EIGHT. That is the only number profit hunters need to concern themselves with when writing out the shortlist for potential winners of the 2022 World Cup. For that is the exact number of different countries that have managed to lift the prize in the 92-year running of the competition, a period that spans 21 tournaments. 

In short, we are not looking for a needle in a haystack here. The nations in question all tended to have commonalities, too. The job is made considerably easier by the fact that one of the eight – Italy – has not even qualified for this year’s finals and another – Uruguay – last won the tournament in 1950 and can almost certainly be discounted from the reckoning. England could similarly be overlooked on the grounds that it is – as Scots know all too well – 56 years since their sole World Cup victory but their appearance in last year’s Euro 2020 final makes their case stronger than that of the South Americans.

Ultimately, it’s important to look at past performance in the World Cup – not least because certain trends make it quite easy to pull together the profile of a likely winner: these include a team that comes from either UEFA or CONMEBOL and one that tops their group at the tournament. Of those two factors, the first is a near-certainty even if the latter is one that can only be judged once the group stage has come to an end. Nevertheless, pointing the way to the identity of those prospective group winners is relatively straightforward if we analyse the following trends.

Defences dominate
Look back at previous editions of the tournament and it becomes clear that teams that don’t concede tend to prosper. It stands to reason, of course. There’s an old adage in American sport that says attack wins matches, defence wins championships and we only need to look back at Greece’s Euro 2004 win as proof that obdurate, stuffy tactics can and do work. If we cross reference our list of previous winners: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Spain and England – and measure their recent goals conceded per game ratio, it is a positive for Brazil, Argentina and England. There is a caveat, however: a large portion of the 15 goals conceded by Gareth Southgate’s side in their previous 24 games came in their recent, dismal Nations League campaign. Meanwhile it’s a poor look for traditional defensive powerhouse, Germany, who have conceded at a rate of more than a goal a game.

HeraldScotland: France in trainingFrance in training (Image: Getty)

Clean sheets
It’s a category that obviously speaks to the relative strength of a team’s defence. Leading the way are Brazil who have kept 17 clean sheets in their past 24 competitive matches, next comes Argentina and England but it’s another negative for Germany, so too France and Spain who all sit at under 50% in the timeframe in question.

Strong group
The eventual winner has come from Group C on three occasions and while that is merely a quirk of the draw, a far more compelling measure is the one that shows that the past six winners have come from among the strongest groups. This time around the three strongest groups are B (average FIFA ranking of 14.5), E (18.25) and G (19.25). That’s further good news for Brazil but similarly for England, Spain and Germany.

Comebacks are rare in World Cup knockout games
There’s not too much ambiguity about this factor: the team that scores first once we get past the group stage almost always goes on to win that match. Argentina tops this trend having achieved the feat 20 times out of their past 24 competitive international matches, while Brazil and Spain come next on 18. It’s a relatively negative trend, though, for France (13/24) and Germany (14).

Other factors
Surprisingly pre-tournament favourites fare badly. For example, Brazil have held this status prior to six of the last nine finals but they have won just once holding that tag. Outsiders, unsurprisingly, do not tend to prosper. The biggest-priced winners of the World Cup were Italy at 11/1. They have managed to defy the odds on two occasions (1982 and 2006) and they have, of course, failed to qualify this time around – it’s another area that points to the winner coming from the top six teams we have focused on. 
Despite the presence of air conditioning in stadiums the Qatari climate is still going to have an impact, so look for a team that favours warm weather.

HeraldScotland: Argentina arrive in QatarArgentina arrive in Qatar (Image: Getty)

If the tenor of this entire column has pointed towards two teams, then it is hardly surprising because right from the outset, the research was pointing heavily towards South America. Brazil and Argentina carry by far the strongest form lines into the tournament having lost just once between them in a period stretching back over the past two years. While so many of the trends point to Tite’s men – who bolster an attack led by Neymar – winning the World Cup this time around, their sole loss came at the hands of their old foes in the Copa America final last July. When the two sides met again last November, Lionel Scaloni’s side limited Brazil to just two shots on target in a 0-0 draw.

That Copa America final ended Lionel Messi’s long wait for silverware with his country but it also revealed the work Scaloni had done in forging a spirit that had been missing in Argentina’s teams of the past. The 35-year-old will answer one of football’s great rhetorical questions about which player is the greatest of all time should he steer his side out of Group C and lift the trophy.

Should Brazil also win their group the two are scheduled to meet in the semi-finals on December 13, a match that is likely to decide which team is ultimately crowned world champions five days later.

SELECTIONS Argentina to win the World Cup 13/2; Brazil and Argentina to reach the semi-finals (5.26/1)