World Cup 2018: Only five real favourites to win in Russia
The World Cup is less than three months away. If that does not quicken the pulse, you're probably better off with a good book. For the rest of us, the guessing games and predictions start here. Late injuries to key players could still upset calculations, but for this observer, there are only five teams with a realistic chance of lifting the trophy.
Top of that list would be defending champions Germany, who have a squad stacked with top players and a coach in Joachim Low with course and distance form. The Germans realise complacency and overconfidence might be their biggest enemies. That's why the team bus has the slogan "Best Never Rest" emblazoned on the side. They won last year's Confederations Cup in Russia with a virtual reserve team, but be warned: The stats men will tell you that winners of the "warm-up" tournament never follow up by lifting the World Cup.
Another issue for Germany might be who gets the goals. There is no ace predator like Miroslav Klose or Jurgen Klinsmann here, which is why old warrior Mario Gomez is still in contention with Timo Werner and Sandro Wagner. In friendly action this past week, Germany drew 1-1 with Spain and lost 0-1 to Brazil.
All told, I still consider the Germans strong favourites ahead of Brazil.
The five-time World Cup winners ran away with the tough South American qualification group once Tite took over from the hapless Dunga. Romantic visions of Samba football can be set aside as this is a team that mixes flair with organisation. The 2014 Brazil edition drowned in its own emotion in that 7-1 mauling from Germany, but Tite has instilled a better approach for coping with the ridiculous levels of expectation, which always surround Brazil.
The big question is whether Neymar will be fully fit as he races against time to recover from a broken metatarsal. But if he is ready to go, the blend of silk (Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Jesus, Neymar) and steel (Casemiro, Fernandinho, Marquinhos, Miranda) looks powerful. Add in two top goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson, plus flying full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo, and you have to give Brazil a big chance of repeating what they did in 1958: win a World Cup on European soil.
There is a tendency to believe Spain are yesterday's men but might they be tomorrow's as well? Led by Sergio Ramos, they still have massive experience and technical excellence, as Italy found to their cost in qualifying. A rival coach observed: "They move the ball with one touch at devilish speed."
Look at the impressive names in that team: David De Gea, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, Isco, Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta and possibly a fresh Diego Costa up top. As Lionel Messi said: "You'd rather not face them."
France seem to have an embarrassment of riches though that might be a problem for coach Didier Deschamps, who captained his nation to victory in 1998 (the last hosts to win, by the way). Antoine Griezmann was the leading scorer (six goals) at Euro 2016 and might be a decent bet to repeat that trick in Russia. Then there's the brilliant youngster Kylian Mbappe, N'Golo Kante's energy in midfield and a very decent centre-back pair of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.
Paul Pogba will play despite his problems at Manchester United. He is a key man for France and might find pulling on that blue shirt galvanises him again. The worry for France is that they flopped when it mattered in the final of Euro 2016, were held by Belarus and Luxembourg in qualifying and recently blew a 2-0 lead in losing to Colombia.
Very talented but a little erratic must be the verdict. That last bit is a concern in a knock-out tournament where one bad day can doom you.
Argentina must be in contention even if coach Jorge Sampaoli admits he doesn't have enough time to get this team playing exactly the way he likes. He also says, a little dramatically, that Messi will be playing "with a revolver to his head," such is the pressure on him to cement his reputation by delivering the World Cup as Diego Maradona did in 1986.
Argentina have such a wonderful array of high-class forwards that they may go without Paulo Dybala of Juventus and Mauro Icardi of Inter. Few other nations could afford such a luxury. But Argentina were often disjointed in qualification and only made it on the final day thanks to a Messi hat-trick.
Sampaoli's penchant for wanting to play with his full-backs pushed up might also expose a less than pacy central defence. On balance, you might think this team could be found out at some point in the knockout stages.
The 6-1 friendly defeat against Spain, with Messi out injured, will have rung alarm bells in Buenos Aires. Clearly, this side is still a work in progress ... with time running out.
Of the rest, Belgium will be a major player if Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are at their brilliant best. But they have been fancied at the last two big tournaments only to turn in disappointing performances. Lively outsiders might include European Champions Portugal, Nigeria, Croatia and -- whisper it -- Gareth Southgate's improving England. But you have to fear for hosts Russia, whose very average team might struggle in a group alongside Uruguay and Mo Salah's Egypt.
For now, three months out, it would be a surprise if the winners came from outside of Germany, Spain, France, Brazil and Argentina.
Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.