Molinaro on World Cup: One year out from Brazil

Spain celebrates its 2010 World Cup victory. (AP)

Exactly one year from today, the eyes of the soccer world will focus on Brazil when the FIFA World Cup kicks off — and the field of participating nations for the biggest sports event on the planet is already starting to take shape.

Brazil, as host nation, doesn’t have to go through the qualifiers, and thus is assured of its place. Last week, Japan became the first country to qualify for the competition.

The Aussies, South Korea and Iran also look well placed to clinch World Cup berths out of Asia, while New Zealand has already wrapped up the Oceania section and will play the eventual fourth-place side from CONCACAF in a home-and-home playoff in November.

CONCACAF, Europe, South America and Africa still have a ways to go in their respective qualifying campaigns, but we’re getting a good idea of who some of the favourites and dark horses will be in Brazil.

The favourites

The usual suspects lead the way, starting with the reigning champions Spain.

La Roja have won three major tournaments in a row – Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. With their deep core of world class stars still at the peak of their powers (Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, etc) and an exciting crop of youngsters coming through (Isco and Markel Susaeta) Spain has to be considered the clear favourite to life the trophy in Brazil.

Germany is the other top team to watch, as it can call upon a plethora of stars from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, this year’s UEFA Champions League semifinals. Buoyed by key veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marco Reus and Mario Goetze, two of the most promising prospects who came of age in 2012-13, Germany looks a good bet to win its first World Cup since 1990 – provided Spain falls short.

A second tier of top contenders is made up of Brazil, Italy and Argentina.

As the host nation, Brazil has a clear and distinct advantage. But the seleção won’t have the competitive benefit of playing in any qualifying games, not to mention the team is currently rebuilding with the aging old guard of Kaka and Ronaldinho making way for youngsters Neymar and Oscar. Still, we’re talking about Brazil, and they have to be considered a favourite, especially on home soil.

Any team with Lionel Messi has a very good chance of winning the World Cup. That being said, Argentina is not a one-man team, and Angel Di Maria has recently emerged as one of the game’s premier playmakers and most influential creators.

Still, as Messi goes, so goes Argentina. The key question for the South American giant come the World Cup is this: what kind of physical shape will Messi be in? If Messi plays over 50 games for Barcelona again this upcoming season and can’t overcome his recent injury woes, La Albiceleste could be in trouble. But if Messi is rested and fully fit, he could finally deliver Argentina its third title.

Italy suffered utter humiliation at the 2010 World Cup, failing to win a game and finishing last place in a group that included minnows New Zealand. But since then, manager Cesare Prandelli has revitalized the Azzurri, giving youngsters a chance (Mario Balotelli, Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy) and implementing a more possession-based and attacking style of play.

Other talented prospects are on the verge of breaking through, such as Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Veratti, and the Italians can still rely on the classy midfield axis of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio.

The dark horses

A lot of pundits are talking about Belgium, and for good reason. The majority of the Belgian starting 11 are regular starters for top Premiership clubs, including Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen.

The Belgians also have many bright young stars, foremost among them being striker Christian Benteke, who is coming off a great campaign wit Aston Villa. Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembele team up to provide solidity and a strong transition game in midfield. The fact that so many of Belgium’s key players are seeing regular first-team action all across Europe’s top leagues, and that it has cruised through the qualifiers thus far, suggests Belgium could be a major force in Brazil.

Colombia is another team to keep close tabs on. They last competed at the World Cup in 1998, but now under Argentine coach Jose Pekerman they look set to end the drought. Led by world-class striker Radamel Falcao (he has seven goals in 12 qualifying matches), Colombia currently sits second overall in the South American qualifying section, relying on a strong defence and Falcao’s goals.

If Pekerman can figure out what his best starting 11 is (let’s just say he likes to tinker) and build some team cohesion in the build-up to the World Cup, Colombia could make some noise.

Last but not least is Japan. Manager Alberto Zaccheroni has done a wonderful job since taking over the team, leading Japan to the Asian Cup championship in 2011. Japan can rely on players the calibre of Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa that make them a tricky prospect going forward in attack. Japan continues to rely on is traditional strengths of speed and endurance. If it can become more clinical and efficient in front of goal, they’ll be dangerous.

The absentees?

There are also a handful of teams who are regular and semi-regular World Cup participants who are in danger of not even qualifying for Brazil.

Mexico has played in the last five World Cups, and in six of the last seven. Mexico’s under-23 side is also coming off an impressive showing at the London Olympics last summer when it won the gold medal, leading many pundits to predict El Tri would be a serious contender in Brazil.

But Mexico is currently stuck in a rut, sitting just one point ahead of Honduras for the final automatic place in the CONCACAF region. Mexico has struggled to score in the qualifiers (it has recorded three 0-0 draws) and has only scored three goals in six matches. The good news is they’ve only conceded two, but unless Mexico can start finding the back of the net, chances are they won’t secure one of the three automatic World Cup berths in CONCACAF and might even miss out on the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand.

Honduras qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and is considered one of the top sides in CONCACAF. But like Mexico, Los Catrachos have sputtered as of late, and sit fourth in the Hex – six goals against in five matches suggests Honduras has defensive issues it needs to address.

Over in Europe, a host of nations that competed at the last World Cup (including Serbia and Denmark) have a Herculean task to qualify, while the notable countries such as Portugal, England, Russia and France have some work to do.

The biggest surprise, though, is Uruguay.

Three years ago in South Africa, Uruguay re-emerged as one of the game’s global powers by reaching the semifinals and finishing fourth. La Celeste built on that success by winning the Copa America the following year in Argentina.

But Oscar Taberez’s team has faltered in South American qualifying, suffering heavy losses to Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia to drop into fifth place – five points out of an automatic berth. They also might not even hold on to claim fifth and qualify for the intercontinental playoff against the Asian qualifier, as Venezuela and Peru remain hot on their tails in the standings.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.