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Finally, the month long festival of football is about to start. Four years on from Germany’s triumph in Brazil, it’s all about to start again with the same old teams emerging as favourites to win it. The qualifying campaign was full of surprises, with massive nations like the Netherlands, Italy and Chile all missing out. This has given us reason to focus on some of the smaller countries that weren’t expected to make it. Mohamed Salah’s Egypt have reached their first World Cup for two decades, Iceland and Panama making their debut appearances and Peru’s first appearance since 1982. With that being said, don’t be surprised to see a few more shocks in the coming month, I’ll pick out five teams who I think can be a potential dark horse at this year’s competition, not necessarily as champions but teams that might surprise you.
After waiting 32 years for their second World Cup appearance, Australia are arriving in Russia for the fourth consecutive World Cup appearance. Their presence however, has never quite been felt with a controversial Round of 16 exit in 2006 being their best achievement. This year they’ll be hoping to do much better and under the guidance of the 2010 Dutch coach, Bert van Marwijk, they might just have a chance of exceeding expectations. In 2014, they had no chance being put in a three way group of death with the Netherlands, Spain and Chile all battling it out but this year, they’ll battle it out with Denmark and Peru to follow France into the Round of 16. In the qualifying campaign they didn’t ever get to their best playing unusual formations such as a 3-2-4-1 and other strange combinations that have never payed off.
In recent friendlies under the guidance of their new manager, they’ve reverted back to a traditional 4-3-3 earning an impressive 0-0 draw against a talented Colombian side and a recent 4-0 thrashing of World Cup absentees, the Czech Republic. Impressive individual club performances from Australians around the world this year might help them further with the likes of Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield), Matthew Ryan (Brighton), Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin) and Tom Rogic (Celtic) all having good seasons. However, it might just be their World Cup experience provided by Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli) and Tim Cahill who are the important figures in the dressing room to push their nation for glory.
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African nations are often underestimated at the World Cup and in the past, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon have all tried to challenge that belief that the African nations aren’t as good as the rest. In my opinion, Senegal could be the team to change that and make a huge statement this summer. While Egypt also have a great chance with the forever scoring Mohamed Salah, his Anfield partner, Sadio Mane will be hoping to help out the Lions. However, don’t think of Senegal just as Sadio Mane, there team is much better than you might imagine.
They’ll be returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2002 with Napoli’s impressive Kalidou Koulibaly, whose defensive expertise will be heavily sought after during the transfer window. He’ll be partnered up with Salif Sane who has had a brilliant season for Hannover and will be looking to carry that form into the World Cup. Monaco’s young forward, Keita Balde will also be expected to perform at this year’s tournament with 8 goals and 11 assists in all competitions this season adding even more fire power to Senegal’s front-line. A solidified midfield will be provided by Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate that should provide freedom for the frontmen.
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The first (but not last) European team in this list is Serbia. Similarly to Senegal, not many people could name many Serbian footballers but when you hear all their names, you might begin to fancy their chances. They’ll be hoping that their quality in midfield is what wins them their matches. Manchester United’s anchor, Nemanja Matic and Crystal Palace’s surprise top scorer for the season, Luka Milivojević are two that will play as holding midfielders sitting behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. Lazio’s Milinkovic-Savic will also be key for Serbia and he’ll be hoping to perform in the tournament if he wants a big money move to one of Europe’s elite in the summer. These three in midfield are crucial but it will mean nothing without the right men in front and behind them.
The experienced Branislav Ivanovic will play as either a right back or more likely as a centre back alongside ex-Manchester City youngster, Matija Nastasic. Up front, Southampton’s saviour, Dusan Tadic will look to provide creativity in midfield for Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic or Hamburg’s Filip Kostic. Looking at this side, they have the potential to do well and definitely exceed the low expectations that people have set upon them. While they are placed in Brazil’s group who Serbia will likely taste defeat to, they should fancy their chances against Switzerland and Costa Rica.
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Similarly to Sweden being known for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Poland is known for Robert Lewandowski but going into the World Cup this year, the Poles should be confident that he definitely isn’t their only hope. The only problem for Poland might be their midfield despite having Napoli’s Zielinski in there to provide a mixture of creativity and solidity as the versatile midfielder that he is, he won’t have much support. Krychowiak of West Brom will also be asked to help him out but Poland’s strength will come from an organised and experience defense and lethal attack. Monaco’s Glik and Dortmund’s Piszczek will most likely make up two of the three defensive positions which Poland opting to play a three at the back in their recent friendlies. In attack of course, Lewandowski will be expected to do the work but Milik and Grosicki would be valued highly if they could take some pressure off of him.
Jakub Błaszczykowski could also add an element of pace to the side and balls into Lewandowski will be the obvious route for Poland’s potential success. However, they’ll also be backed by a very impressive choice for keepers with both Swansea’s Fabianski and Juventus’ Szczesny as potential options. Don’t rule Poland out just yet but they’ll have to go head to head with Senegal as the other dark horses in Group H to follow Colombia through to the round of 16.
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My number one pick for the 2018 World Cup dark horse selection is Croatia. There hasn’t been much talk about the European side but like many other teams in this list, they have some excellent individual talent and if they can get that working with the right chemistry then they might be the best of this lot. Their key players will be in midfield, Luka Modric off the back of his Champions League final success against Liverpool will be their architect in midfield. On the topic of Liverpool, I believe Dejan Lovren will be a surprise performer this summer. His performances in recent months have been impressive especially in the Champions League knockout stages. Modric’s Madrid partner Kovacic will also be available in midfield as will their La Liga rival Ivan Rakitic as well as Kovacic’s ex-Inter Milan teammate Brozovic. All four will be expected to perform at a very high standard and their mix of passing abilities and creativity should provide the base for Perisic and Kramaric or Mandzukic, to finish off the chances. Lovren will be helped by a good defensive line with Corluka alongside him. At full backs they’ll have the experienced Srna who will be hoping to have a positive tournament after a traumatic Euro campaign where his father sadly passed away during a match. Atletico’s Vrsaljko will also provide width at full back with an experienced Subasic behind the four.
In my opinion, this is a very impressive side, they’ll need to make their chances count and if the midfield is able to support the defense which they’ll have to be able to do, then Croatia could go far in the tournament. It won’t be easy however, the way the bracket is set up means that they’ll be playing against a team from Group C which will most likely be France if Croatia come 2nd to Argentina which is also likely.
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Those are my top five dark horses for the much anticipated tournament. Let us know who you think can be a surprise at the tournament using the hashtag #AOF or replying in the comments.