The European dark horses at the World Cup
The World Cup is finally here. After a long wait of four years, the most anticipated football tournament kicks off on 14th June at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. As always, there are the favourites, underdogs and dark horses. We've already touched on the African, Asian and South American counterparts. Why leave Europe behind?
Croatia secured their World Cup finals berth after winning 4-1 in the playoffs against Greece. After hostility towards Ante Cacic, for his poor team selection and losses, Zlatko Dalic replaced him and took the Croats to Russia. The Blazers have experience as well as quality throughout the team. However, they may be far from reaching the heights of the Golden generation, which finished third in 1998.
In their fifth World Cup appearance, Croatia is drawn in group D along with Iceland, Nigeria and Argentina. Iceland shook everyone at Euro 2016 and are on the right track. Speaking about the Euros, Croatia lost in heartbreaking fashion against eventual champions Portugal in extra time. Nigeria themselves are another dark horse, while Argentina has Lionel Messi. This group has rightly been dubbed the group of death. Still, Croatia has enough to progress through. Their impressive roster boasts captain Luka Modric; keeper Danijel Subasic; defenders Sime Vrsaljko, Vedran Corluka, Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren; midfielders Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic; and forward Ivan Perisic led by veteran striker Mario Mandzukic. The squad is the best shape for some time. It might be the last World Cup for some of them.
If Croatia tops their group, they have a realistic chance of progressing at least to the quarterfinals, but if they finish as runners-up, their World Cup dreams might be crushed by favourites France. But, the squad has proven match-winners who can upset the odds. The fixture against Argentina on 21 June will be the key.
Next up on the list is Croatia's fierce rival and neighbour, Serbia. This will be Serbia's second participation in the World Cup as an independent country. They last made the finals back in 2010. The Eagles topped UEFA qualification Group D. Slavoljub Muslin was fired despite confirming Serbia's place in Russia, much because of his tactical rigidness and old-school long ball football. Former defender Mladen Krstajić is now the manager, who is very inexperienced. His first competitive match will be at the World Cup itself. But, this tournament is the first one in an expected long-haul for Krstajic, who's side is expected to play a more exciting style of football.
Serbia is drawn in Group E along with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. Brazil is the obvious favourite to top the group, whilst the Swiss and Ticos along with the Serbs battle it out for the second spot. Serbia definitely has what it takes to overcome Switzerland and Costa Rica. The back line is massively experienced, the attack is exciting with Sergej Milinkovic Savic and striker Aleksander Mitrovic in fine form with Fulham. Other than that, they also boast of Nemanja Matic, Luka Milivojević, prospect Andrija Živković, Dusan Tadic, Branislav Ivanovic, Matija Nastasic and captain Aleskander Kolarov. The team looks well balanced and that may play a key factor in their run.
Serbia can finish second but will have to face the wrath of Germany in the Round of 16. That's where their World Cup dream will end.
Just like the aforementioned Croatia, Poland also lost to European champions Portugal, but in the quarterfinals in a penalty shootout. The White and Reds topped a UEFA Qualification Group E, a fairly easy group. But, they did it in some style - scoring 28 goals in 10 matches. This will be the "Orly's" eighth World Cup and the first since 2006. Coach Adam Nawalka will take positives from the Euros and push for a deep run in Russia.
Poland is in group H alongside Colombia, Japan and Senegal. It is quite an intriguing group with all four countries from different continents. Same can be said about the teams' performance, too. Either could win the group. Colombia had an excellent World Cup in Brazil, Senegal has firepower up front and Japan can cause upsets on their day. Poland may have tricked their way to 10th in the FIFA rankings, but they have some quality players at their disposal. Talisman Robert Lewandowski was the top scorer in qualification, ably supported by Arkadiusz Milik. Midfielder Pietr Zielinski is one of the hottest prospects in world football. Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Jakub Blaszczykowski are among the seasoned players and are capped off by two very able goalkeepers in Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski.
Poland is expected to qualify to the knockouts where either Belgium or England will be waiting. Unfortunately, both squads are better and the 'Orly' will have to do more than climb a mountain to reach the quarterfinals this time around.
Russia's FIFA ranking is 66, the lowest for any team in the World Cup. But, the hosts have something which no one else has - home advantage. Russia will be heavily dependent on the local support to push them over the line and show some fight. The Sbornaya enter their fourth World Cup having never made it past the group stages in the past. Manager Stanislav Cherchesov is the man tasked to lead the Russian contingent, despite his falling out with many of the squad's senior players.
Russia is in Group A, being the hosts. The other members of this group are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay. This is a relatively easy group. Mo Salah's fitness may be a problem. Egypt may lose their key player. Saudi Arabia is beatable whilst Uruguay may not be. Russia's luck couldn't be any worse. Multiple star players are out with injuries - striker Aleksandr Kokorin, as well as defenders Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya. Russia should still have enough to finish second in the group, though. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has 105 caps to his name and will lead the nation. Other key players include Mario Fernandes, Alexander Golovin, Alan Dzagoev, Denis Cheryshev, Fyodor Smolov and the Miranchuk brothers (Anton and Alexei).
Qualification to the Round of 16 is achievable and will be considered a success, making 144 million Russians proud. They'll face either Spain or Portugal in the first knockout round. It is very unlikely for the hosts to progress beyond that.