Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, Spain. We all know what to expect from the big sides, but who are the teams who have surprised many in Russia so far this summer? Let’s take a look.
Not a side that are traditionally considered dark horses, the Three Lions came into the World Cup knowing they had nothing to lose – which makes them especially dangerous. With the Golden Generation now well and truly gone, a failure for England would not represent an underachievement – with a young, unheralded group of players. It can only go one direction from the class of 2014’s group stage exit, so a young and hungry England will fancy their chances with minnows Panama and Tunisia in their group.
Led by Harry Kane, England have looked inspired, with the Tottenham striker currently leading the race for the Golden Boot with 5 goals. Playing in his first World Cup, Kane has firmly entrenched his name among the top tier of strikers through his club form, but will be hoping to add to his goal scoring tally against Belgium.
He’s proven himself in the Premier League, Champions League and against Tunisia and Panama in the World Cup, however, the next step is to help his country progress as far as possible, with his goal scoring prowess being key to any success England get.
He has been supported by club teammate Dele Alli as well as Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, two of Europe’s hottest prospects at the moment. Although Alli has failed to live up to his wonderful 16/17 season, he did show flashes of his best at times and has shown his resolve as a big game player, with braces against Chelsea and Real Madrid on his resume. After suffering a minor injury against Tunisia, Alli sat out the Panama match, but his return will strengthen the England team and hopefully provide Kane with more opportunities to score.
On the other hand, Sterling has taken his game to a whole new level under Pep Guardiola. Criticised for his lack of end product, Sterling silenced his critics with an incredible 18 goals and 11 assists in the league – only Salah and Kane directly contributed to more goals. His combination of electric pace and slick trickery has made him tricky for defenders to deal with, however, for England, his end product has been poor. If Sterling can improve his finishing, England will be even more deadly than they have already shown.
They’re not short of quality in the other positions either – Jordan Henderson led Liverpool to a Champions League final, while Eric Dier is another benefactor of the familiarity of the Spurs core of the side. Marcus Rashford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jesse Lingard are the wildcards, there to add the X-Factor late on, with Lingard scoring in the 5-1 win over Panama to open his World Cup account.
In defence, England have used Man City’s £50m pair Kyle Walker and John Stones as the spine, with another Spurs player in Kieran Trippier starting at right back. Manchester United’s Ashley Young and Leicester’s Harry Maguire have played at left back and centre back respectively.
Maybe lifting the cup is still a dream too far for England, but the Three Lions could certainly ruffle up some feathers later in the tournament.
The central European nation are ranked #6 in the FIFA world rankings – ahead of traditional powerhouses like Spain and France, yet, Switzerland are far from the most fancied side – with their best odds on the World Cup prior to the tournament being as 16th favourites, priced at 100/1. Built on a strong defensive foundation, the Alpine nation have proven to be a hard nut to crack.
The Swiss Golden Generation are hitting their peaks, with the core of the victorious 2009 U17 World Cup still around. However, Switzerland have still never gone beyond a Round of 16 in a major tournament, and will be desperately hoping to set that right.
Switzerland enjoyed a fruitful qualifying campaign, winning each of their first 9 games – including a win against European champions Portugal, before a defeat in the return leg put them in the qualifiers on goal difference.
In the group stage they have conceded just 4 goals which, considering they have Brazil in their group, is an impressive feat. Borussia Monchengladbach’s Yann Sommer has been entrusted to organise the defence in front of his goal, while Juventus right back Stephan Lichtsteiner and AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez have been making marauding runs down the flanks to help the attack.
Dortmund’s exciting youngster Manuel Akanji, who has risen through the ranks swiftly, has provided steel in the centre of the defence, alongside Deportivo’s Fabian Schar. Switzerland are a side that prides itself on its resolute defensive organisation, which could see them go far in the tournament, perhaps to break their own record.
Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri, or the Alpine Messi as he is known to Swiss fans, is the focal point of Switzerland’s attacks, with his ability on the ball better than the majority of his teammates’. His 90th minute winner against Serbia helped them on their way to qualifying for the round of 16.
A tough draw with world number 2 Brazil, Switzerland have proven they can battle with the best.
As Germany finished bottom of group F, they have avoided the defending champions in the second round and will instead take on surprise group winners Sweden in what will be a close match.
One of the most impressive sides in Brazil 2014, Colombia will be looking to go a couple of steps further from their quarter-final appearance. The South American nation have played with typical Samba style and verve.
Despite a shaky start to their 2018 World Cup campaign, in which they lost 2-1 against Japan, in part down to a red card Carlos Sanchez received in the third minute, they bounced back against Poland. Their European opponents were favoured as one of the teams to progress, however, Colombia’s 3-0 win in the second round knocked them out and kept Colombia with hope of progressing.
All-time top scorer Radamel Falcao returned to the World Cup after missing the 2014 tournament through injury and scored added to his goal tally by scoring in the 3-0 win over Poland.
2014 Golden Ball winner James Rodriguez made a substitute appearance in Colombia’s opening match against Japan. He then started against Poland, where he provided the creativity they lacked in the opening match. He assisted two of the goals against Poland and his resurgence could help Colombia progress as far as the semi-finals if the draw is kind to them.
Juventus’ seasoned pro Juan Cuadrado has run the wings, chipping in with the third goal against Poland. They have looked to Barcelona’s new signing, Yerry Mina, and Spurs’ sensation Davinson Sanchez, who has adjusted well in the Premier League since his big money move from Ajax, to be their rocks in defence, which certainly paid off in their second match. Arsenal’s David Ospina, who took over from Petr Cech at the Emirates near the end of this season, has provided some top level experience in goal.
Even if they fail in the second round, with England or Belgium awaiting them if they progress, they have provided some good football for the fans to feast on.
Another team with oodles of talent, Croatia are definitely one to watch out for. The Croats impressed in Euro 2016, beating then-holders Spain in the group stage, before being pipped late on in extra time by eventual winners Portugal. Yet another country experiencing a Golden Generation, they have taken the World Cup in their stride and their unfulfilled potential looks to have turned into something tangible.
All eyes have been on the midfield, with bitter rivals in club football, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who play for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, being the engine room of this Croatia side. At 32 and 30 respectively, this may be the last big chance for two of today’s best midfielders. They helped Croatia to win all three of their group games, with Modric scoring against Nigeria and Argentina, while Rakitic scored his only goal of the competition so far in the 91st minute to pile the humiliation onto Argentina in a 3-0 demolition.
One of the most exciting players from Euro 2016 and long-term Man Utd target Ivan Perisic scored his first goal of the tournament against Iceland to secure the win for Croatia. With Denmark up next, Perisic will be one player that the Croatian fans will be hoping adds to his goal tally.
Thus far, Croatia have conceded just the one goal in the group stage and only Uruguay have conceded fewer. They’re solid defence conceded against Iceland via a penalty, but managed to prevent Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain from finding a way past Danijel Subasic.
Led by talisman Modric, who has now won 4 Champions Leagues in the last 5 seasons – including 3 in a row, Croatia will be looking to emulate the squad of 1998, who finished 3rd.