The World Cup gets underway in less than a week, but a number of sides are still sweating over whether their star men will be ready for the big kick-off on 12th June.
Despite the incessant countdown to the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, some of the tournament’s biggest names are in fact facing a race against the clock to regain fitness.
2010 finalists Holland have been forced to alter their preparations to take into account Rafael Van Der Vaart’s absence, after the playmaker was ruled out for the summer with a calf injury. France’s Frank Ribery will also miss out, though Les Bleus are surely in for a much-improved display on their last World Cup, during which then-captain Patrice Evra announced his players were going on strike in one of the more acrimonious episodes of the contest.
However, France are not amongst the favourites to lift the Jules Rimet, with the majority of bookmakers opting for either holders Spain, or hosts Brazil, who will be relieved that the tournament is going ahead at all, with construction on one of the key stadiums only being completed last week.
Street protests over the Brazilian economy have also overshadowed what should be joyous occasion for the nation, so there is added pressure on manager Luiz Felipe Scolari to sustain a push for the cup, starting with the opening match against Croatia.
Spain will certainly stand in their way, though, and will be reluctant to relinquish their grip on world domination after winning Euro 2008, as well as the 2010 World Cup.
Unfortunately, it may well prove to be a tournament too early for Belgium, whose berth of young talent should get out of their group (made up of Russia, South Korea, and Algeria), but might struggle against stronger opposition. They are also waiting on striker Romelu Lukaku, who insists he will be back for the first game. In fact, Premier League fans will notice several familiar names in the Belgian line-up, including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Man United’s Marouane Fellaini, and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen, the last of which will most likely be playing out of his favoured position at left-back.
Stamford Bridge will also have one eye on Diego Costa, who recently declared his Spanish nationality, as the Atletico Madrid striker’s agent is in the middle of negotiating a deal to bring him to West London.
Elsewhere, England will have reduced expectations this time around, having undergone something of a reality check under Roy Hodgson. Their warm-up matches have included a stuttering 2-2 draw against Ecuador, and a 0-0 stalemate with Honduras that was as physical as it was painfully stop-start, and not only because it was interrupted by an electric storm with just over twenty minutes on the clock.
Hodgson has warned against placing too much pressure on star man Wayne Rooney, but this could be one of his last chances to prove he is capable on the international stage. The Three Lions’ preparations have been made all the more difficult by an injury to midfield starlet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, particularly as Hodgson is eager not to overwork the even more inexperienced Ross Barkley, in spite of mounting pressure to start him against Italy.
Regardless of whether Luis Suarez returns for Uruguay, England undoubtedly have a huge task on their hands to get out of Group D.
The question remains over whether warm-up matches have done more harm than good, but for those who have remained fit, and for the watching masses around the world, the biggest tournament in football is now tantalisingly close.