Underdogs to watch out for in Russia

The 2017-18 season has been a good one for Latic fans. No, scrub that… It has been a fantastic one. There is nothing better than sitting back over a summer with one eye looking back on a successful campaign and the other one looking forward to what next season will bring.

This summer has all the potential of being even better, with the World Cup dominating our lives for five weeks. Here we will look beyond the sides everyone is talking about and towards some of the teams that could well surprise a few people in Russia.

Before all that, of course, is the little matter of Liverpool in the Champions League final. Real may be the bookies’ favourites, but they only scraped through the quarters and semis, and Klopp’s side are riding a huge wave of momentum. Obviously, they also have a little someone called Mo Salah— which brings us to our first nation…

African football has threatened to achieve big things on the world stage, without really delivering on that promise. Are Egypt likely to change that? It’s very unlikely, but they do have a very real chance of progressing into the later rounds.

They have been handed the easiest group, by a distance. Salah has scored 33 times in his 57 appearances for the Pharaohs, and after the season of his life, it is hard to see him not adding to that tally against the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even Uruguay.

Peru are a team that are more famous for their kit than their team, but experienced coach Ricardo Gareca has assembled a very good, attractive team that’s capable of giving any team a run for its money. Their first game is against Denmark, and in all likelihood the winner of that will go on and finish the group in second place behind France.

Croatia are many people’s dark horse, and for good reason. Their team is full of talent, especially in the attacking third, and the fact that they are in the same group as Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland has lengthened their odds. However, when you look at those teams and strip away history and preconceptions, it is not half as hard a group as you would think.

Argentina (notably Messi-less) were recently thrashed by Spain. Furthermore, they barely scraped into the tournament in the first place and are looking a million miles apart from the force they once were. Nigeria are also a shadow of the team that could have caused an upset, and despite Iceland’s heroics in the Euros, it is hard to see them repeating their success.

Poland is another side that has genuine hopes of having its best tournament. They are helped not only by being top seeds in their group, but also by the relatively benign opponents they have been drawn against. Having a striker who is almost guaranteed to find the back of the net is crucial for any team’s success.

He may not be in the same class as some of these Wigan legends, but Robert Lewandowski has been there and done it on the world stage and will spearhead a deadly attack.

Defence is another matter, but if they can manage to score just enough to counter their inevitable lack of clean sheets, they will have a fantastic opportunity to match—or even surpass—their last-8 exit at the Euros.

Finally, I am going to throw England’s hat into the ring. The media and public have flipped from their usual habit of building the national team up to being world beaters to saying there is little point to Southgate’s men even boarding the plane to Russia.

As so often is the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. England are a far better team than many people are making them out to be. They have a striker who is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. We also have a group of players who not only play for some of the best teams in the world, but are also coached by some of the best coaches in the world, day in and day out.

They have also had the weight of expectation and the memory of failure lifted from their (mainly) young shoulders. They will more than likely fall short of winning the whole thing, but they are very capable of getting a lot further than many of the doom merchants are predicting.

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