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World Cup: Talking points with a year to go

Sunday marks exactly one year until the World Cup will get underway and with 13 nations having already secured their place in Qatar, we have looked at the main talking points with 365 days still to go.

(This article was originally published on 21.11.2021)

Many of the usual suspects have already secured their place in Qatar, including reigning champions France, five-time winners Brazil and of course England, but with many twists and turns still to come before the finals, it remains anyone's guess which nation will be lifting the famous trophy aloft in Lusail on the 18th December, 2021.

Big names in danger of missing out

While the likes of England, France and Brazil are already booking their hotels in Qatar for next winter, there are many big names in danger of not making it through, including European Champions Italy, who could miss out on the World Cup finals for the second time in a row.

The Azzurri were so impressive at this summer's Euros and it was only last month that they saw their world record 37-match unbeaten run ended by Spain in the UEFA Nations League - Italy's first defeat in over three years.

However, draws have cost Roberto Mancini's side in World Cup qualifying, most notably their goalless stalemate with Northern Ireland earlier this month, a result that has condemned the four-time world champions to the play-offs, although they remain priced at 10/1 to win next year's tournament.

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Italy will be joined in the play-offs by Euro 2016 winners Portugal, who despite boasting talent such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes in their ranks, conspired to miss out on top spot in their qualifying group after losing at home to Serbia.

One other World Cup regular that faces a battle to reach next year's tournament are two-time winners Uruguay, who sit seventh in South American qualifying where only the top-four teams are guaranteed a place at the finals.

England's time could be now

England's progress has been well documented under Gareth Southgate, with a run to the last four of the 2018 World Cup being followed by a penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the final of Euro 2020 - the Three Lions' first major tournament final in 55 years.

For many, the next logical step would be for England to now win the World Cup in Qatar and they are priced at 7/1 to do exactly that.

The profile of the squad certainly looks good, with the likes of Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling set to enter their peak years, while Phil Foden, Mason Mount and co will have all benefited from their Euro experience.

Increased expectation levels, coupled with the Middle East heat, could prove England's undoing in Qatar, but this could well represent their best chance of winning the World Cup since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft in 1966.

Scotland and Wales could join England in Qatar

England have been the only home nation to qualify for the World Cup since 1998, while three British teams have not reached the finals since 1986, but that could all change in Qatar.

That is because Scotland and Wales have reached the European play-offs and they will both be seeded when the draw is made next Friday.

Although the odds are still against both nations to make it through the lottery of the playoffs - only three of 12 teams will qualify - there are arguably no sides in better form.

Scotland have won six competitive matches in a row, keeping five clean sheets in the process and beating Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark in their most recent fixture, while Wales are unbeaten in seven and held the world's number one ranked side Belgium last time out.

Potential breakout stars in Qatar

The World Cup is, of course, where the best players get the chance to showcase their talents on the global stage, bit it is not just established stars that can flourish, with many lesser-known lights using the finals to propel their way into the spotlight, even if that is just for a brief period in time.

Among the players that could light up next year's finals is Serbia forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored the winning goal against Portugal to seal his side's place at a second-successive World Cup.

Mitrovic has been around for a while, having played for Newcastle and current team Fulham in the Premier League, but his record for club and country this season has taken him to another level, as he has already scored a staggering 24 goals, including netting in each of his last eight games.

The 27-year-old also boasts an eye-catching record for Serbia, netting 44 goals in 69 appearances for his country, but only one of those has come at a major tournament, a stat he will be looking to improve upon in Qatar.

Memphis Depay could also star at the finals, with the Barcelona forward having struck 12 times in qualifying for the Netherlands, while he has also been a rare bright spark in what has been a difficult season to date for his club.

Like Mitrovic, Depay is now entering his peak years, and having last graced the World Cup as a 20-year-old in 2014, he may now feel he is ready to take the global stage by storm.

One slightly left field name that could star at the World Cup - if his country qualifies - is Bolivia captain Marcelo Moreno, who will be hoping to play at his first global tournament at the tender age of 35.

Moreno is Bolivia's all-time leading scorer with 28 goals, nine of which have come in this qualifying campaign, although Cesar Farias' side are still outsiders to reach the finals, as they currently sit eighth in the South American standings.

La Verde have not qualified for a World Cup since 1994 and it feels like if they do not make it this time around, then Moreno will have missed his chance to impress on the global stage.

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