2018 FIFA World Cup Countdown – Part 2: The Underdogs

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(via @MoSalah, Twitter)

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the Top Contenders—teams widely favored to win the World Cup. Now, Part 2 will explore teams considered The Underdogs. These are the teams many pundits and experts think have no chance at lifting the trophy. These teams lack the depth of the top contenders, but through sheer will, individual brilliance, and cohesive team play, earned their spots at the World Cup.

Like the previous article, the teams in this article were selected based on my preferences and supported with moderate statistical reference. These teams will be explored through brief summaries of their international records and their players to watch.

  1. Russia aka The Sbornaya:

Player to watch:

  • Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moskva): Although not an established name in world football, this 27-year-old midfielder is a key player for the host country. A brilliant and versatile playmaker, Dzagoev thrives when playing behind his teams’ forwards and can provide efficient passes to his strikers.
(via @Alan_Dzagoev_Fan, Instagram)

Being the host country, expectations will weigh heavily on the Sbornaya. This won’t help since the team’s performances in recent competitions has been underwhelming, having been eliminated in the first round of the 2014 World Cup and finishing last in the group stages of 2016 UEFA European Championship. However, a huge majority of the current Russian squad play club football in Russia, meaning they have experience playing in front of huge Russian audiences during major competitions. This should help calm nerves, giving Russia a home-field advantage and a chance at qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament.

2. Peru aka La Blanquirroja:

Player to watch:

  • Jefferson “Foca” Farfán (Lokomotiv Moskva): The 33-year-old brings much needed experience to Peru being one of the few within the squad that has major European football league experience. As a right winger who can also play as a forward, Foca has to bear the responsibility of leading the front line due to absence of their highest goalscorer, Paolo Guerrero.
(via @jefferson_farfan_oficial, Instagram)

The absence of the prolific Paolo Guerrero is a huge blow to Peru who rely on his goal scoring ability. Currently serving a 14-month ban after he tested positive for cocaine use, Guerrero’s goal was crucial in their win against New Zealand that helped them qualify for the World Cup.

Despite their two best players being attackers, Peru’s strengths lie in their style of play. The team has technically skilled players that are adaptable to the demands of the game and play as a cohesive unit. Additionally, this Peru side is ranked 11th based on the FIFA World Ranking as of May 17 and should not be underestimated.

3. Egypt aka The Pharaohs: 

Player to watch:

  • Mohamed “Mo” Salah (Liverpool FC): This Liverpool sensation has been the revelation of this season after signing from AS Roma last summer. By scoring 32 goals in 36 games, he broke the record for most goals scored in a single English Premier League season. Additionally, this 25-year-old winger/striker has scored 33 goals in 57 appearances for Egypt and was the hero that scored the winning goal to push Egypt into the World Cup.
(via @mosalah, Instagram)

Despite being the most decorated African team as 7-time winners of the CAF African Nations Cup, Egypt has missed out on every World Cup since 1990. Egypt is thrilled to be back on the world stage. Coming out on top of Group E in the African CAF World Cup qualifiers, the Pharaohs consist of a mix of local players and several who play in England, including their main man Mohamed Salah. Egypt can fancy their chances of progressing to the next round of the World Cup if they can defeat Russia (first game of the tournament) and Saudi Arabia in Group A.

4. Iran aka Team Melli:

Player to watch:

  • Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan): Labeled by some as the “Iranian Zlatan”, Sardar is a 23-year-old striker that is considered a rising star by many Iranian football fans. Excellent at winning aerial duels, Sardar has scored an impressive 23 goals in 31 appearance for Iran, making him the main threat within Iran’s attack.
(via @sardar_azmoun, Instagram)

Team Melli are not strangers to the World Cup and have participated in every World Cup since 1998, with the exception of 2002 where they failed to qualify. Although 3-time champions of the AFC Asian Cup, the team has not won any major titles since 1996. The physical presence of their players coupled with a forward like Azmoun make Iran’s strengths its defense and winning balls in the air. Sharing the same group (Group B) with Portugal and Spain, Iran will be looking to upset the progress of two big teams in European football.

5. Nigeria aka Super Eagles:

Player to watch:

  • Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City): A rising star from the Manchester City academy, the 21-year-old striker became an impact substitute for Manchester City but was sold to Leicester City for a chance to play more games. His inclusion into the squad will be a boost to the Super Eagles because of his incredible goal scoring abilities, having scored 8 goals in 14 appearances for Nigeria.
(via @Kelechi72, Instagram)

As an African powerhouse in football, Nigeria’s international success has been limited to winning the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics games where they defeated Argentina in the finals. Since then, Nigeria hasn’t had the best of luck in the World Cup, their greatest achievement being a Round of 16 appearance in 1994. That squad had the “golden” generation of Nigerian stars that ended up playing for top European teams.

While not as talented, the current Nigerian squad are capable of progressing and will seek to improve upon the success of the “golden” generation. Playing with their new eye-catching kits—inspired by the team’s 1994 World Cup kit design—Nigerians all across the globe will be praying for their team to do their predecessors one better and reach the quarter-finals. That means the team will have to beat Iceland and pull off a remarkable win against Argentina or Croatia for a chance to qualify from Group D.

6. Iceland aka Strákarnir Okkar (Our Boys):

Player to watch:

  • Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton FC): A 28-year-old midfielder playing for Everton in the Premier League, Gylfi is a key player for this Icelandic side as one of few players in the team that has played in a top-5 European league. His strengths include his ability to shoot from distance, set pieces, and crosses into the box.
(via @gylfisig23, Instagram)

After topping their World Cup qualification group, Iceland will participate in its first ever World Cup tournament come June 14. Iceland is a defensive team that likes switching to a counterattack when the opposition loses the ball. Having a midfielder like Gylfi makes such counterattacks dangerous given his ability to switch play, put dangerous balls into the oppositions’ box, and find space between defenders. Additionally, Iceland will be boosted by their performances during the 2016 UEFA European Championship where they reached the quarter-finals after stunning England in the Round of 16.


As you continue enjoying your World Cup 2018 starter pack, look out for ‘Part 3: The Dark Horses’ coming from RayMoN soon!

Zander

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