World Cup predictions: Why Messi, Argentina are favorites over Brazil, France, England in Qatar

European nations have won the past four World Cups, so why are Brazil and Argentina considered the top two favorites to win the strange winter tournament starting on Sunday in Qatar?

For starters, we have been seduced by the mouth-watering array of attacking talent at Brazil's disposal, led by Neymar, Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Richarlison, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus. Brazil are not only capable of ripping up defences, but in World Cup qualification, are also excellent at keeping the ball out of their own net. However, they have not faced a European team since Belgium knocked them out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia in the quarterfinals. That leaves a question mark.

Argentina go into the tournament on a 35-game unbeaten run and believe they can deliver an emotional last hurrah for captain Lionel Messi, who said he's playing his last World Cup. (Though it would be unwise to rule him out returning in 2026, when he'll be 39.) Argentina's confidence was buoyed by beating Brazil at Rio de Janeiro's famed Maracana stadium to win the 2021 Copa America. This is a strong, relaxed and unified squad under coach Lionel Scaloni that has the capacity to win the whole thing.

My reservation is that winning their group against Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia could lead the Argentinians into a dangerous round-of-16 game against Denmark, who made the 2020 Euro semifinals even after the trauma and near tragedy of Christian Eriksen. The Danes are lively outsiders.

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Defending champions France, despite reported divisions in the camp and a troublesome muscle injury to Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema, are still overloaded with talent, even with Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Christopher Nkunku ruled out by injury. Expect young superstar Kylian Mbappe to light up the occasion with his outrageous pace and goals, as he did four years ago as a teenager.

But you can never be quite sure what you will get from France. Remember what happened the last time they were defending the title in 2002 -- a group stage exit -- and the infamous 2010 player mutiny in South Africa. They are potential winners, but just as likely to crash and burn as they did at Euro 2020, when they lost on penalties to Switzerland.

England have become good tournament performers under self-effacing manager Gareth Southgate, reaching the Euro 2020 final and a World Cup semifinal in 2018. If Harry Kane can repeat his Golden Boot form from Russia and exciting youngsters like Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice and Mason Mount flourish, the Three Lions could make another deep run.

But there are too many question marks over the form and fitness of defenders Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker, while midfielder Kalvin Phillips has had only 54 minutes of action all season. England look vulnerable if pitched against one of the top teams later in the tournament.

Germany, four-time winners, tend to get overlooked these days. They can only improve on their leaden displays and group-stage exit in Russia. Coach Hansi Flick has orchestrated something of a revival, and they are a tough match for any opponent. Yet there is no Jurgen Klinsmann or Miroslav Klose to get the goals, which is why they seem likely to come unstuck in the knockout rounds.

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Spain's coach, the playfully provocative Luis Enrique, wants his team to be bold, playing out from the back and pressing rival teams high up the pitch. They might pass some teams to death but, like the Germans, lack a reliable goal scorer unless Alvaro Morata hits a golden streak. Still, Spain are technically good enough to go deep in the tournament.

Belgium's train looks to have left the station. Their golden generation got to the semifinals four years ago, but now they are four years older. Those years have not been kind to some, especially Eden Hazard, who has become a forgotten man at Real Madrid. Add an injury to top scorer Romelu Lukaku, and the Red Devils seem unlikely to deliver.

Portugal's chances no longer hinge on Cristiano Ronaldo. Their squad is packed with talent, including Bruno Fernandes, Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix. The fact that they still need a 39-year-old Pepe in defence is a concern, but this is another technically proficient team with the capability of going far.

Uruguay are fascinating. The old guard of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin are joined by the likes of Real Madrid's Federico Valverde, Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez and Tottenham Hotspur's Rodrigo Bentancur. That might be a dangerous cocktail if they get the blend right.

This World Cup might come four years too early for Gregg Berhalter's young United States team, which contains a good sprinkling of players with Champions League experience like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest and Tyler Adams. With the fearlessness of youth, they should finish second place in England's group ahead of Wales and Iran.

The Welsh, returning to a World Cup after 64 years, need Gareth Bale to perform more of his tournament magic. His late goal for LAFC in their MLS Cup win showed he can still pull rabbits out of the hat, but injury has robbed him of game time, and one wonders whether he can be as sharp as he needs to be. Joe Allen is another key player hit by injury. The first game against the USMNT is pivotal.

Louis van Gaal will do well to repeat taking Netherlands to the semifinals, as he did eight years ago. The veteran Dutch coach, who is battling cancer, has a lively team led by Virgil van Dijk and with a potential breakout star in winger Cody Gakpo. But the team relies on Memphis Depay up front, and he has been out of action since September.

Elsewhere, teams like Serbia and Switzerland look good enough to make Brazil work hard in Group G. Senegal head the African challenge, but with their star man Sadio Mane a major doubt. That is cruel. Ghana had a chaotic qualification and do not look like the force of old. Japan, who outplayed the U.S. in September, will be good to watch with a manic high press and bright football, while Ecuador's 6-1 win over Colombia in qualifying served notice of the exciting young talent they have coming through.

Asian teams have a dismal record, apart from South Korea's run to the semifinals as co-hosts in 2002. Their current team are ponderous, and the fractured eye socket suffered by national icon Son Heung-min last week hardly helps their chances. Other teams like hosts Qatar will play with defiance, pride and probably great organisation -- they will offer stern resistance, but lack the quality to trouble the major teams.

PREDICTION: Argentina to win the World Cup, beating France in the final. Brazil and Portugal will each reach the semifinals. As for an outside bet: Denmark.