John Giles: Southgate handled the World Cup build-up brilliantly - but I see one glaring absence in England's squad
My heart wants Lionel Messi and Argentina to win the World Cup in Russia, but my head tells me that this could be a year of redemption for Brazilian football after the horrors of 2014 in Belo Horizonte.
Up until a few days ago, my analysis pointed towards Spain as the closest challenger to Brazil, but then they sacked their manager.
If nothing else, Luis Rubiales decision to dump Julen Lopetegui – because Real Madrid didn’t consult the Spanish FA before they announced him as their new manager – underlines the folly of predicting the outcome of any World Cup before a ball has been kicked.
I’m sure they are many people that like a bet who committed to Spain when they saw them demolish Argentina in a pre-World Cup friendly back in March.
It was impressive stuff, but warm-up games have no relevance when it comes to the white hot environment of the World Cup Finals.
This has been perfectly illustrated by Spain’s changing circumstances during a week which will end with a huge clash with derby rivals Portugal tomorrow without the man who brought them to Russia to lean on. Nobody could have predicted that.
Personally, I think they were crazy to sack him, but they’ve done it and the players must make the best of a chaotic situation. Perhaps Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta can rally the troops and carry the team through the competition.
Before the sacking, my only doubts about Spain revolved around the ageing legs of the same players, but now they will have to, effectively, manage the team. If they want to be a real threat to Brazil, that’s what must happen.
I’m leaning towards Brazil mainly because of the quality of their squad, which is spread across all the necessary areas.
They have good goalkeepers, strong and creative midfielders and a strike force led by Neymar which is formidable.
It’s a squad which has changed a great deal since that awful day in Belo Horizonte when Germany beat them 7-1 in a World Cup semi-final, which was as strange a game as I’ve ever seen.
But this is a Brazil team which wants to play and is tasked with removing the stain on the reputation of the team all neutrals used to love. That’s a strong motivation and there’s plenty of talent to back it up.
I have two dark horses, Belgium and France, but I do have doubts about their managers. With Belgium, we know a lot about Roberto Martinez, who has Thierry Henry beside him.
Watching Henry’s analysis for the last few years, though, I’m not sure he would have anything of value to contribute in team meetings.
What Martinez has is the most talented and balanced squad in the competition, just as good as Brazil, but we will have to wait and see whether he can produce the team that destroyed Ireland in France or the one that collapsed in the quarter-final of Euro 2014 against Wales.
I’m not sure about Didier Deschamps. France have a fantastic group of talented young players but they have a manager who doesn’t view N’Golo Kante as a starter in every game and that’s just one of several odd selection decisions he’s made.
I don’t fancy the Germans much this time. I don’t think Jogi Loew has been able to regenerate his squad quickly enough and while European champions Portugal always have Ronaldo, they are unlikely to get as easy a ride in this tournament as they did in France.
And then we have England.
I’ll say one thing for Gareth Southgate. If there was a gold medal for handling the tricky two-week period before a World Cup, I’d give it to him.
In previous years, the English media have hammered England managers and players before they even landed in their training camp, but this time everything has been very civilised.
Southgate has created a solid, stable environment before the tournament and the question now is whether he can do the same on the pitch.
Much has been made of the young talent he can pick, but I can only see a squad without any significant midfield player, a glaring absence which means it would surprise me if they do well.
Personally, I would have gambled on Jack Wilshere. He’ s anything but reliable, but he’s the only one who can do the job.
Southgate has some decent defenders and strong attacking options, but nobody to link it together and you cannot be without that in the World Cup if you want to reach the business end of the tournament.