Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.
After a laborious and hard-fought qualifying campaign, thirty one teams will fly in to join hosts Russia this summer to compete in the 2018 World Cup. The favourites to win the tournament outright have already been established, with the likes of Germany, Brazil and France expected to reach the latter stages of this year’s competition.
However, quite often a team or two emerges from the chasing pack to challenge the established order at major international tournament. Often, all it takes is a significant injury blow to one of the favoured teams to shift the tide in the underdogs’ favour. The World Cup in particular has a rich history of teams inverting the impossible and creating storylines of against the odds, sporting heroism. We’ve watched football teams carry entire nations and populations with them deep into the uncharted territories of World Cup Knock-Out Stages.
Costa Rica in 2014, Ghana in 2010, Ukraine in 2006, South Korea in 2002 and Croatia 98 all defied pre-tournament reputations and predictions to leave their mark on the World Cup. Below is our rundown of dark horses and unfancied outsiders who we think could have a similar impact at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
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- How They Qualified: Winners of African Group D
- Star Player: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
- One to Watch: Keita Balde (Monaco)
- To Qualify From Their Group: 11/8
- To Reach The Quarter Final: 5/1
- To Reach The Semi Final: 14/1
Group H with Poland, Colombia and Japan
The 2018 World Cup will be Senegal’s second appearance at a finals after their participation at the 2002 tournament in France. Incidentally, their current Manager Aliou Cissé captained the Senegal team in France in 02. Senegal came through their qualification section with relative ease, winning four of their six fixtures in African Group D, where they were drawn alongside Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa.
Fans of the English Premier League will recognise Crystal Palace’s Pape Souare, Everton pair Idrissa Gueye and Oumar Niasse, West Ham’s Cheikh Kouyate, Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf and of course Liverpool’s quicksilver attacker Sadio Mane in the Senegal team. Mane undoubtedly brings the most in terms of star quality to Senegal, though they have tremendous ability running right through their squad.
Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the most highly regarded centre halves in European club football, while Monaco’s Keita Balde has been turning heads in France since he moved there from Lazio last year. World Cup Group H looks one of the toughest sections to call with little to choose between the competing teams. Aliou Cissé is likely to persist with his preferred 4-3-3 formation this summer and that set-up certainly seems the best way to get the most out Senegal’s pacey attackers. The blend of physical strength and technical skill in Senegal’s ranks will be tough to cope with and they have a great shot at making the Quarter Finals in Russia.
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- How They Qualified: Beat New Zealand in a playoff after they finished 5th in South American qualification section
- Star Player: Christian Cueva (Sao Paulo)
- One to Watch: Renato Tapia (Feyenoord)
- To Qualify From Their Group: 9/4
- To Reach The Quarter Final: 9/1
- To Reach The Semi Final: 20/1
Group C with France, Australia and Denmark
Back at the World Cup after a thirty six year hiatus, Peru bring one of the competition’s youngest squads to this summer’s tournament in Russia. Coach Ricardo Gareca drafted in a high number of players in their early twenties during Peru’s qualification campaign with the youngsters seemingly more malleable to Gareca’s methods. Peru won just one of their first six matches in South America’s qualification section before Gareca’s ideology began to take hold.
Alongside their hard running, Peru’s short, crisp passing and clever movement off the ball proved both effective and eye-catching. Their upturn in performances has been staggering and at the time of writing the Peruvians are unbeaten in fourteen international matches. A 0-0 draw in Buenos Aires against Argentina and friendly wins against Croatia (2-0) and Iceland (3-1) further illustrated just how far they had come in a relatively short space of time.
With over eighty caps, veteran Lokomotiv Moscow forward Jefferson Farfan is the most experienced player in the squad, but what Peru lack in terms of miles on the clock, they make up for with genuine talent. Sao Paulo’s Christan Cueva is a master at unlocking defences with his clever passing, while Renato Tapia’s reputation is growing all the time in Feyenoord’s midfield. Forward Raul Ruidiaz is also worth keeping an eye on – the twenty seven year old has been on fire for Mexican club Morelia this season.
Second place in World Cup Group C looks open with Australia and Denmark likely to be battling it out with Peru for the runners up spot behind group favourites France. Don’t be surprised to see Peru fly in under the radar to book their place in the latter stages.
- How They Qualified: 2nd in South American qualification section
- Star Player: Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
- One to Watch: Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus)
- To Qualify From Their Group: 1/5
- To Reach The Quarter Final: 13/8
- To Reach The Semi Final: 4/1
Group A with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt
Perennial dark horses Uruguay sailed through their qualification section in South America, finishing second to Brazil after two-year, eighteen game slog. Although their long serving attacking duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are still the main attractions, Manager Óscar Tabárez has overseen a changing of the guard behind them in midfield.
Boca Juniors’ twenty two year old Nahitan Nandez and Juventus’ twenty year old Rodrigo Bentancur have both become mainstays in the Uruguayan middle, while Cruzeiro’s twenty three year old schemer Giorgian De Arrascaeta has been chosen as the team’s main creative outlet operating in the hole behind Cavani and Suarez. One of the most sought after players in Europe, Sampdoria’s Lucas Torreira has yet to make any impact at international level, though his time is likely to come after he was drafted into the senior squad for the first time last month.
In Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, Uruguay have top class centre halves on which to build a defence in front of the experienced goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. The 31 year old Galatasaray stopper is likely to pass the one hundred cap mark for his country this summer. Uruguay are favourites to win a weak looking World Cup Group A this summer and they will provide a stern test for anyone in the knockout stages. Getting to the Quarter or even the Semi Finals certainly isn’t beyond them.
- How They Qualified: Beat Greece in the playoffs after finishing second in European Qualification Group I
- Star Player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
- One to Watch: Mario Pasalic (Spartak Moscow)
- To Qualify From Their Group: 1/2
- To Reach The Quarter Final: 9/4
- To Reach The Semi Final: 6/1
Group D with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria
The 2018 World Cup in Russia could be the final chance for several members of this Croatia team to achieve a measure of international success. This is without question the best batch of Croatian players to emerge since Davor Suker’s class of ’98, but time is starting to tick by for Luka Modric (32), Ivan Rakitic (30), Ivan Perisic (29), and Mario Mandzukic (31). That’s not to say that Croatia will be taking a squad of geriatrics to Russia. In Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic, Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic and Spartak Moscow’s Mario Pasalic, Croatia have a trio of midfielders very much on the up.
Croatia sacked manager Ante Cacic near the end of the qualification campaign, replacing him with Zlatko Dalic two days before their win or bust final group game in Ukraine. The managerial swap did the trick as Croatia won 2-0 in Kiev to set up a two legged Playoff battle with Greece. The Croatians won the first leg 4-1 to render the second meeting largely pointless, once again proving their ability to turn on the style under pressurised circumstances.
Croatia’s squad is littered with players of genuine class and World Cup Group D pits them against a trio of teams they will expect to do well against. Their meeting with Argentina is a stand out game that could go either way, but Croatia will expect maximum points from their encounters with Iceland and Nigeria. The Croatian midfield is one of the strongest looking centre park combinations in the entire competition and their quality in possession should take them far.
- How They Qualified: Beat Northern Ireland in the playoffs after finishing second in European Qualification Group B
- Star Player: Ricardo Rodriguez (AC Milan)
- One to Watch: Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach)
- To Qualify From Their Group: 1/1
- To Reach The Quarter Final: 5/1
- To Reach The Semi Final: 10/1
Group D with Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia
Switzerland had to take the long way around in qualifying for the World Cup in Russia, beating Northern Ireland in the Playoffs to eventually secure their spot. The Swiss can consider themselves unlucky not to have qualified directly however after they won nine of their ten matches in European Qualification Group B. Switzerland were beaten to top spot by Portugal, who edged ahead of them by goal difference only.
The Swiss have become a robust, well drilled outfit under Vladimir Petkovic and they aren’t used to losing football matches. They have been beaten just once in their last fifteen games. Switzerland have battle-hardened pros in defence with Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner and Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez at full back, flanking Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji and Deportivo La Coruna’s Fabian Schar at centre half. In midfield they have aggression and legs to match their ample creativity, but if there is a weakness in the Swiss squad, it’s in forward areas. Benfica’s Haris Seferovic usually fills the lone striking berth, but he hasn’t score in any of his last six international appearances.
Switzerland’s route to the World Cup knock out stages looks tough with a tricky looking Group B to navigate. Brazil are expected to finish at the summit of the group, and the Swiss will have to get positive results against mercurial Costa Rica and Serbia teams to grab second place. The Swiss will hope to carry their superb qualification form into the finals however and if they can ride that wave of momentum, it could take them to the Quarter Finals.
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