The greatest single-sport competition of all returns in 2018, this time in Russia, with surprises having already occurred during qualifying. However, which team will perform when it counts, even if they are not expected to, and become a dark horse of the competition?
Here’s 10 sides who have the ability to provide a shock or two.
Egypt (Group A)
Despite popular belief that they solely rely on Mohamed Salah, the Pharaohs have an expansive side that can be ruthless on the counter attack. Their iconic goalkeeper and skipper Essam El-Hadary has recently turned 45 and boasts 156 caps. In addition, notable British-based players such as Ahmed Elmohamady, Ahmed Hegazi, Mohamed Elneny, Sam Morsy and Ramadan Sobhi make the squad well worth a watch despite never winning any of their 3 prior matches in the tournament in 1934 and 1990.
Denmark (Group C)
The Dynamite scraped through to the tournament in a play-off but have an abundance of talent at their disposal. The likes of Kasper Schmeichel, skipper Simon Kjær, Andreas Christensen, Jannik Vestergaard, Thomas Delaney, Nicklas Bendtner, Kasper Dolberg and star man Christian Eriksen have all had solid campaigns in recent times which means form will be no problem for the side. In a very favourable group, the knockout stages are a definite possibility for experienced Age Hareide’s men.
Iceland (Group D)
As a tight-knit nation, Our Boys won their qualifying group in style to prove themselves as not just one-year wonders. Big stars Alfreð Finnbogason and Gylfi Sigurðsson have quality but the memorable long-thrower and Cardiff City midfield general, Aron Gunnarsson, is also a huge threat. Following their iconic win over England almost 2 years ago, they’re capable of causing another shock that might send echoes around the world once again – just like their supporters’ iconic clap.
Croatia (Group D)
Coming off the back of a strong Euro 2016 run-out, the Blazers will be hoping to escape from a tricky group via their fantastic quality. Skipper Luka Modric and fellow La Liga star Ivan Rakitic are the standout names but Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandžukic, Ivan Perišic as well as Marko Pjaca can cause serious damage when on form. With ever-present full-back Darijo Srna no longer available due to international retirement, it could be the chance for some other experienced men to step up for their nation.
Serbia (Group E)
Having a turbulent time on the international stage as of late, the young Mladen Krstajic has this talent-laden side back on track. Former Premier League rocks Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov give the side experience whilst a slightly younger cohort of Nemanja Matic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Luka Milivojevic, Dušan Tadic and Aleksandar Mitrovic aim to prove themselves. In a group in which every side will fancy progressing from, Serbia will have a tough challenge but on paper they are up to the task.
Mexico (Group F)
In arguably the ‘Group of Death’ this time around, the mainstays for the last seven World Cup occasions are equipped with players in their peak years; with icon Rafael Márquez possibly playing at his fifth tournament at 39 years of age. A solid defensive unit, with goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa (who was phenomenal in Brazil), Miguel Layún, Héctor Moreno, Diego Reyes and skipper Andrés Guardado gives a platform to a dynamic forward contingent containing Giovani dos Santos, Héctor Herrera, Javier Hernández and Carlos Vela, along with youngster Hirving Lozano. In spite of having no crazy gaffer on the sidelines this time round, the polarising Juan Carlos Osorio will get his team firing.
Sweden (Group F)
With their most-capped player Anders Svensson and all-time top goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic absent at a major tournament for the first time, it’s the start of a new era for the Blågult (Blue-Yellow). Their key man now is RB Leipzig playmaker Emil Forsberg, who operates on the left of an attacking midfield next to Hull City’s Sebastian Larsson in the middle, who himself is approaching 100 caps. With star-in-the-making Victor Lindelöf at the back too, their tough group might be conquered.
England (Group G)
Despite being a top seed for most years, the Three Lions are no longer a dominant side on the international stage. Even with their state-of-the-art facilities, financial advantage domestically and players like Harry Kane smashing in 30 goals this season, they pose no real threat to the big boys. However, with a more fluid style of play and less pressure, it might actually be a decent campaign for the usual World Cup failures.
Poland (Group H)
This team are not just about seven-time Polish player of the year Robert Lewandowski – far from it under Adam Nawalka. Indeed their focal point is their main goalscorer for the Eagles but with the likes of Wojciech Szczesny, Kamil Glik, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Piotr Zielinski and Arkadiuasz Milik also being big names in Europe, they boast huge quality. Playing at a high tempo and having a disciplined system, along with a winnable group, means there is no doubt this team could sneak up on some sides who are naively focused on stopping their main man striker.
Colombia (Group H)
As one of the stars of the tournament last time out, José Pékerman aims to force an impressive campaign out of his side again. Numerous top class players such as Davinson Sánchez, James Rodríguez and skipper Radamel Falcao can really drive an energetic side in that same aforementioned winnable group. In addition to sporting stunning kits, the Tricolors could yet again stun the big boys in the competition.
Who do you fancy to be the surprise package of the World Cup? Comment below!