Neymar and Messi threat means Brazil and Argentina stay World Cup favourites – Stats Perform AI predicts

Neymar's return has fired up Brazil and underlined the Selecao's claims on the World Cup trophy before the quarter-finals start – but a strong cast of rivals stands in their way.

Brazil were excellent against South Korea, mowing down the opposition by sprinting into a 4-0 lead in just 36 minutes in Monday's last-16 game, before taking the foot off the accelerator.

They face Croatia in the opening quarter-final on Friday, and later in the day Argentina tackle the Netherlands.

Saturday sees Morocco go up against Portugal in the day's first game, before England and France duke it out for the last semi-final spot.

Stats Perform's AI model has been measuring each team's trophy prospects throughout the tournament, and their chances of making progress deeper into the tournament.

As the remaining eight teams target the Lusail Stadium final on December 18, let's check out the results of the latest AI number crunching.

FAVOURITES: 1. Brazil (28.3 per cent)

The five-time winners are the obvious choice as the team most likely, given the riches at coach Tite's disposal, and their dip in form during Neymar's two-game absence may be a thing of the past.

An ankle injury kept the Paris Saint-Germain forward sidelined, but he returned to the side as the knockout stage began and Brazil thrived again, his promptings giving the team belief to express themselves.

Here's a thing though: they have not reached the semi-finals at the World Cup since 2002 – the year they last lifted the trophy.

Tite's team have the firepower to get past Croatia, but will they be savvy enough? AI evidence points to them having a 77.2 per cent chance of coming through against the Russia 2018 runners-up, who needed penalties to get past Japan.

Brazil's overall trophy prospects stand at 28.3 per cent, though, which suggests there is a high likelihood – 71.7 per cent – they will not be crowned champions. The competition is fierce, and it gets fiercer by the game.

Brazil
Brazil

2. Argentina (16.9 per cent)

After a scare against Australia, who staged a late rally in their last-16 tie, the jury is still somewhat out on this Argentina team.

There is no doubting Lionel Messi is playing well, his presence sure to be a concern to any opposition. His first World Cup knockout stage goal came against Australia, relieving him on that millstone, but beyond their legendary captain questions remain.

Will Julian Alvarez remain the preferred option as Messi's chief attacking support, ahead of Lautaro Martinez? With two goals so far, the Manchester City forward probably should keep the job in Lionel Scaloni's side, and keeping that combination, with the likes of Alexis Mac Allister in support, would give some stability going into the business end.

Will Angel Di Maria come back from his thigh injury? Can a team with Nicolas Otamendi at the heart of its defence really win a World Cup?

The Netherlands believe they can contain Messi on Friday, but then they would say that. Argentina are given a 58.7 per cent chance of coming through their Dutch test, and a possible repeat of last year's Copa America final against Brazil could then await them in the final four.

3. France (15.2 per cent)

France made light work of Poland, with Robert Lewandowski's late penalty arguably flattering the beaten side in a 3-1 win for Les Bleus, and the reigning world champions are shaping up nicely for a defence.

They were rated just 11.1 per cent trophy prospects before that game, but with Olivier Giroud becoming France's record scorer and Kylian Mbappe plundering two excellent late goals, the spirits in Didier Deschamps' camp are on the up and so is their likelihood of heading back to Paris with the trophy once again on the plane.

They were hampered by injury heading into this tournament, losing a host of possible starters, and questions remain about their strength in depth after a fringe France team lost to Tunisia in the final group game.

However, Mbappe is flying, with five goals already, and he will be straining to be let loose on England.

France are given a 54.8 per cent chance of getting past Gareth Southgate's side, which makes it close to knife-edge stuff. We will know an awful lot more about this team after that game, but the signs point to them standing a realistic chance of becoming the first back-to-back winners since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

4. England (13.6 per cent)

Can the Three Lions get their claws into France? Is Kyle Walker versus Mbappe a fair fight? England believe it is, and if they can handle Mbappe they can perhaps handle France as a whole.

England were pretty lousy for half an hour against Senegal at the last-16 stage, but for the next hour they were largely excellent, and in Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden they have two exciting young talents who have not been over-awed by their first World Cup experience.

France have only lost one of their past eight meetings with England (W5 D2), a 2-0 defeat in a friendly in November 2015, but they have been beaten in both previous meetings in World Cups, group-stage losses in 1966 and 1982.

Those games belong to the history books and should have no bearing on Saturday's game, where Harry Kane will look to land more punches on France than Mbappe can sling England's way. Kane's first goal of the tournament last time out stands him in good stead, relieving the pressure that was just beginning to mount on the captain.

Their 45.2 per cent chance of winning on Saturday feels about right, with England mightily close to being on a par with France. Given a good day, there is no doubt Southgate's men could edge through to the semi-finals.

5. Portugal (10.7 per cent)

With Spain dismissed by Morocco, we will be seeing a quarter-final that few would have imagined, with the Atlas Lions blocking the path to the last four for Portugal.

Goncalo Ramos hit a hat-trick for Portugal in their dazzling 6-1 win against Switzerland on Tuesday, a result that has seen them jump from 7.8 per cent trophy shots before the last 16 got under way to 10.7 per cent prospects now.

This is a wholly open World Cup now, and Portugal are eminently credible contenders.

They named Cristiano Ronaldo as a substitute against the Swiss, and now the question is whether he stays there, because how can they possibly leave out his replacement, Ramos.

It will be a third World Cup quarter-final for Portugal, after 1966 and 2006, and the Euro 2016 champions have a scent of a first global triumph.

 

THE REST OF THE FIELD

Don't rule out the Dutch. This might not be a vintage Oranje, but it is a tasty enough specimen, and victory against the United States last time out shut up those who fancied an upset.

Louis van Gaal's recovery from cancer to lead the team has provided a large part of the narrative around them, but the veteran coach will want the focus to be on the players now, and their 9.2 per cent chance of winning will soar should they have enough left in the tank to down Argentina.

We are left with Morocco and Croatia as the outsiders, both given a 3.1 per cent hope of going all the way to glory. Will Croatia be worn out by their efforts over 120 minutes against Japan when they run into Brazil, or are their prospects being underestimated? They continued to shock all in their path four years ago, until France had their number in the final, so don't entirely rule out a gargantuan surprise.

Morocco, meanwhile, continue to fly the flag for Africa, one step away from being the continent's first World Cup semi-finalists. Few gave them a prayer against Spain, and it will be the same again as Portugal await them, but with a huge following in Qatar, nothing appears to daunt this impressive team.

List in full:

1. Brazil (28.3 per cent)

2. Argentina (16.9 per cent)

3. France (15.2 per cent)

4. England (13.6 per cent)

5. Portugal (10.7 per cent)

6. Netherlands (9.2 per cent)

7. Morocco (3.1 per cent)

8. Croatia (3.1 per cent)