeaten in seven games, including 1-0 wins over Iran and Costa Rica in their recent friendlies.

BBC World Service’s John Bennett, who was at the win over Costa Rica in Nice, said: “Tunisia really impressed me. Comfortable on the ball, positive and well organised, they totally outplayed Costa Rica.

“Former Sunderland attacker Wahbi Khazri was the goalscorer and star man. He may not have made a great impact in the Premier League but he is the player England have to be wary of. Everything goes through him. He had licence to roam the attacking third of the pitch.”

They have recently recruited the French-born quartet of Yohan Benalouane, the Leicester defender, Troyes midfielder Seifeddine Khaoui, Montpellier midfielder Ellyes Skhiri and Chateauroux keeper Mouez Hassen.


Panama are the 2000-1 outsiders, along with Saudi Arabia, to win the World Cup

Panama qualified for the World Cup for the first time thanks to a late Roman Torres winner against Costa Rica that knocked the United States out. The next day was declared a national holiday by the president.

However, since then they have struggled in friendlies, beating Grenada before a defeat by Iran and draw with Wales in November, and losses to Denmark and Switzerland – by a 6-0 scoreline – this month.

BBC Sport recently spent a day with centre-back Torres – read about it here.