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World Cup: 101 Great Goals writers have their say on potential winners, golden boot candidates, dark horses and flops

Discover all the latest news, predictions, betting tips, live streams and odds with the 101 Great Goals World Cup exclusive coverage.

Who are your favourites to lift the World Cup, and why?

Josh: There are a number of quality teams with a great chance of reaching the final in Qatar, but it is hard to look past Brazil.

Seleção have one of the most well-rounded sides heading into the competition, with heaps of quality all over their squad. With Alisson and Ederson among the world’s best keepers, Thiago Silva and Eder Militao still going strong and Casemiro and Bruno Guimaraes in top form, they are well balanced throughout. But it is up front where the depth is staggering.

Superstar Neymar is in sensational form, notching 15 goals and 12 assists in 19 games for PSG so far this season, supported by talents such as Gabriel Martinelli, Vinicius Jr., Raphina and Gabriel Jesus – how can you look beyond them?

Andrew: Always the main question every four years, isn’t it? For me, firstly, I can say that it won’t be France becoming the third nation to successfully defend their title.

The likes of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and England are also potential winners, but for me it comes down to Brazil. Argentina have an otherworldly run of form and look a real threat, but Brazil’s combination of attacking talent and veteran quality in midfield and defence is at the heart of their own undefeated run under Tite.

Ben: It is hard to look past Argentina for me, with the current ‘finalissima’ Champions bolstered by some strong defenders in the form of Romero and Martinez. They also have the Messi factor, and it could all prove the perfect storm for the diminutive maestro.

The likes of Thiago Silva, Casemiro and Vinicius Jr – not to mention an in-form Neymar – mean Brazil have earned their crown as early favourites, but for me, it is Argentina who just sneak ahead as frontrunners.

Will Argentina, player for player, be the best squad in Qatar? Not by a long stretch. But, akin to the all-conquering Italy outfit of 2006, this version of the Albiceleste is simply greater than the sum of its parts.

How will England do this year?

Josh: Round of 16. Despite reaching the European Championship final just over a year ago and conceding just two goals all tournament, there is little optimism around the Three Lions at present. They have key players out of form and struggling for fitness, so it might not be quite as straightforward as the last two tournaments.

Andrew: To put it simply, not well. Things should be on the up and up for the Three Lions but their recent form under Southgate – which included relegation in Nations League – has alarm bells sounding for the nation despite the massive wealth of talent in the player pool.

Southgate’s system proved well for tournament play, but with the type of players at his disposal, if he does not turn to a more attacking, free-flowing brand of football, England could really suffer.

Ben: I don’t think that England will have too much trouble getting out of their group stage, but it could be tough from there.

They will almost certainly face either African Champions Senegal or a rejuvenated Netherlands side in the Round of 16, while France or Denmark potentially lie in wait in the quarter finals.

I think The Three Lions will make it past the Round of 16, but making it past the quarter-finals could be a step too far.

Conor: England possess the talent required to make another deep tournament run in Qatar, as evidenced by the nation’s stars playing for some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

And yet, despite all of the unquestionable points in their favour, rightful question marks remain when it comes to England’s chances of going all the way this winter. Anything less than a semi-final berth will likely be viewed as a failure by the England faithful this winter, and for good reason.

The World Cup often announces players on the big stage. Who are the young players you are tipping to make an impact?

Josh: There are a number of young talents who could have a major impact at the 2022 World Cup. For Spain, the midfield duo of Pedri and Golden Boy winner Gavi will have key roles, while Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga have big roles to play for France.

Perhaps the most exciting talent heading to the WC, though, is Jamal Musiala. With 11 goals and eight assists for Bayern Munich this season from midfield, he is a potential superstar.

Andrew: The usual suspects will always come to the fore here, with the likes of Jude Bellingham, Jamal Musiala, and Vinicius Junior headline an impressive crop of young talent set for centre stage in Qatar.

Some of the players who might not get so much acclaim though, are the likes of Andreas Skov Olsen of Denmark, Dutch starlet Xavi Simons and Ghana’s Kamaldeen Sulemana. Keep an eye out for those three names.

Ben: It is harder than it used to be to find truly ‘hidden’ gems at World Cups, but I can see Switzerland’s Noah Okafor having a strong tournament and potentially landing himself a move away from RB Salzburg in January.

I also think that Yunus Musah could have a big role to play for the USA engine room despite still being just 19 years old, and Senegal’s Pape Matar Sarr could provide Antonio Conte with a timely reminder of his ability too.

Conor: With so many of world football’s finest up-and-coming stars already lining out for Europe’s elite, the majority of the youngsters in line to make a telling impact in the Middle East represent known commodities.

Expect the likes of Aurelien Tchouameni, Pedri, Gavi, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Rodrygo, Alphonso Davies and Jamal Musiala to continue to light up the pitch over the coming weeks and months.

However there are a few more to keep an eye on; Karim Adeyemi, Josko Gvardiol, Garang Kuol, Jurrien Timber and Takefusa Kubo

Which team do you think will flop in Qatar?

Josh: 2018 winners France are among the favourites to win the competition once more. However, another Les Bleus implosion, like we saw in the Round of 16 vs Switzerland at Euro 2020, could well be on the cards with key injuries and plenty of egos potentially disrupting the camp. Raphael Varane’s injury in particular could hit them hard.

Andrew: There will be a ton of attention on England after their frustrating Nations League campaign under Gareth Southgate, but France, for me, is the nation that could flop hardest in Qatar. The absences of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba will hit Didier Deschamps hard, even with Real Madrid pair Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni waiting in the wings.

The injuries could be just one of a number of issues plaguing the French camp which could prove their downfall.

Ben: France is my bold pick for flops of the tournament. Les Blues had a horrid Nations League campaign and have been flipping between a back three and a back four, though they now seem to have settled on the latter.

They have undoubted quality all over the pitch, but the lack of both Kante and Pogba leaves them light in midfield, while there seems to be cross-generational tension between the old guard and the new.

I could see them finishing behind a strong Denmark side in their group, and an early exit is possible.

Conor: There are certainly a couple of contenders for the crown here, with the likes of France, Germany and England, despite their respective heavyweight statuses, in danger of stumbling and falling prematurely over the coming weeks.

In the end, though, I have landed on Belgium.

With Eden Hazard struggling for games, Romelu Lukaku struggling with fitness and the general ageing of the squad, replicating their third-placed finish from 2018 looks near-on impossible.

What will be England’s starting XI for the first game, and what are the key questions for Southgate to answer in selection?

Andrew: Pickford; Stones, Dier, Maguire; Trippier, Shaw Bellingham, Rice; Foden, Sterling, Kane

The question, as ever for England, is whether or not Gareth Southgate will finally adopt a tactical approach that taps into the attacking football on display every weekend in the Premier League and by extension, the real penchant for creativity that features at club level but has yet to be tapped into at the national team level.

Additional questions come in the vein of whether or not the England manager will actually give any other centre-forward other than Harry Kane a sniff of action in Qatar, with Kane rarely – if ever – removed from the pitch even when he is playing poorly. With Ivan Toney and Tammy Abraham both left out, they are short on replacements but Callum Wilson is in good form.

With that said, given Southgate’s stubbornness, it is likely England could remain in a back three while putting faith in wing backs.

Ben: Pickford; Trippier, White, Maguire, Stones, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham; Saka, Kane, Sterling

First and foremost, Gareth Southgate has to figure out the fitness of Kyle Walker, but I expect the Group B opener to come too soon for the Manchester City man. Presuming he persists with a back three, question marks surround the form of Sterling and Maguire, but both have always served England well and should start.

There is plenty of competition in the frontline, with James Maddison, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish all, I think, set to miss out on the starting XI.

Meanwhile, I’m tipping Ben White to take Walker’s place and Kieran Trippier to get the nod over Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Conor: Pickford; Trippier, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham, Mount; Foden, Kane, Sterling

Southgate’s most pressing decision, as has long proven the case, comes at right-back. Granted, his call for opening night may well have been made that much easier by the pre-tournament injuries suffered by both Reece James and Walker, but the question remains, does Trent Alexander-Arnold get his chance?

Trippier remains favourite for the role, but Newcastle’s in-form captain could yet find himself fielded on the left, on the back of Ben Chilwell’s latest fitness blow. Southgate also has a decision to make over Sterling’s form, but he is likely to get the nod.

Who are you tipping to win the golden boot?

Josh: Quite often, the winner of the Golden Boot is largely decided by displays in the Group Stage – Harry Kane in 2018 is evidence of that with his goals against Tunisia and Panama.

With this in mind – how about Lionel Messi? With Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland to face in the groups, it is all set up perfectly.

Andrew: Fit and firing for PSG this season, Neymar could be a real shout here for the golden boot this winter given the talk of Brazil’s chances in Qatar. Neymar has additional motivation as well, sitting just two goals behind the legendary Pele in Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorers list.

A brilliant tournament for the PSG star could see him break that record, one that would be difficult to break a second time.

Ben: It would be poetic if one of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo walked away with the golden boot, and I think that the Argentine stands the better chance of doing so.

In a group with an unfancied Saudi Arabia side, and in my eyes tournament favourites, he should have plenty of opportunities to net a strong tally.

Conor: Neymar has found top form once more just in time for Qatar, having directly contributed to an eye-watering 26 goals in just 19 appearances across the season to date.

Brazil’s status as pre-tournament favourites, meanwhile, should see the Selecao make their way deep into the latter stages of the competition.

Which unfancied team do you think will go the furthest in the competition?

Josh: Kasper Hjulmand has slowly been transforming Denmark into a serious side over the last few years. They made the semis at the Euros, and have recently picked up impressive wins over the likes of France.

So, if Denmark are able to see off France again and top their group, a long run into the knockout rounds may well be on the cards.

Andrew: Given a favourable group draw with just the Netherlands as their only true obstacle, at least on paper, Senegal could have a real chance to make a deep run in this year’s World Cup.

With a squad boasting players like Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, and Idrissa Gueye, Senegal have assembled arguably the most gifted crop of players of any team in the continents history.

Ben: I like the look of the Denmark side as already mentioned, but there are plenty of strong looking squads heading into the tournament. Senegal head into the tournament as African champions and have a good chance to go far, as do Serbia.

For me though, the Danes have a strong all-round outfit and could surprise plenty.

Conor: It is perhaps a touch strong to label them as ‘unfancied’, but very little discussion appears to be circulating regarding the stellar pre-World Cup efforts of the Netherlands.

Louis van Gaal has done a frankly remarkable job in turning the fortunes of the Oranje around since stepping out of retirement to take up the nation’s reins for the third time last summer, making full use of the unquestionable talent at his disposal.

Cody Gakpo, Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay are going to cause problems for anyone.

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