Remember the miracle Costa Rica run in the 2014 World Cup? In a group with Uruguay, Italy, and England - three teams with a combined seven World Cup titles - no one gave Costa Rica even the slightest of chances. Los Ticos went on to shock the world. After beating Uruguay 3:1, Italy 1:0, and tying England, Costa Rica finished at the top of Group D. In the Round of 16, they beat Greece on penalties. Los Ticos then held the eventual runners-up, Holland, to a scoreless draw through 120 minutes. Unfortunately, their miracle run came to an end in penalties, losing 4:3. Though they were knocked out of the World Cup, pride and joy overwhelmed the tears from the loss to the Dutch. Costa Rica played a World Cup for the ages as a courageous underdog.
These are the teams that could recreate Costa Rica’s incredible run in Russia this summer:
Group A: Egypt
Obviously, we have to go with Mo Salah and Egypt for the Group A dark horse. Uruguay seems set to finish atop Group A with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt battling for the 2nd spot. Saudi Arabia surely has the slightest of chances to advance out of this group. Russia, not just the team but the whole nation, is poised and ready. They would do anything to advance and give their fans something to be proud of. However, is youngster Aleksandr Golovin (ZSKA Moscow), who’s drawing interest from top clubs all around Europe, ready for the big stage and, moreover, ready to carry his nation into the knockouts? It’s doubtful.
The big worry for Egypt is Mo Salah’s health. It seems he’ll be ready for the cup, or at least for the 2nd and 3rd game. It wouldn’t be the worst decision for Egypt to wait and give him a rest for the first game against Uruguay, who will be tough to beat even with Salah. Going into the games against Russia and Saudi Arabia with a healthy Salah could be the deciding factor that will lift Egypt over the other two contenders. Mark your calendars for Tuesday, June 19th, when Egypt face the World Cup hosts to, likely, decide who will go through behind Uruguay.
Group B: Morocco
It is going to take a huge upset in Group B for Spain or Portugal not to advance. I don’t think there’s a way in which Spain does not advance to the knockouts (although that's what we all said in 2014). Even if they drop the ball in the opener against Portugal (one of the best group stage matches), they should dominate Morocco and Iran.
On the other hand, Portugal could be upset. Even though Portugal went on to win the 2016 European Championship, they failed to win a single game in the group stage. It usually takes time for them to get going. Should they lose to Spain, they will immediately be under pressure against Morocco in the 2nd game. Morocco could certainly be coming off a win over Iran and would be stoked to upset Cristiano Ronaldo and company. The talent is there. Morocco has a tough physical defense led by Captain Mehdi Benatia who plays for Juventus and youngster Achraf Hakimi who plays with Real Madrid. In midfield, Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray) and Amine Harit (Schalke 04) are the playmakers looking to set up deadly Ajax striker Hakim Ziyech and Ayoub El Kaabi (RS Berkane) who’s netted 10 goals in 8 international caps. The nation made it to the round of 16 once before, in 1986. Why not repeat the feat 32 years later?
Group C: Denmark
This one is less of a dark horse as many will favor the Danes to finish 2nd in Group C behind France and ahead of Australia and Peru. I’m calling Denmark a dark horse because they are talented up front and could pose problems for France and their Round of 16 opponent, which would likely be Argentina. Tottenham star Christian Eriksen leads this squad. If he performs, Denmark has a great shot at coming in 2nd behind France. With pacey wingers like Pione Sisto (Celta Vigo) and Youssuf Poulsen (RB Leipzig) who will look to supply Ajax youngster Kasper Dolberg in the middle; defenses should be warned. The troubling piece in the Danish squad is their leaky defense. Peru’s offense could take advantage when the two teams meet in the 1st week of the tournament. That game (June 16th) will likely decide who will go through at the end, as the Aussies only have outside chances of beating either Denmark or Peru.
Group D: Iceland
After their mind-blowing run at the 2016 Euros, Iceland is the clear dark horse coming out of Group D. It goes without saying that Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria are all more talented than Iceland. However, so were Portugal, Austria, and Hungary back in 2016 when Iceland first appeared at a major tournament. With heart, joy, incredible team-spirit, hard-work, and a small but loud country behind them, anything is possible for Iceland.
They will open the tournament against Argentina. The odds clearly aren’t in their favor, but what if the South American giants underestimate the tiny island nation? Maybe Iceland can shock the world yet again, like when they knocked England out of the Euros in 2016. As they were 2 years ago, Iceland will be threatening off of set pieces, with creative leader Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton) taking most of them. Assuming they fall to Argentina, Iceland must deliver against Nigeria, which is possible. With a win in their 2nd game, Iceland could set up a deciding match against Croatia for the 2nd spot in Group D. Of course, it is not likely that this will happen and that the miracle run of 2016 will repeat itself, but the World Cup has written crazier stories.
Group E: Serbia
Given the introduction and the rave about Costa Rica, it would have been fitting to pick them as Group E’s dark horse. Again, their group is likely the best at the tournament. Brazil will be untouchable. Switzerland has a talented and balanced squad but always seems to underperform on the big stage. So, the chance is there for Costa Rica to make it out alive again. This chance is certainly not slimmer than when they faced Uruguay, Italy, and England in 2014. However, I see Serbia as more of a threat. Their experienced defense led by oldies Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), Branislav Ivanovic (Villareal), and Matija Nastasic (Schalke 04) is reliable, especially considering the fact that Nemanja Matic (ManU) holds down the fort in the middle of the field. He can also control the play on offense, slowing or speed up the pace of the game, and is dangerous from long range. A second force in the middle of the field is highly praised Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), who’s recently been connected with a move to Real Madrid. The offer will reportedly be in the region of $150 million plus bonuses. The World Cup will be the perfect stage for Milinkovic-Savic to show what he can do and increase the transfer fee even more. This will especially be true if he can carry Serbia past Switzerland and Costa Rica and into the knockout stages in Russia. To do so, the entire team will have to be at their best.
Group F: Sweden
This group is one of the most even apart from powerhouse and defending champions Germany. It’s going to take a lot to upset Germany but the past two World Cup Winners did not advance to the knockouts in the following World Cup. It is unlikely that this will happen to Germany, but not impossible. Mexico is young, quick, technically gifted, and extremely passionate. They will start the tournament against the Germans, looking for a miracle. The likely outcome will be a loss to start out, which will put El Tri under pressure against South Korea in Game 2. I view South Korea as the weakest nation in this group, although Tottenham superstar Heung-min Son or Salzburg’s Hee-Chan Hwang can always create something special. They can’t do it alone, which is why I don’t see them making a push for the Round of 16.
The most likely scenario is that Mexico and Sweden set up a deciding match for the last group stage matchday to decide who will go through (June 27). This will be an interesting contest. I call Sweden the dark horse in this one because I think Mexico is the better team and will be favored to go through. However, Sweden has good chances for an upset. With an opening win over South Korea, the Swedes will be confident heading into their game against Germany. The Germans are known for somewhat blowing their second group stage game so it’s possible, though unlikely, that Sweden can salvage something from this game. It will come down to the final match against Mexico. Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg is the only star in their squad. He’s going to have to show up in Russia if the Swedes are to stand a chance. It will take an upset, but it is possible. Too bad they don’t have Zlatan…
Group G: Panama
Group G is the least likely to produce a dark horse in my opinion. Though they have appeared in 4 World Cups prior to this one, Tunisia has never advanced out of the group stages. Panama is playing in their first World Cup. Unluckily, neither of them can start confidently with a win over the other because they are both playing Belgium and England before they play each other on the 3rd matchday. The talent is not there for either of them to upset the two heavyweights. In my opinion, it is more likely that Panama advances than Tunisia. I believe this because Panama is going to be so excited just to be in Russia that everything else won’t matter to them. They could lose each game 6:0 and throw a banger afterwards. This, together with the fact that they are mostly unknown by Belgium and England, could make Panama dangerous. Just look at Iceland in the 2016 Euros. Nobody knew them and nobody gave them a chance. It would be a miracle, but Panama just needs to grab a point against either England or Belgium and secure three points against Tunisia to give themselves a fighting chance.
Group H: Senegal
Sadio Mane (Liverpool). Do I have to say anything else? Poland and Colombia head into this group with the greatest ambitions of qualifying for the Round of 16. Mane can spoil the party…. But he’s going to have to do so early as Senegal face Poland and star-striker Robert Lewandowski (Bayern) on Matchday 1 (June 19). For years, Poland has been talented and solid from back to front. They just haven’t been able to put it all together on the big stage. Maybe this is their year, or maybe it is not. Sadio Mane will decide. Colombia impressed at the last World Cup. Will they impress again? Sadio Mane will decide. I’m not trying to put the pressure entirely on Mane because he is supported by a cast of experienced players who play in Europe’s top leagues, but it is going to take something special from him if Senegal is to take down Poland or Colombia. The talent is there, they get a winnable game against Japan before heading into the match against Colombia, and the whole nation is behind them. Look for Senegal to make some noise.
Author: Felix Dalstein