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The year of the underdog?

We analyse the potential teams who could throw up a few surprises this summer in Russia.

With the World Cup warm ups taking place this weekend, we want to harvest that football fever by discussing the potential of one thing all football fans love: the rise of the underdog.

Now, there is little to no chance that a smaller nation will go all the way, with it arguably never have been done before – however, there are always a select few teams who manage to surprise football fans across the globe by defying the odds against some of the pre-tournament favourites. Roger Milla’s Cameroon in 1990, the heroics of Senegal in 2002 and the tragic theft of Ghana’s World Cup hopes in 2010 are all famous underdog stories that should give belief to many of the 32 teams travelling to Russia this summer. So, that raises the question: who are this years likely underdogs?

We profile five teams who could reach the latter stages in this summer’s tournament.

Egypt

There is no need to spell out why Egypt have a good chance of progressing at this years World Cup. The North African nation holds dear their most prized asset, and he’s currently the most in-form player on the planet. Mohammed Salah is a national hero in Egypt, and his heroics in a dramatic final qualifier demonstrate how important he is to a successful Egyptian side. The Liverpool forward has scored an impressive 36 goals in all competitions this season, and there is no sign of him slowing down. If Salah carries this form in to the World Cup, there is no doubt that Egypt will be able to find a way to navigate through their group of Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.

The experienced Egypt squad includes other domestic talents such as West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi, who has shown real talent despite being part of a team rooted to the foot of the table, as well as Arsenal’s bit-part midfielder Mohammed El Neny and Aston Villa’s versatile Ahmed El Mohamady. With their usual back four amassing over 400 caps, the Egyptians will not be short of any real leadership qualities going in to the World Cup, despite it being their first appearance in 28 years.

With their back line as solid as the foundations the old Pyramids lie on, as well as their explosive fire power in attack, Egypt should be able show enough quality to progress in to the last 16. Their real test in the group stage will be to cope with the talents of Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez of Uruguay – if they can, it will set the pace for a likely encounter against either Portugal or Spain of Group B.

Croatia

Undoubtedly, Croatia are seen as the dark horses of every major tournament. A cohesive international side with enough world class quality to see them to the knockout stages every time of asking. Yet, despite the consistent label of dark horses, the Croatians have never been able to replicate the success of 1998 with a team that has arguably many more household names than that of the side that reached the semi-finals in France.

Much of their play will be dictated by their captain Luka Modric, who many see as the world’s finest central midfielder. His dynamic displays in the middle of the park are complemented by the athleticism and skill of Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic. Croatia boast a midfield occupied by talents from both Real Madrid and Barcelona, something many Croatians thought they would never see. With the added firepower of Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, the eastern European side will be expecting a last 16 place at a very minimum. New manager Zlatko Dalic was appointed during 2017 after their qualifying campaign failed to deal with the increasing expectation from the national association. Dalic has the familiar face of Ivica Olic to accompany his side to Russia as assistant, and the two will second place in Group D as a realistic target ahead of Nigeria and Iceland.

However, with Argentina not firing at all cylinders throughout their World Cup qualifying campaign, anything is possible for the Croats. Progression from the group could see them pitted against the might of France and the potential of this will be seen as a real motivator to grab top place in a competitive group in Russia.

Poland

A team that more than often slips under the radar. The Poles ran away with their qualifying group, with only one loss in 10 games, and its no surprise that talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski was at the heart of it. The Bayern Muncih centre forward set a European record of 16 goals during Poland’s qualifying campaign, and if he replicates that form in Russia, there is no doubt that his nation can be seen as one of the potential big upsets in the knockout rounds.

Polish fans are amongst the most dedicated across the world, and they will be ecstatic ahead of this summer’s tournament, their first since 2006. The national side has not progressed past the group stage in over 30 years, and they will see this year has their best opportunity to make amends. Despite the obvious talents of their captain, Poland have strength in most areas of the park. The experience of Monaco’s Gilk and Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek at the back ensure solidity for the diverse talents in midfield, which include Hull City’s Kamil Grosicki and PSG loanee Grzegorz Krychowiak. Their most intriguing player ahead of the World Cup is Napoli’s Piotr Zieliński, who has played a key role in the attractive football on show in Naples throughout this season.

With strength in key areas and a group that they should comfortably qualify from, Poland have the potential to be the surprise package of this year’s tournament. Don’t be too shocked if they are drawn against England in the last 16, and if there anything we’re certain of it is that they will be no pushovers.

Mexico

Of all the teams mentioned so far, progression from their group should be seen as an expectation based on their opponents; Mexico’s draw means that their challenge is far greater. With a group of holders Germany, Sweden and South Korea, the Mexicans face a tough task to reach the knockout rounds in Russia.

However, their squad has a good blend of experience and exciting youth – which could be enough to taste some relative success on their long trip across the Atlantic.

Captain Andrés Guardado, alongside Hector Herrera, Hector Moreno and Javier Hernandez are veterans in the national side, despite no grey hairs between them. The heroics of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa caught the eyes of fans in Mexico's last World Cup appearance, and he still has plenty in the tank at 32 years of age. The experience across these players cannot be underestimated and may help overcome the likes of Sweden, who are likely to miss the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimović.

The afore mentioned experience is complimented by some exciting young Mexican talents. Hirving Lozano was one of the most sought after youngsters within North America until 2017, when Dutch giants PSV snapped him up. His pace and trickery, traits synonymous with successful Mexican sides, will be vital if they wish to progress from Group F.

Switzerland

A team ranked 8th in the world, how could they not be in contention?

Well, we can all agree that FIFA’s ranking system is never the best measurement for international football, yet, Switzerland have managed to turn a few heads in recent years. A very disappointing exit in Euro 2016 will still be fresh in the minds of the Swiss as they travel east to Russia. Their national team have been a side that have really set the pace throughout qualifying campaigns since the turn of the decade. Despite a second place finish behind Portugal in their road to Russia, they boasted more than double the points of next best team Hungary and missed out on an automatic spot on goal difference.

So, can the Swiss do it on the big stage?

Based on their last major finals appearance, the answer would be no. However, it is a different campaign with different objectives. They took Argentina within two minutes of penalties in 2014, so they clearly have the organisation to deal with the pressure in the World Cup. The defensive solidity has been key to the rise of the Swiss, captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez offer stability going both forward and back, whilst Arsenal ace Granit Xhaka is seen as a lynchpin of the team sitting just in front of the defence. Switzerland have often struggled to find and out and out goalscorer, so find themselves relying on the explosive skills of Stoke City’s Xhedran Shaquiri. The Potters winger has not managed to capture his best form this season, as the Premier League side have fallen in to a relegation battle. However, the pocket size powerhouse has shown in previous years that he is capable of winning games on his own.

With a group of Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia; the Swiss will be hoping that they can follow the samba soccer stars out of Group E and in to the last 16.

So, there we have it – Powerleague’s picks for the 2018 World Cup underdogs. Do you agree? Is there anyone you feel has the potential to cause an upset in Russia?

Written by Lewis McKenzie

23/03/18