2018 World Cup Outsiders In Russia - Who To Watch
With eight groups of four teams each, there will be 32 teams competing for the World Cup at Russia 2018. While anything is possible in football, the number of teams that could realistically make the final stages of the competition is much smaller.
2014 champions Germany are the favourites to win, with Brazil a close second and both Spain and France not too far behind. Let's take a look at some of the other teams that could conceivably make it all the way if everything aligns in their favour.
Argentina made the 2014 World Cup Final, losing 1-0 against Germany in extra time. Things aren't looking quite so rosy this time around, however, with Argentina's qualification campaign almost ending in disaster. While Argentina ended up qualifying third in South America behind Brazil and Uruguay, they needed a moment of Messi magic in the last game to secure their place. That's the thing about Argentina though, they do have Lionel Messi, a man who many regard as the best player of all time.
With Messi now 30 years of age, this will be his last World Cup in prime playing form. While he may go to another World Cup, many commentators are saying it's now or never for the Barcelona star. The rest of the Argentinian team are also ageing, with the following players likely to retire from the international stage after Russia 2018:
Sergio Romero, Lucas Biglia, Ángel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Éver Banega, and Sergio Agüero. After such a shaky qualifying campaign in which new coach Jorge Sampaoli only managed one win in four official matches, it will be a surprise to many if Argentina make it all the way in 2018.
Like Argentina, Portugal are not outsiders in the traditional sense, having won the 2016 European Championships against France.
They have not been given much of a chance in Russia by bookmakers, however, despite the good run of coach Fernando Santos since he took over the team in 2014. Portugal’s players seem to be working together better than ever before, with talented youngsters like Andre Silva and Joao Cancelo giving Portugal more attacking options than just Ronaldo.
Much like Messi, this will be Ronaldo's last chance to win a World Cup in his prime, even though the 32 year old promises to keep playing until he's 40.
Belgium are an exciting team with more attacking options than most. From the creative brilliance of Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne through to the dependable goalkeeping of Thibaut Courtois, Belgium's golden generation have reached a stage of maturity that could surprise many opposition teams. While Belgium are yet to break into the semi-finals of a major tournament, the Red Devils reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and were knocked out at the same stage at Euro 2016.
England have performed so poorly in recent tournaments that even their own fans have all but given up hope. They can't be completely discounted, however, with a talented young squad and a new manager who has made some significant changes. Despite such weak performances in major competitions, surprisingly, England have not lost a qualifying match for any major tournament since 2009. Tottenham's Harry Kane and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford will both need to be in fantastic goal-scoring form for England to make an impression at Russia 2018, with new manager Gareth Southgate also needing to create a sense of internal cohesion that has been absent in recent campaigns.
Uruguay are in great form at the moment, with this mature squad having come second in CONMEBOL, qualifying behind Brazil. Led by Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani, this team creates more goal scoring opportunities than many others combined. If anything, they may be a little too mature, with a combination of ageing stars and recently retired talent putting them in a slightly unstable position going into Russia 2018. Youngsters such as Federico Valverde and Nahitan Nandez are managing to find form at the right time, however, with the Celeste knowing what it takes to perform well in big tournaments. As well as winning early editions of the World Cup, Uruguay have finished fourth on three occasions.
Croatia won't be expected to do too much at Russia 2018, despite some great stars and a reasonable record at big name tournaments. Croatia finished third at the World Cup in France 20 years ago, but haven't been able to replicate this form since. If Croatia are to pull off a surprise, Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic will have to lead the way.
When Inter Milan's Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are also in form, this is one of the best midfields in world football. Despite their ability, coach Zlatko Dalic will need to have this outstanding generation playing at their very best if Croatia want to emulate their results from 1998.