With the World Cup edging closer, attention is now firmly fixed on football’s greatest tournament. Here, Ben McAleer picks out five dark horses who are worth backing to qualify for the last-16…
Egypt – Salah and Co can ensure progress
Group A is arguably the weakest at the World Cup, with Russia drawn alongside Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Egypt – the hosts couldn’t have asked for an easier draw. Egypt secured their spot at Russia 2018 with a 2-1 win over Congo, with Mohamed Salah netting the vital penalty that will see the Pharaohs make their first appearance at the tournament since 1990.
There are a host of household names in the squad, with Ahmed Hegazi, Ahmed Elmohamady and Mohamed Elneny, along with Salah, all boasting Premier League experience. Kasimpasa’s Trezeguet promises to be one of the stars of the tournament and if Hector Cuper can guide them to a positive result against Uruguay, Egypt will be confident of securing a spot in the knockout stages. There’s ample quality within the squad, with Salah the poster boy, and Egypt to qualify from Group A at 2.40 are tempting odds to say the least.
Morocco – Solid defence a big plus
Whereas Group A is one of the easier, Group B can be deemed the Group of Death. Portugal and Spain harbour hopes of World Cup glory and many are tipping the duo to secure their spot in the last-16 at a canter. The pair face off on the first Friday of the tournament and that should benefit one of Morocco or Iran. It’s the former, though, who can rightly lay claim to the ‘Dark Horses’ tag.
The Atlas Lions didn’t concede a goal in qualifying, with a Medhi Benatia inspired defence shutting out Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. In the final third, they have quality personnel in Hakim Ziyech, Amine Harit and Younes Belhanda and with a solid backline to build upon, Herve Renard’s side will upset opponents this summer. Morocco aren’t to be taken lightly and the Atlas Lions to qualify from Group B at 4.20 could be a handy money maker.
Nigeria – Plenty of Premier League talent to help Super Eagles
Nigeria must’ve cursed their luck when they drew Argentina again. Having drawn the South American powerhouse in 2014, the Super Eagles will take a repeat of four years ago that saw them progress in second. They’ll face stiff competition from Iceland and Croatia, of course, but Nigeria undoubtedly have the means to secure a last-16 spot for the second successive time and the fourth time in their history.
They are one of two outside bets to qualify from Group D at 3.00, yet stand as good a chance as any as progressing along with group favourites Argentina. In Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and Wilfred Ndidi there’s ample Premier League experience, while striker Ahmed Musa is well versed in the demands of Russian football, having returned to CSKA Moscow on loan from Leicester. Having topped their qualifying group, they have the means to maintain their good international form to secure a place in the knockout stages.
Serbia – Experience and a talented midfield bodes well
Serbia lost only one of 10 qualifying matches as they secured top spot in Group D. Under the watchful eye of Mladen Krstajic, they’ll hope to navigate past one of the tournament favourites Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. Their squad is littered with talent and considering their opponents, you’d back Serbia at 2.26 to secure a place in the last-16 of the World Cup.
Highly-rated Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who recently returned to the national setup following a falling out with former manager Slavoljub Muslin, could be considered star man, and in Dusan Tadic, Luka Miliovojevic, Nemanja Matic and Andrija Zivkovic, there is ample midfield talent. Aleksandr Mitrovic is a striker in fine form, while Branislav Ivanovic, Matija Nastastic and captain Aleksandar Kolarov boast the necessary experience that should see the Eagles make a sustained impact in Russia this summer.
Senegal – Mane to lead Lions to knock-out stages
As Senegal gear up for just the second World Cup in their history, it’s understandable that they’re one of the outsiders to secure a spot in the last-16. Indeed, the Lions of Teranga at 2.42 are third favourites to qualify from a group containing Colombia, Poland and Japan. Despite a modest population of just 15 million, Senegal boast a formidable squad, with Sadio Mane the star man in the final third.
The Liverpool star isn’t Senegal’s only key offensive performer, though, with Keita Balde, Ismaila Sarr and M’Baye Niang, among others, all options for Aliou Cisse. There’s a wealth of Premier League and Championship experience in midfield, notably in Idrissa Gueye, Badou Ndiaye and Cheikhou Kouyate, while Salif Sane and Kalidou Koulibaly both come into the tournament on the back of superb seasons. They’re not to be underestimated in Russia, that goes without saying.