The World Cup finals are just 74 days away, and the great debate is on – who is going to succeed Italy as world champions? Or, will Italy make it two in a row? We’ve picked out six of the best nations to put your money on in South Africa this summer...
After their Euro 2008 success, cynics can no longer say that Spain are a team that fail to live up to pre-tournament expectations. Packed with superstar players and No.1 in the world right now, it is difficult not to see them challenging once more.
They were the top scorers in their qualifying group and only let in five goals. That is a huge vote of confidence for coach Vicente del Bosque who took over from Luis Aragones after the 2008 success and kept the Spanish bandwagon rolling.
Spain ooze strength in all departments, skipper Iker Casillas is one of the world‘s best goalkeepers; Xavi Hernandez is the key man in midfield while it is difficult to find a more dangerous front pairing than David Villa and Liverpool’s Fernando Torres.
Injuries and off field controversies already seem to be conspiring against England as they aim to win the trophy for the first time in 44 years. But the Fabio Capello factor cannot be ignored in South Africa.
England qualified comfortably and despite the loss of key players, it seems there is a new young breed ready to step up to the plate. David Beckham won’t be there but he wouldn’t have been a first choice for Capello although the Italian would surely have loved to have played him in a cameo role at crucial times.
Expect the likes of James Milner to realise his true potential as long as his tiring season with Aston Villa doesn’t catch up with him. But Capello will be keeping his fingers crossed that Wayne Rooney stays fit - without him England’s hopes could disappear.
With Argentina looking an unpredictable prospect under Diego Maradona, Brazil, as ever, remain one of South America’s best hopes as they attempt to lift the trophy for a sixth time. And Dunga’s side have ‘previous’ here as they won last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa.
Dunga’s team qualified with a flourish after collecting five wins in a row following a slow start - including a 3-1 win over Argentina and 4-0 defeat of Uruguay. Kaka was king in South Africa last year and could be again although Luis Fabiano hit five goals in the 2009 tournament including two in the final against the USA.
But Brazil always go into every World Cup weighed down by expectation and this time will be no different, often though that has affected their hopes. If they can cope with that pressure then they stand a great chance.
Fabio Capello has singled out the Ivory Coast for a mention - with the World Cup coming to Africa for the first time it seems natural to assume one of the continent’s countires will do well. And with Sven-GoranEriksson hotly tipped to take over as coach of The Elephants, Ivory Coast could have a coach who has reached the last eight of his last three major tournaments. And the days when African football was considered well behind Europe and South America are gone.
As well as Drogba, Ivory Coast have his Chelsea teammates Salomon Kalou up front. Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure provde the midfield strength with the Premier League duo of Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure standing firm at the back.
Coach Marcelo Lippi has already been forced to defend his ageing Italian squad but there remains no doubt that this is a team packed full of experience as defending champions. Lippi himself is 61 and this marks a return for the man who has won pretty much everything there is to win.
After winning the World Cup in 2006, he stepped down from the job only to return when Italy failed at Euro 2008. For that reason alone it’s difficult to ignore a squad who clearly have a winning mentality and a master tactician in charge.
For many of the team, this could be their last chance to win a major trophy and with the 36-year-old Fabio Cannavaro leading the side, Italy will be a leading contender once more. Zambrotta, Pirlo, Buffon and Gattuso are all likely to figure under Lippi who has come under fire for not selecting some of Italy’s young stars like Mario Balotelli of Inter.
This Dutch already look to have what it takes to go a long way in South Africa. For decades now, Holland have been technically one of the best sides in the world, but a lack of cohesion and in-fighting within their squads has often meant they have under-achieved.
But new coach Bert van Marwijk, who took over after Euro 2008, is being seen as the man to change all of that. They did not drop a single point in qualifying - eight wins from eight games - and have made it clear they are in South Africa to win. And while their coach had only a modest record as a coach - with one cap to his name - he has rebuilt the squad.
Expect players such as Arjen Robben, Joris Mathijsen, Andre Ooijer, Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt, Mark van Bommel, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Giovanni van Bronckhorst to be key along with the likes of Robin van Persie, if fit, and Wesley Sneijder.