With less than twelve months until the World Cup gets underway in Russia, minds are starting to focus on the most anticipated football event on the planet.

Brazil fittingly became the first nation to join hosts Russia in next year’s tournament and they have since been joined by Iran, with a further 29 spots still to be filled.

Northern Ireland are thriving under the assured guidance of Michael O’Neill with four wins from their last five qualifiers and on course for a playoff spot.

The Green and White Army may find catching Germany in their group a stretch, but ranking above the Czech Republic and Norway will go down as another serious landmark in the nation’s history and give them a shot at further glory.

It is unlikely that the hosts will be serious contenders to lift the iconic trophy in July 2018 but a number of nations are vying for football’s most coveted prize.

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Germany are aiming to become the first nation to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962 and for the first time this millennium they will be without Miroslav Klose – the tournament’s all-time leading scorer.

Joachim Low’s side came up trumps in this summer’s Confederations Cup, defeating back-to-back Copa America winners Chile in the decider.

The Chileans will be keen to build on recent international success on the biggest stage and will be hopeful of outdoing South American giants Brazil and Argentina.

The latter are now managed by the highly-rated Jorge Sampaoli, formerly of Chile and Sevilla, and with firepower such as Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero – anything is possible.

Brazil will be smarting from their 2014 World Cup humiliation at the hands of the Germans, but with a reinvigorated Neymar and a batch of new talent, they will be more motivated than any other side.

Colombia (James Rodriguez, Falcao) and Uruguay (Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez) are other South American sides with big ambitions next summer.

European champions Portugal fell just short in the Confederations Cup but with Cristiano Ronaldo ageing like a fine wine and emerging stars Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva complementing a well-drilled defence, they could once again prove extremely difficult to defeat at World Cup 2018.

Portugal’s Iberian neighbours Spain will once again be heavily favoured having dominated international football between 2008 and 2012 and an ever-reliable conveyor belt of talent.

France were left reeling following final defeat at home in the European Championships but with amouth-watering array of riches – Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe among them – they will see anything less than a sustained push at the trophy as failure.

Italy too may not have the star-studded line-up of past generations but can never be written off at a major tournament.

And what of Belgium? Possessing a ‘golden generation’ of talent, can the dark horses finally gel as a team with Roberto Martinez at the helm.

England will be hoping to better their early eliminations from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championships, but will enter more in hope than expectation.

For any fan of football this will be five weeks of excitement, drama and unmissable action, an exciting twelve months lie in store