World Cup: With Ronaldo, KDB and Eriksen, of course Portugal, Belgium or Denmark could be first-time finalists

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For all the changes it has undergone, for all the razzmatazz, the real wonder of the World Cup is that it remains essentially open: Bhutan and the Cook Islands start off in the qualifying rounds, just as Brazil and Germany do.

Perhaps one day the time of the genuine minnow will come, but the 32 teams that line up for Qatar 2022 are largely established on the big stage, with the hosts the only debutants.

There are established giants of the tournament, and then there are the arrivistes, burning with ambition to challenge the elite. Spain were first-time finalists and champions in 2010, and Croatia toppled England to reach the biggest match in football four years ago in Russia.

Who might be the next first-time finalists? Well, three of FIFA's top-10 ranked teams have never gone all the way to a World Cup final.

Could this be the time for Belgium, Portugal and Denmark to stake their claim for a place in the Lusail Stadium trophy game on December 18?

The European trio look well equipped, while Africa Cup of Nations winners Senegal might fancy their chances of causing a stir, as Stats Perform examines the credentials of that quartet.

BELGIUM: De Bruyne can match Modric

Roberto Martinez once led Wigan Athletic to FA Cup trophy glory at the expense of Manchester City, so the Belgium coach already knows a thing or two about upsetting the elite.

His team beat England in the third-place play-off at the 2018 World Cup, to post their best World Cup finish. Defeat in the quarter-finals of the delayed Euro 2020 was a disappointment, but it at least came against an inspired Italy side who went all the way.

Belgium sit second in the FIFA rankings, and although bookmakers generally rate them nowhere near second favourites, they have not reached those heights by fluke. A 4-1 defeat to the Netherlands in June was a peculiar result, but if Martinez takes an engaged Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, then Belgium have real hope.

Star man: De Bruyne, of course. The Manchester City playmaker would walk into any team in the tournament. In September, he reached the landmark of a combined 150 goals and assists in the Premier League in just his 217th game (58 goals, 92 assists), with scant sign of him slowing down. Now 31, this is nevertheless presumably the last World Cup of De Bruyne's peak years. He was injury-hampered at Euro 2020. At full health, he could follow in the footsteps of Croatia's Luka Modric by commandeering his country to their greatest footballing feat.

PORTUGAL: Ronaldo's final fling?

For Portugal, read Cristiano Ronaldo. And forget about a farewell to the international stage, as the 37-year-old Manchester United forward wants to play at Euro 2024 too, but this will surely be a World Cup swan song.

Six years ago, Portugal withstood the early loss of Ronaldo in the Euro 2016 final to beat hosts France and land their first major tournament title. The Nations League followed in 2019, and now Portugal come again, looking to hook the big one. It's not strictly all about the Ronaldo show any more, with Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix and Rafael Leao also ready to shine in Qatar. The defence is strong too, with Nuno Mendes and Joao Cancelo flanking Ruben Dias and Danilo Pereira.

If Portugal can select a stable side, avoiding injuries, few will have a starting XI of comparable quality.

Star man: Ronaldo might not be the Ronaldo of old, but he is the captain and totemic figure in this Portugal side, the most prolific goalscorer in all international football, and the team's performance likely depends to a large extent on how he performs. He became the oldest hat-trick scorer in a World Cup last time around (vs Spain, at 33 years 130 days), and has scored in all four of his previous World Cups, albeit not yet in the knockout rounds. He can become the first man to score in five World Cups, while three goals would put him ahead of Eusebio and make him Portugal's all-time top scorer in the competition. A strong showing could also pave the way for a move away from United, where he is clearly unhappy.

DENMARK: Very good Danes can become great Danes

It is 30 years since Denmark laid their hands on major silverware with their magnificent Euro 92 triumph, and there are comparisons to be drawn between that side and the current breed. In Christian Eriksen, they have a luminous playmaker to match up to Brian Laudrup; a defensive midfield of Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg brings the sturdiness; and while they lack superstar quality in attack, Andreas Cornelius brings an aerial threat while Kasper Dolberg, Andreas Skov Olsen and Mikkel Damsgaard bring a real zeal.

In goal, of course, there is Kasper Schmeichel, every bit the stalwart his father Peter was once. These Danes were Euro 2020 semi-finalists and might respectfully be said to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Star man: Eriksen's return to action after his cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 has been uplifting, and the most impressive aspect has been his performance level. Outstanding in a half-season spell at Brentford last season, Eriksen has slotted into Manchester United's midfield since his July move with the assurance of someone who has been there for years. Denmark can be major beneficiaries of his resurgence in Qatar.

SENEGAL: Lions look to Mane, their high-stakes shoot-out king

Could Africa's champions become world champions? That famous Pele prediction of Africa producing a World Cup winner by the turn of the century proved way off the mark, with the continent yet to produce even a semi-finalist.

Senegal, who edged Egypt on penalties in both the Africa Cup of Nations final and the final round of World Cup qualifying, are a team who possess world-class talent in Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly, with the majority of their squad now playing in Europe's top five leagues.

Experience of playing AFCON in high temperatures may help African nations come the World Cup, where efforts to limit the impact of the warm climate remain an ongoing challenge. That factor, added to the proven quality and big-tournament know-how of coach Aliou Cisse's team, surely makes the Lions of Teranga a threat.

Star man: Mane swapped Liverpool for Bayern Munich in June, then endured a fallow spell after an early burst of goals. His class is unmistakable, however, as years of success at Anfield demonstrated, and the goals have begun to flow again. It was a pair of Mane penalties that completed both of Senegal's shoot-out victories over Egypt this year, the second of those denying his then Reds strike partner Mohamed Salah a ticket to Qatar.

The problem is, will he be fit? Although he has been included in Senegal's squad, Cisse recently acknowledged Sane could be out of action for up to three weeks after suffering a fibula injury playing for Bayern in their recent win over Werder Bremen. Such a spell on the sidelines would rule him out of the whole group stage. Senegal's saving grace is they will likely back themselves to get out of Group A – which also includes the Netherlands, Qatar and Ecuador – regardless of their talisman's availability, but they'll surely need him in the knockouts.