Ahead of Friday's World Cup finals draw in Bahia, Arsene Wenger profiles some of the traditional powers from Europe and South America. This is not intended to be a definitive list of all the possible winners.
They seem a little less alert. Why? Because we hear less about Barcelona. At the moment, Barcelona don’t feel like they have the thirst, the will to win everything as they used to. But we will certainly hear again about Barcelona in the spring, they will be here again. Most certainly Spain are based on a real collective strength; meaning that 70 or 80% of their team play for Barcelona and they are really skilled. When you play against Spain, you play against a club. And that makes a difference in the long run. And the long run, today, is the World Cup. It always pays in the end. And that’s why they remain dangerous.
KEY PLAYER: ANDRES INIESTA
It’s how he manages to fluctuate evenly between the individual and the collective solution. His capacity to penetrate with the ball, to make the last pass. He has the physical strength to make a difference individually. I think that there is a good balance in his game.
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They will be one of the favourites in the competition - but they are a team under a lot of pressure in Germany. Everybody says yes, they are good, but they don’t win. It’s their time now. They have been forgiven their tournament in Poland and Ukraine, when they were beaten by Italy. They were forgiven South Africa because they made it quite far. But this time they have been told, 'It’s okay guys, you learned, now show us that you can win'.
Their strength is their level of skill, their way of playing. Their weakness in my opinion -and it’s currently the problem of most European teams - lies with the lack of centre-forwards. They have a lot of young talents, all in the creative area, all midfielders, but Germany used to have a lot of choices among forwards. Today, they can chose between Klose and Gomez and maybe.
KEY PLAYER: MESUT OZIL
He has everything you dream of when you are a football player. He has speed, a lot of skill, he feels the game. Something that I respect a lot is the love of collective football. And I’d say that, for me, he still has to find the right balance between his will to play for other people and the moment where he must take an individual risk. He is sometimes a bit disturbed by his altruism and I think he’d sometimes benefit with taking more risks individually. But what a player.
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We never speak of Netherlands, even if they are always there: they were finalists at the last World Cup and let’s not forget that Robben had a great chance to make it 1-1. They could have won the final. I think that Van Gaal took great risks when he joined the team by trusting young players and he won his bet. But they still remain a mystery, because they changed a lot of players. They can do it because they have real stars with Robben and Van Persie who, with Sneijder, are the most famous players of the team. But they currently have a lot of young talents: Strootman who plays for Roma… This team can perform well.
KEY PLAYER: ROBIN VAN PERSIE
At first, everyone was telling me that he wasn’t a forward. He might not be a forward, but he manages quite well! He is at the top of his game. He was born in 1983, he is 30 today: it is most certainly the last World Cup where he can have an impact – as he will be 34 for the next one. Robin knows how to be ready for this type of event, and be focused on it. So, be careful!
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Can England do it? It’s a question everyone is asking here, because every time England qualifies everybody is expecting them to win the World Cup. And maybe, for the first time in the recent history of English football, people are less ambitious in the country, less ready to hold a knife to their throat. Personally, I always thought that the huge pressure from the media and the public was a handicap for the team. But they can be a good surprise, because Rooney, their star player, is currently in very good shape. And if they have a good Rooney, they can be very dangerous.
KEY PLAYER: WAYNE ROONEY
We are talking about him less because he is playing with Van Persie. He has been playing a lot from midfield, so that’s why we hear less about him. But when he plays forward, he scores. When you look at his stats when he plays forward, it’s actually quite impressive.
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France will be among the outsiders. We were so traumatised by South Africa that now we think finishing decently is already an achievement. If we go as far as possible, and with honour, I’d say they would have done their job. Nobody is expecting France to win the World Cup, but we expect them to fight bravely, and show a real spirit of solidarity. I think Deschamps will be able to inspire it.
KEY PLAYER: FRANCK RIBERY
His style is based on the difference he makes alone. If you take that away from him, he is an average player. Ribery’s strength is to be able to do what very few players can do at this level: take the ball in midfield and go to the other end. Trust me, it’s hard. So please don’t take that away from him. He must remain focused on what he does well: to provoke with the ball, to make the difference, and be able to do it 90 minutes long.
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The have the skill level on the whole, but they depend a lot on Ronaldo. We saw it again against Sweden. They scored four times; four goals of Cristiano Ronaldo. If you ask me if Portugal can win the World Cup, I’d say that we can’t rule them out, just as you can’t forget France or England. But they can’t have Ronaldo injured.
KEY PLAYER: CRISTIANO RONALDO
He is an athlete and a football player. He has all the athletic qualities required at the best level. He is very skilled, too. And because of that, it’s very hard to stop a guy like him. As soon as he is half a metre ahead, he is out of reach. Moreover, he is as strong as a horse. We used to say that about Messi, when he was playing and scoring every weekend, but it is also true about Ronaldo.
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You can never say that Brazil can’t win the World Cup. Do they seem as strong as they used to? Probably not. I think they are less convincing offensively. In defence, they are strong, very strong. Midfield, too, and physically and technically. They might be deficient at a creative level, compared to what we used to see in Brazil. They don’t seem to have a key centre-forward too, and that’s Scolari’s main problem until the World Cup.
KEY PLAYER: NEYMAR
I think it was a good thing for him to move to Barcelona and play against European competition. He will reach another level in rigour and physical confrontation. These qualities are important during a World Cup. He can shoulder the pressure of being the star of the tournament: he has the attitude of a guy who doesn’t doubt himself. I’ve never seen him inhibited. I don’t think he has a mental issue that needs to be fixed. The main question is: is he as talented as everyone says during the final stages of a World Cup?
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They finished first in South American qualifying but it will be different to go to the World Cup, with extra pressure on the team. But, of course, they have great players. Aguero here in England is great, then there is Messi … If they manage to find a balance between their defence and their attack, they will be among the very top teams.
KEY PLAYER: LIONEL MESSI
People say Lionel Messi is not at the top of his game, but Barcelona won La Liga in a very convincing way last season, with over 100 goals. People judge on the moment but his last season was truly amazing. He has the opportunity to be the best of all time. Argentina still doesn’t know it but Lionel Messi can give a big win to his country. If he achieves it during the Brazil World Cup he will be the best player ever.