At every international tournament, there is at least one country who shocks the globe in reaching a stage that no one thought was possible. In recent years, Wales made it to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, despite it being their first major tournament in 58 years, whilst at the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica took the Netherlands to a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-finals after winning a group consisting of three former champions in Uruguay, Italy and England.
But which countries are most likely to cause an upset at the World Cup in Russia? I’ve picked out five nations that could get everyone talking this summer…
EgyptEmbed from Getty Images
After qualifying for their first World Cup since 1990, Egypt have been handed a relatively kind draw with the top seeds in their group being hosts Russia, who are in reality the lowest ranked team at the tournament. It means that the Pharaohs are favourites to get out of their group when they otherwise may not have been, and with a desire to make up for lost time and show the world what it has been missing in their 28-year hiatus, they could go far.
Mohamed Salah is their inspiration, talisman and game-changer, so their hopes really do rest on the 25-year-old recovering from the injury he picked up in the Champions League final. They wouldn’t be in Russia without him, after he top scored in African qualifying with five goals, including both in a 2-1 win over Congo to secure their spot with a game to spare. Add in his 43 goals and 14 assists in an outstanding first season with Liverpool, and a fully fit Salah would be one of the biggest attacking talents at the tournament.
Although they are hugely reliant on the forward, it’s worth commending the way that manager Hector Cuper has set up his side defensively. A backline lead by 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, set to be the oldest player ever at a World Cup, won’t concede easily – they are yet to lose by more than one goal under Cuper.
Beyond the group, Egypt are likely to face Spain or Portugal in the Round of 16, who are both quite clearly better all-round teams, but do have their inadequacies. The 2010 winners have faltered at the last two international tournaments, whilst despite winning Euro 2016 Portugal only won one game in 90 minutes. Whether it’s Salah vs Ramos or Salah vs Ronaldo, it’ll certainly be fascinating to watch.
Chance of causing an upset: 3/5
MoroccoEmbed from Getty Images
Morocco’s potential as dark horses was written off after the draw placed them in the same group as Spain and Portugal, but the ‘Atlas Lions’ should not fear the European neighbours. Despite looking daunting, their schedule could well set things up nicely for them. If Morocco can beat Iran in their opening game and hope Portugal lose to Spain, two outcomes that are far from inconceivable, the pressure will all be on Cristiano Ronaldo and co when the two nations meet in the second match. The fact that Portugal drew with Iceland, Austria and Hungary in the group stages at Euro 2016 will show Morocco that getting a result against them is not impossible. They’ll also take heart from the fact that should they get through the group, they’ll face what will likely be the weakest of all group winners in Uruguay or Egypt.
But how likely is all of this? Do Morocco, playing in their first World Cup since 1998, really have the quality to make it out of Group B? Well, the potential is definitely there, and they weren’t being described as dark horses before the draw for no reason. Herve Renard is a very highly rated manager at international level having won the African Cup of Nations with both Zambia and the Ivory Coast, and he has assembled an exciting squad with Morocco. Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia captains the side from a defence that didn’t concede a single goal in six qualifiers, whilst going forward Hakim Ziyech of Ajax is the star of the show alongside the experienced Nordin Amrabat. More than anything though, this group of players have a fantastic team spirit and will never give up.
They can hold their nerve when it comes to big games too. In qualifying, their final group game was a winner-takes-all clash away to the Ivory Coast, and Renard’s side emerged as 2-0 victors, denying the 2015 African Cup of Nations champions a fourth successive World Cup finals appearance.
Chance of causing an upset: 2/5
DenmarkEmbed from Getty Images
The Scandinavian nation have pedigree of causing an upset at a major international tournament, lifting the European Championship trophy in 1992 despite only being confirmed as Yugoslavia’s replacement 10 days before the action kicked off. Their record at the World Cup is not as impressive though, and they have failed to qualify for two of the last three tournaments. With a squad balanced in all the right ways, they could leave their mark in Russia though.
Kasper Schmeichel, Simon Kjaer and William Kvist are the experienced heads in the team and were key to Denmark’s strong defensive showing in the qualifiers – they conceded just nine goals in 12 games. The team then gets more youthful as you move forward, with Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen an exciting pair of 23-year-old wingers born just six days apart. The jewel in their attacking crown though is Christian Eriksen, a genuinely world class talent who got 11 goals in qualifying, including a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Ireland in the play-off second leg. He also netted in another standout result – a 4-0 over eventual group winners Poland.
With France expected to top Group C, Denmark should edge out Peru for second spot, setting up a clash with Argentina in the Round of 16. Whilst the South American side boast the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and more going forward, they are susceptible defensively, which Denmark’s attacking riches will look to take advantage of. First choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero has been ruled out of the tournament through injury, whilst Nicolas Otamendi is really the only defender to have had a good season. Expect a high-scoring game, and maybe, just maybe, a Danish victory.
Chance of causing an upset: 2/5
IcelandEmbed from Getty Images
It couldn’t happen again, could it? Iceland’s incredible run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals captured everyone’s hearts and earnt them thousands of admirers worldwide after they finished above eventual winners Portugal F in Group before knocking out England in the second round.
It’s probably fair to say that the odds are stacked against them to shock fans once more, but based on how far Icelandic football has progressed in recent years it would be silly to rule them out completely. You would expect Argentina, runners-up in 2014 and home to some of the best attacking talent in the world, to win Group D, but behind them, the battle between Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria for second place will be an incredibly hotly contested one.
Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson no longer has Lars Lagerback by his side in the dugout, but will still feel the opportunity is available for his side to achieve something special. They will know they can beat Croatia after doing so in qualifying before finishing two points ahead of them to secure a spot at the tournament automatically. Meanwhile, Nigeria are struggling with goalkeeping issues ahead of the tournament which every team in the group will look to exploit, especially Iceland, who took advantage of Joe Hart’s poor form at Euro 2016 to get past England. It is unfortunate however that Iceland’s likely second round opponents will be France, the country that brought their Euro 2016 journey to an end with a 5-2 thumping.
Gylfi Sigurdsson, probably the best Icelandic player ever, is of course the star of this team, but what defines them is their togetherness. It is an incredibly tight-knit group that has played and developed together for years, almost giving the Nordic nation the feeling of a club side as the players know each other so well. With plenty of players plying their trade on British shores and the iconic thunderclap set for a return, Iceland will be sure to have a lot of supporters in Russia, including around 10% of their own population, which could give them an extra edge.
Chance of causing an upset: 1/5
PolandEmbed from Getty Images
Poland may have been one of the top seeds in the draw in December, but their recent World Cup record is very poor – only qualifying for two of the last seven tournaments and failing to make it past the group stage in either of those. In Russia, they have a big opportunity to put that right.
Robert Lewandowski is at his peak having netted 41 goals in 48 games in all competitions for Bayern Munich in 2017/18, whilst he set a record for the most goals scored in European qualifying for the tournament with a stunning 16 in 10 matches. He is aided going forward by rising stars Karol Linetty and Piotr Zielinksi, the latter being described as better than Kevin De Bruyne by Polish legend Zbigniew Boniek. The squad is also packed full of leaders – Kamil Glik, Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski all know this is likely to be their last shot at a World Cup.
Poland took eventual champions Portugal all the way to penalties in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals after drawing with world champions Germany in the group stage, and qualified for this tournament with eight wins in ten games. They are likely to battle it out with Colombia for top spot in Group H, and Lewandowski and co will feel confident they can outwit a young defence that conceded three against both Uruguay and Argentina in qualifying.
England or Belgium should await in the Round of 16, and both countries present Poland with an opportunity to create a shock. The Three Lions, with their history of falling short on the big stage, will undoubtedly be their preferred opposition, but Belgium could fall apart too. Their golden generation have the weight of expectation on them after failing to live up to the hype at previous tournaments and suffered a shock defeat to Wales at Euro 2016.
Chance of causing an upset: 3/5