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World Cup celebrations to be replaced by hard work

This is what pure joy looks like and what every country will be dreaming about six months out from the start of the tournament. (Reuters)
Lionel Messi has revealed the teams he fears next summer. (AP)
The Arab nations will be all too aware they have their work cut out if they are to make an impression in Russia next summer. (AFP)
LONDON: After Peru beat New Zealand 2-0 to secure the last place in next summer’s World Cup finals the challenge that the four Arab teams will face in Russia was clear for all to see.
The 32 teams are now known and the coaches and officials of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia can start preparing for their stab at showpiece success.
Here Arab News takes a look at the teams who’ll be battling it out for the World Cup trophy and what the four Arab representatives are up against.
THE GIANTS
Lionel Messi knows the teams he fears most at the 2018 World Cup: Champions Germany, Brazil, France and Spain.
“I think that at the moment, they’re the strongest teams who look the best, are playing the best, with the best individuals,” Messi told TyC Sports, an Argentine TV channel.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner identified the key things that will spearhead their challenges: Strong squads, star players, a team identity and looking the part.
The five giants have won 13 of the last 16 World Cups between them. Spain and Germany both qualified without losing, while Brazil sealed first place in the South American group with four rounds to play.
France won their group but, as in the Euros last year, were alternately terrific and toothless, such as in a shocking 0-0 draw at home to Luxembourg.
Argentina sneaked through by winning their last game, away to Ecuador, and inevitably it was Messi who hit a hat-trick to save his country when staring into the abyss of elimination.
Yet form can be misleading, as Spain and Brazil’s crushing losses to the Netherlands and Germany four years ago illustrated.
England won in 1966, but since then the nation that invented the sport and boasts the richest league in the world has reached just one semifinal. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, has been blooding youngsters from the successful youth teams and there is reason for optimism in England, but 2018 will likely come too soon.
According to FIFA, Mexico has the third highest number of registered footballers — behind only Brazil and Germany — among World Cup finalists, yet in 15 finals appearances they have never gone past the last eight.
With 142 million people, Russia have the biggest population of any of the finalists, but if the hosts were to get much beyond the second round it would be a shock.
TEAMS TO FEAR
With a population of just over three million and two World Cup titles, Uruguay are again following their own successful template. They have produced enough top-end talent, led by Luis Suarez, Diego Godin and Edinson Cavani, to give them a chance of beating anyone.
Croatia have Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, which is good, but they finished second to Iceland in their qualifying group, which is not.
Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, but their greatest success — winning the 2016 Euros — came despite playing without the world player of the year for three-quarters of the final.
Belgium are enjoying a golden generation, but Switzerland and Denmark have only silver and bronze ones. Poland, not such a small nation in population terms, have the prolific Robert Lewandowski, the top scorer in global qualifying with 16 goals.
NOT TO BE UNDERESTIMATED
In 2002, as joint hosts, Japan and South Korea ran deep into the knockout rounds. This time, along with Australia, they lack world-class talent but bring a work ethic that makes them teams to avoid.
Colombia, Senegal and Nigeria bring skill, pace and power and a bad habit of agonizing exits caused by careless errors or bad luck.
Serbia and Morocco both qualified impressively but lack the star man who can make a difference.
That cannot be said of Egypt, who with Mohamed Salah (pictured left) in the team have the star quality and X-factor many sides lack. With him in the side the Pharaohs’ poor World Cup record should be irrelevant.
Peru, once regulars, had not qualified since 1982 until they beat New Zealand. They prepare for Russia ranked an unlikely 10th in the world.
Dour Sweden, former finalists, smothered Italy in a playoff but if the smell of glory draws Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of retirement, a blunt instrument would acquire a sharp edge.
LIKELY TO BE CLASSED AS MINNOWS
Costa Rica reached the last eight in 2014 and are ranked 22nd but alongside Iran and Tunisia will still be the teams in the third pot everyone wants to draw.
Tunisia and Saudi Arabia both won games in the first of their four finals appearances but neither has won since and their last points came when they drew 2-2 in Stuttgart in 2006.
Panama may already have used up their miracle, scoring two minutes from the end of their qualifying campaign to beat Costa Rica, eliminate the US and qualify for their first finals.

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