After a four year wait, the World Cup is nearly upon us. In 2014 we were blessed with plenty of surprise stories, shocking semi final defeats and Luis Suarez making himself public enemy number one yet again after getting hungry mid-match.
Yes, on the June 15, all eyes will be on Russia as the biggest names in football descend on to the Eastern European nation with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Antione Greizmann and Toni Kroos blessing us with some of the most entertaining football on the planet. But what about the surpise packages this summer?
We might remember Robin Van Persie’s wondergoal against Spain in the Group stages, Neymar’s wake before the semi-final against Germany and Mario Gotze’s winning goal in the final, but we all love an underdog story.
Four years ago, Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals after getting out of one of two groups of death containing Italy, England and Uruguay and in South Africa 2010, Ghana were so close to becoming the first African nation to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup, if it wasn’t for Luis Suarez handballing a last second shot off the line.
Jonathon Hague is on the hunt for the teams that could overachieve in this competition beyond expectations over the next month. Perennial dark horses Belgium and Croatia are nowhere to be seen here.
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Everyone’s second team and the nation that took the European Championship 2016 in France by storm, Iceland have become the smallest nation ever to qualify for World Cup with a population of just 334,252.
Iceland booked their ticket to Russia in scintillating fashion as they topped one of the toughest UEFA qualifying groups featuring 1998 semi-finalists, Croatia, 2002 semi-finalists, Turkey, and a Ukraine side who are no pushovers.
Much has been documented about the rise of Icelandic football in the past ten years with the building on indoor football pitches to allow for football to be played all year round, but the national team have developed a style of play that is defensive first, but deadly on the counter attack with Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson being the playmaker and key to Iceland success.
England fans are still having nightmares of the Round 16 defeat inflicted by Strákarnir okkar in one of the greatest footballing stories in recent memory. Argentina, Iceland’s first opponents, would be naïve to underestimate the side going into the tournament.
After Messi and co, Iceland face Nigeria and Croatia with the race a to qualify. Iceland have proved in qualifying for the World Cup that Croatia are beatable, while Nigeria will also be looking at this group and thinking that they have a chance of making the last 16.
Argentina might be the favourites, but they are top heavy and Iceland could exploit their backline, while Croatia have the expectation of a nation weighing them down as the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ try to capitalise on their huge potential. With this in mind, Iceland might be unfavoured in the odds, but they have nothing to lose and a lot of grit and heart which could make them deadly in the early stages of the competition. Remember, Iran almost held Argentina to a 0-0 draw four year ago!
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Egypt return to the World Cup after a 28-year absence despite being the most successful African team in this period winning four African Cup of Nations titles and a runner up place in the 2017 competition.
The Pharaohs’ odds have slipped since the Champions League final as forward Mo Salah was taken off with a shoulder injury just 30 minutes in to the game after a tussle with Real Madrid and Spain centre-back, Sergio Ramos. The Egyptians are optimistic that the Premier League Player of the Year will be fit for their first World Cup game against Uruguay, but much of their success is in the hands of the demigod to the Egyptian public.
Realistically, Uruguay are favourites to top the group with the rest of the teams battling it out for second place. Russia are entering their own World Cup is disastrous form and despite Saudi Arabia qualifying ahead of Australia in Asia, Egypt are in a tussle with the two worst ranked team in the competition.
Quality will be essential for teams attempting to break this Egyptian side down, as manager Héctor Cúper sets his side up in a defensive manner with Arsenal’s Elneny and Tarek sitting deep as holding midfielders.
Do not expect Egypt to make it further than the Round of 16, but they are definite value to qualify from their group even without Mo Salah and if they managed to qualify from their group, they will be hailed as heroes back home.
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Yes, I can hear you sighing there! England have been the most overrated footballing nation for a good while now, but for once they are going into the competition with absolutely no expectations which is why I reckon this will play into the hands of Gareth Southgate’s men.
Southgate has impressed since taking over from the disgraced Sam Allardyce back in 2016, proving to be far from the yes man that many expected him to be. Key decisions have been made to remove deadwood from the team whilst promoting youngsters to give the side a fresh look.
The biggest music to England fans ears is the system the team are playing. Adopting the Tottenham Hotspur formation of attacking wingbacks and a three-man backline, for the first time in many tournaments, an England manager has a game plan and is no longer shafting in big name stars just because they are at the team’s disposal.
Harry Kane firing on all cylndars is key to this England side impressing, as history has weighed many players down in the past as they failed to replicate the form of their club sides on the international stage. However, the spine of the team is strong with Kane, Alli, Dier, Walker and Rose all having played with each other on a regular basis before.
The new faces of Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford have allowed Southgate to play an attractive style of football based on possession against the smaller nations, and quick counter attacks against the countries with more quality at their disposal.
Belgium are the toughest test in Group G but are entirely beatable as questions remain of Roberto Martinez’s tactics with high-profile players such as Kevin De Bryne publicly questioning the Belgium system. His time at Everton, would be proof that he struggles with setting his teams up to defend.
If England qualify from their group then they have a solid chance of making the quarter-finals as they will face Poland, Colombia, Japan or Senegal from Group H, all teams that England have the quality to beat.
Expectations have been an Achilles heel for past England competition squads, perhaps the fresh faces and lack of pressure will restore some pride back into the Three Lions.
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