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Countdown to Russia: Eight World Cup 'Dark Horses'

© Sputnik / Alexei Danichev / Go to the photo bankThe 2018 FIFA World Cup stand ahead of the 2017 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). (File)
The 2018 FIFA World Cup stand ahead of the 2017 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). (File) - Sputnik International
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We’ve profiled the market leaders for the World Cup in a series of Sportsworld columns- but what about those teams who might outperform their odds and perhaps even be surprise winners? Let’s take a look at the ‘dark horses’ of Russia 2018.

1. URUGUAY

The South Americans certainly have the pedigree, having won the World Cup twice before. Although the last of those victories was way back in 1950, they did reach the semi-finals in 2010 (losing 3-2 to The Netherlands) and got the better of Italy and England in the Group Stage in Brazil in 2014.

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In qualifying they came second to Brazil in the ultra-competitive CONMEBOL section, scoring 32 goals in the process. It’s easy to see them getting out of Group A, but then they could be up against either Spain or Portugal in the last 16. That would be tricky, but at 30-1 they definitely shouldn’t be underestimated.    

2. SENEGAL

Bookmakers think they’ve got the best chances of the five-team African contingent in Russia, though it’s a close run thing with Egypt. It’s the West Africans first appearance in the finals since 2002 when they shocked holders France in the opener and went on to the quarter-finals, where they lost in extra-time. The top-rated team in Africa certainly has a chance of progressing from Group H, after which they are likely to face Belgium of England in the next round. They might give their supporters some fun at odds ranging from 66-1 to 200-1.

3. PORTUGAL

It might seem strange to call the reigning European champions ‘dark horses’ but that’s what they are. Generally available at around the 25-1 mark Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates could be under-rated again as they were in France in 2016. They’re hard to beat, with an incredibly experienced back-line and it’s easy to see them excelling in the knock-out stage as they did two years ago. 

READ MORE: World Cup: Ronaldo's Portugal to Battle It Out With Spain in 'Group of Death'

4. POLAND

Those of a certain vintage will remember the 1974 World Cup when Poland reached the semi-finals and beat Brazil to take third place. They did well in 1978 too and in 1982 again reached the semi-finals,losing to eventual winners Italy. Those were the glory days of Polish football, but incredibly they haven’t qualified from the first group stage since 1986. Could that change in Russia? It’s very likely. This is without doubt the best Polish team since the early 1980s and they could well go deep into the competition. They won a competitive qualifying group with ease, boosted by the goals of captain and star striker Robert Lewandowski, and we shouldn’t forget that they were only beaten by eventual winners Portugal on penalties in the 2016 European championships. 

5. SWITZERLAND

The Swiss are on a roll at present and look set for another good World Cup. Although they needed a play-off to get to Russia, they did finish level on points with Portugal in their qualifying group- and a whopping fourteen points clear of third placed team Hungary. Their results and performances in pre-tournament friendlies have been very good: they beat Japan 2-0 and held Spain to a 1-1 draw in Villareal. On current form it’s not difficult to see them negotiating Group E, after which they are likely to meet Sweden, South Korea or Mexico in the Round of 16.

6. RUSSIA

The hosts aren’t well-fancied, even by their own supporters. However, World Cup history gives some grounds for optimism of at least a decent showing. Host nations have finished in the first three on 11 occasions and the only time one has exited in the first round of the competition was South Africa, a traditionally weak footballing nation, in 2010. At 66-1 the Russians might do better than expected, but in order to qualify from their group they really need to beat Saudi Arabia in the opener on Thursday, as their matches after that (Egypt and Uruguay), will be tougher.

READ MORE: Russia Defender Fernandes Says No Regrets About Leaving Brazilian National Team

7. CROATIA

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For a country of just 4.2m people they have been one of the great over-achievers of world football since the 90s- reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1998 and performing with credit at other tournaments since. They’re in a tough group (D), but arguably have one of the most talented midfields in the world and at 40-1 they could be dangerous opponents for anyone on their day. That said, they need to become more clinical in front of goal to make the later stages of the competition as the margins are likely to be very tight.

8. SWEDEN

They got to the finals by defeating World Cup aristocrats Italy in a play-off and that rates better form that Group F rivals South Korea’s victory over Uzbekistan. The Swedes do have World Cup pedigree, they were third in 1938, reached the finals in 1958, did well in 1974 and were third  again in 1994. So you could say it’s about time for another ‘deep run’ and at 150-1 they might be overpriced.

Follow Neil Clark @NeilClark66

Support his AntiStalker Crowd Fund (against a Times journalist)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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