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World Cup 2014: The Dark Horses

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Yesterday, we had a good look at the four teams most likely to win the upcoming World Cup. What we have yet to touch on is one of the most lively debates before any international tournament. Who will be the team who emerges from nowhere to thrill the crowds and cause a few upsets along the way? Is there a team from lower down the international pecking order who can surprise us all and go all the way? Usually there is at least one team who overachieves in these competitions, and calling them right is often the difference between winning and losing the fantasy football wars, so here we will look at four teams who could potentially go from dark horses to World Cup champions in the space of a few weeks in June.

 

Uruguay

It might seem harsh to judge two-time World Cup winners with a strikeforce containing the Premier League’s top goalscorer and a man Paris Saint Germain shelled out over sixty million euro to acquire as dark horses, but really they do fall short of the top tier of teams overall. They have  a lot of players who would be well known around Europe (aside from Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani), like central defender Diego Godin of Atletico Madrid and Martin Caceres from Juventus, while Diego Forlan was still in the squad for last year’s Confederations Cup. They qualified for that tournament by winning the 2011 Copa America, but then the likes of Forlan and captain Diego Lugano were younger men. Now, Forlan plays in Japan, while Lugano is a reserve player for West Brom. Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera is another vastly experienced player, with the Galatasary shot stopper having amassed sixty caps for his country. Uruguay will be relying on this group’s experience and dogged defence to see them through at the back, while feeding their talented attackers who will frighten even the finest defences the competition will have to offer. They qualified for the World Cup via a play-off with Jordan, having finished fifth in qualifying, so they do have limitations. They do have a very tough group to come through though, with England, Italy and Costa Rica to be overcome before they can dream of going all the way.

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Croatia

Croatia are a real candidate to make a surprise impact on the Brazilian summer. Their squad has a nice blend of experienced leaders, strong creative players in their prime and a daring dash of talented youth bursting through. Goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa has over a hundred caps for the national side, and will offer an assured presence in front of the back four, who will be marshalled by Southampton’s fierce centre back Dejan Lovren, alongside familiar names with a lot of experience in Darijo Srna and Vedran Corluka. In midfield, the creative spark of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, both plying their trade in Spain at the moment, will be of vital importance to the side. Both are very dangerous with the ball at their feet, capable of laying on chances for the strikers, where Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic is likely to lead the line. Mandzukic is a big, strong, hard-working classic centre forward type, one who gives his all for the cause. Probably better in the air though, so he will require good service from wide areas. Srna has always been able to lay on a good ball, while Ivan Perisic is a big threat cutting in from the wider areas. The Croats have plenty of potential coming from their younger players, and while 2014 may come too soon for Barcelona’s newest acquisition Alen Halilovic, Mateo Kovacic and Ante Rebic (of Inter Milan and Fiorentina, respectively) are both highly thought of in Italy and at home, and will look to inject some youth and vigour to the squad, assuming they make the final cut. They will have to deal with hosts Brazil in the group stage, as well as Mexio and Cameroon, but Croatia are a team to keep an eye on this summer.

 

Colombia

Yes, Falcao is injured. This is undoubtedly detrimental to Colombia’s chances this summer. Even though there now appears a good chance he will be picked in the squad, he won’t be up to full speed by the time the World Cup starts, and this scenario usually doesn’t work out well for the team selecting the player (how many times have England brought half-fit players and struggled badly?), but Colombia actually have a number of options that could prove successful if the Monaco hitman is unavailable. Jackson Martinez of Porto, Luis Muriel of Udinese or Adrian Ramos, soon to be playing for Dortmund, are all talented footballers capable of doing damage to any team they come up against. The supply into these forwards should be pretty good, as James Rodriguez, another big money signing from Monaco, is a quality playmaker, while the likes of Juan Fernando Quintero or Victor Ibarbo are highly thought of players who could make a name for themselves on football’s biggest stage. Juan Cuadrado will offer a great deal of pace down the flanks. All this attacking flair will have to be cultivated into a cohesive unit, and coach Jose Pekerman will have to make sure this team is as good defensively as it is going forward. He has the option of selecting the hugely experienced pair of central defenders in Luis Perea and Mario Yepes, 35 and 38 respectively, or trying to form a partenership between one of them and some of the younger defenders, most likely Cristian Zapata of AC Milan. Colombia find themselves in a very winnable group, alongside Greece, Japan and the Ivory Coast. If they can top it and face a second-ranked team in the knockout rounds, this Colombia side could get a lot of momentum behind it and be very hard to stop.

Belgium

Belgium have been everyone’s suggestion for a dark horse team for a long time now, and as such it almost seems like they shouldn’t qualify for this list. Their new golden generation has produced a crop of players who are now littered around Europe, having been sold for a collective fortune to the biggest sides around. The squad is filled with big name players, like Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas, as well as numerous more to Football Manager aficionados. They have two good goalkeepers (where so many teams have none) in Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet, and a hugely promising young striker by the name of Romelu Lukaku. We should just hand them the trophy now, right? Not quite. Firstly, their main striker, Christian Benteke, will miss the tournament through injury. Admittedly, Lukaku is a more than capable replacement for the big Aston Villa man, but the depth behind him just isn’t there. Next up, most likely, are talented kids like Zakaria Bakkali and Michy Batshuayi, but they are 18 and 20 years old, respectively. If anything were to happen to Lukaku, or if they just needed another body up there, some creative thinking would be needed from coach Marc Wilmots.

A secondary concern is the form of a number of players, with Fellaini and Vermaelen in particular struggling this season in the Premier League. And although they have been blessed to have so many talented players come along at once, there is a troubling issue in that their full backs, considered so important in the modern game, are not of the same standard of the top players in the team. The likes of Sebastian Pocognoli (Hannover 96) and Anthony Van Den Borre have had their chances to plug in there, but both have suffered from lack of playing time against quality opposition. All that being said, this Belgium team have a number of wonderful players, and if they can get the combination of Hazard, Witsel, Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne to ignite, then they might well be able to live up to all their hype. They face Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stage, and this will likely be a good way to gauge how good this Belgian side is. Blow away that opposition and claim top spot, and they might be the real deal. Even if they don’t, they should still be a tricky opponent for most sides in the knockout stages.

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  1. April 25th, 2014

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