World Cup dark horses: Who’s primed for a surprise run?

England's Harry Kane celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the World Cup Group F qualifying match between England and Slovenia in London. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Another World Cup is upon us, which means the quadrennial debate about dark horses has begun.

Belgium and Portugal were two popular picks from four years ago. But with the Portuguese winning Euro 2016 and the Belgians boasting several world-class players, there are some new candidates for this World Cup.

Here are five teams that could mount a deep run at the 2018 World Cup.

CROATIA

Usually a popular choice among neutrals, Croatia has the potential to surprise a couple of teams if it wins Group D. That would set up a likely meeting in the round of 16 with either Peru or Denmark. From there, Spain could await, which would feature a fantastic midfield battle.

Croatia’s midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic will be key to the team’s success. Brozovic had nine assists with Inter Milan this season in a deep-lying role, and Modric collected six assists with Real Madrid and was one of the team’s top passers, per WhoScored.com. Rakitic, meanwhile, was contributing on both sides of the ball for Barcelona and still finished second on the team in average passes per game.

Up front, Ivan Perisic managed 11 goals and nine assists with Inter Milan, although the majority of that production was in the first half of the campaign. Nonetheless, Perisic is a hard-working and creative winger who can stretch defences. Andrej Kramaric was equally impressive for Hoffenheim, contributing 13 goals and six assists as the German club qualified for the Champions League. There is also Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic, a tireless runner who will press the opposing back line when it has the ball.

The only potential weaknesses are up front and at centre-back. Striker Nikola Kalinic doesn’t fit Gennaro Gattuso’s system at AC Milan because Gattuso prefers a forward who can hold up the ball. Thankfully for Kalinic, he doesn’t need to do this with Croatia and there are several creative players who can create chances in the box.

At the back, Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren are not very stable defenders. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic is hit-and-miss as well. However, with the midfielders at coach Zlatko Dalic’s disposal, Croatia will dominate possession in most of its games.

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COLOMBIA

The darlings of the last World Cup, Colombia is arguably a deeper team in 2018.

Qualifying was slightly inconsistent, mainly due to coach Jose Pekerman calling up roughly 45 different players over two years. Pekerman has settled on a core group since then, and there are some potential breakout stars who currently play in the Americas.

Mateus Uribe might be the most tantalizing player outside of the usual suspects, such as James Rodriguez or Radamel Falcao. Uribe is an energetic box-to-box midfielder for Club America and his dynamism will be crucial for Colombia. The 27-year-old bagged an astounding eight goals in 18 appearances during the 2018 Clausura in Mexico’s Liga MX, more than any of America’s forwards.

Wilmar Barrios – another Boca player – has Tottenham sniffing around, and for good reason. He’s a tenacious ball-winning midfielder who will be a like-for-like replacement for Carlos Sanchez.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s two big stars are coming off strong seasons in Europe. Falcao had 18 league goals in 26 games for AS Monaco and Rodriguez enjoyed his best campaign in years at Bayern Munich. He contributed seven goals and 11 assists across 23 appearances.

Colombia’s path would pit Los Cafeteros against one of England or Belgium. That could lead to a potential rematch against Brazil in the quarterfinals. Pekerman’s side is one of two teams who has avoided defeat against the Brazilians in a competitive match under manager Tite, so that’s a potential upset matchup.

PERU

What Peru lacks in star power, it makes up for in team camaraderie. It sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth.

Ever since Ricardo Gareca was named coach in the spring of 2015, he’s slowly transformed Peru into a well-drilled, organized and tactically flexible team. The ability to comfortably play on the counter-attack and with possession makes la Blanquirroja a threat for any side.

Peru also plays up to the level of their competitors. Los Incas defeated Croatia 2-0 in a March friendly and topped Uruguay in World Cup qualifying. They also picked up draws with Argentina and Colombia. The Croatians and Argentines could be potential round-of-16 opponents, so those would be familiar matchups for the Peruvians.

Spain would be the likely quarterfinal opponent, but Peru will be a tough challenge for any team.

Captain Paolo Guerrero is also eligible for the World Cup after his controversial doping ban was frozen. Guerrero and the rest of the team will be even more motivated to make a statement.

ENGLAND

Despite many false dawns, England seems to be more organized under coach Gareth Southgate.

Instead of succumbing to media pressure to call up certain players or choosing the best individuals, Southgate has opted for a 3-4-3 formation – or a 3-5-2 depending on how Dele Alli is utilized – and settled on players that are comfortable in that formation. He’s also been relatively consistent with squad selection.

Many players are in top form as well, including Alli, Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill, John Stones, Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. Most of those names are comfortable in a system with three at the back, too.

Depending on where England finishes in Group G, one of Colombia, Poland, Senegal or Japan would await in the round of 16. If the favourites advance, Germany or Brazil would be in the quarterfinals. With the ability to absorb pressure in Southgate’s system, the Three Lions could exceed expectations in Russia.

URUGUAY

Of all these teams, Uruguay might have the best chance of reaching the latter rounds.

Centre-backs Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are riding high after their Europa League victory with Atletico Madrid, and that chemistry is vital. Matches in the knockout stage can be tightly-contested, so defensive cohesion is pivotal.

Goals are also important, and Uruguay have two of the best scorers in the world on the roster in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Giorgian De Arrascaeta will drift behind them as the primary playmaker. The 24-year-old has been involved in 10 goals in his last 20 starts for Brazilian club Cruzeiro in all competitions, and a strong World Cup will surely attract interest from big European teams.

In midfield, coach Oscar Tabarez will lean on a couple of youngsters. Rodrigo Bentancur will be starting at just 20 years of age, but he’s a very mature player, and he has been very solid when called upon at Juventus. That is why Tabarez trusts him.

With Federico Valverde missing out on the World Cup squad, Nahitan Nandez will likely start as well. The Boca Juniors midfielder is a tidy box-to-box midfielder who should be heavily involved on both sides of the ball.

From front to back, Uruguay is complete. The South Americans should cruise through Group A and overcome whoever finishes second in Group B. A potential quarterfinal with France would be the litmus test. Defeat the French, and anything is possible.

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