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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Argentina and France among those who need to raise their games

Exciting times ahead for lesser nations

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal left it late to qualify
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Some of the most illustrious international teams on the planet have had a far from smooth passage through World Cup qualifying but most of the big-hitters are among the 24 nations who have already booked their tickets for Russia 2018.

European champions Portugal, 2014 World Cup runners-up Argentina and quarter-finalists France and Colombia confirmed their qualifications on Tuesday but each will need to raise their game to be contenders next summer.

Getting to the finals is an achievement in itself for the smaller nations and there will be no shortage of excitement among fans of Iceland and Panama, who are looking forward to contesting a World Cup for the first time.

Here we assess the prospects of six teams who secured their places this week.

With one round of qualifiers left to play Argentina were sixth in South American qualifying, outside the four automatic qualification berths and the playoff slot.

They turned it around thanks to Lionel Messi, who bagged a hat-trick in a 3-1 victory away to Ecuador which lifted them from sixth to third.

Messi's intervention was yet another reminder of his quality and big-match temperament.

However, the most significant trophy has eluded him and, without much better support from his teammates, it is unlikely that the Albiceleste (priced up across the board at single-figure quotes) will triumph next summer.

Portugal are another side who rely heavily on one great player in  Cristiano Ronaldo, but look a good-value outside bet at 25-1.

They were fairly convincing qualifiers despite needing a result on the last day of qualifying as they won nine of their ten matches and have some exciting young players coming through who may take some of the weight off Ronaldo's shoulders.

Milan striker Andre Silva added to his growing reputation with the second goal of Portugal's 2-0 success at home to Switzerland on Tuesday which clinched top spot in Group B and exciting attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva should continue to improve under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

The Euro 2016 final was a massive disappointment for France but there are high hopes that Les Bleus can make amends by winning the World Cup for a second time.

They were largely comfortable in qualifying although they were not confirmed as Group A winners until a 2-1 victory at home to Belarus on Tuesday.

France scored just 18 goals in ten qualifiers and were held to an embarrassing 0-0 draw by Luxembourg in Toulouse.

However, they have some top-class individual players including Kylian Mbappe, who has the potential to be one of the stars of the tournament.

Head coach Didier Deschamps has plenty of fine tuning to do but he has a talented group to work with and France's status as 6-1 second favourites is deserved.

Colombia played some of the most attractive football at the 2014 World Cup but are 33-1 shots for glory next summer after making hard work of qualifying.

Star man James Rodriguez has struggled in the early stages of his loan at Bayern Munich, strikers Radamel Falcao, Teofilo Gonzalez and Carlos Bacca are in their 30s and goalkeeper David Ospina has looked shaky during the recent qualifiers.

Colombia qualified fourth in South America and may struggle to compete with the strongest teams in Russia.

There was nothing fortunate about Iceland's run to the last eight at Euro 2016 and despite dismissive outright quotes of 250-1 they have every chance of making a positive impression on their World Cup finals debut.

Their qualification group featured four teams who competed at Euro 2016 but they came through with flying colours amassing 22 points from 30 and finishing top of the section.

On paper there are not many superstars in the squad. But Iceland are well-organised, powerful and tactically astute. They have every chance of reaching the knockout stages.

Concacaf is one of the easier qualifying sections and Panama have taken advantage of a lacklustre USA effort by finishing third in their qualifying group.

They won just three of ten qualifiers and were the second-lowest scorers in the group, superior only to basement boys Trinidad & Tobago.

There is a wealth of experience in the squad but leading scorers Blas Perez and Luis Tejeda are veterans and may struggle to cut it at the highest level.

At 1,500-1 Panama are the highest price of the confirmed qualifiers and it is hard to argue with that assessment.

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Iceland have every chance of making a positive impression on their World Cup finals debut
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