World Cup dark horses
Sky Bet's Josh Bradley looks at the potential surprise packages at the World Cup this summer.
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The World Cup is inching ever nearer and, as favourites Brazil prepare to host the tournament for the second time in their history, we shy away from the head of the market and take a look at some potential dark horses who are aiming to make their mark on the biggest stage of all.
Even without their talisman Radamel Falcao, who misses the World Cup through injury, Colombia still have a massive chance of surprising plenty of people. They have been blessed with a fairly simple group, as they should be able to progress past Japan, Ivory Coast and Greece., before meeting the runner-up of Group D in the last 16, which could well be England.
Jackson Martinez has been in fantastic form for Porto, netting 20 times in 30 league appearances and he will be able to showcase the free-flowing Colombian counter-attacks, with Carlos Bacca and James Rodriguez linking-up the play in style.
They finished second, just two points behind Argentina in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, conceding only 13 goals in 16 games, the least of any South American side in qualifying. They have a solid defensive base, and will be at home in the testing conditions in Brazil, where many will struggle.
Yet another South America side enter the equation as dark horses, although the ever-exciting Chile line-up in a rather difficult group in Brazil. They are likely to be the entertainers of the World Cup, with a rather weak defence often being dug out of trouble by a masterful free-flowing attack that reaps plenty of goals.
They scored 29 in qualifying, conceding 24 in the process, so they are sure to entertain in the rather difficult games against reigning champions Spain, and runners-up Holland. However, they are fancied by many to get out of the group, with Alexis Sanchez oozing class in the final third and often putting opposition defences to the sword, with help from Arturo Vidal, who is a key-man in their 3-4-3 formation.
Their high-pressing game is intense and often leads to plenty of opportunities. However, it does come at a cost as their defence becomes exposed and are susceptible to a mistake or two. They will quickly become the neutral’s second-choice side, and are sure to excite football fans from across the world. The money has already started to plough in, with confidence building in recent weeks and Chile are a loser in Sky Bet’s book, with plenty of punters latching on at such a big price.
After being pitted in a difficult group, alongside France and Switzerland, few give Ecuador a chance of reaching the latter stages. However, the side have looked sharp in the build-up to the World Cup, and could do no wrong at home during the qualifiers, winning seven out of eight games, drawing the other 1-1, with Argentina.
Their away form is a worry, however, with their home stadium being 9,300 feet above sea level, it is easy to see why they have struggle when going on the road. They will be playing in two of the cities with the highest altitude in the tournament, with Brasilia, standing at 3,800 feet above sea level, and Curitiba, which is 3,000 feet above sea level, benefitting Ecuador over their opponents.
Antonio Valencia and Enner Valencia (no relation), are going to be key to their chances, with the mix of pace and power integral to Ecuador getting the better of Switzerland and Honduras, whilst France will prove more difficult. The pace on the counter-attack, as shown in the 2-2 draw with England, could be the difference between progressing or not, so they are one to keep onside at a big price.
They are fortunate to be placed in a group they could easily get out of, as Ivory Coast and Greece both look beatable. Japan, like Chile, are going to be entertaining for the neutrals, with their fantastic ability to counter with such pace and flair, enough to get them past teams with arguably better technical ability.
The midfield is often the difference between winning and losing, with Shinji Kagawa pulling the strings, while Makoto Hasebe sits behind and covers him defensively. They have creativity in abundance and Yuya Osako looks set to fill the void of the clinical lone-striker, a position where they have been lacking in top quality players in the past.
Keisuke Honda is still the key man and, after a mixed season for AC Milan, he will be out to prove a point on the big stage once again. They are set to out run their odds, and will quickly begin to impress many who have never paid too much attention to Japan’s free-flowing attacking play.
In their inaugural World Cup competition, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s story will appeal to the romantics of the game, who may be surprised with just how well they perform.
Edin Dzeko helped spearhead his side’s attack as they scored 30 goals in 10 games during qualifying, and he should be back in the goals as his side lines up against Argentina in the opener, before facing the seemingly easier tasks of Nigeria and Iran.
They have a solid spine with Asmir Begovic, Emir Spahic, Miralem Pjanic and Dzeko through the centre, and this is where they do their damage. They are ranked 21st in the world, so no-one is too expectant of a major run in the tournament. However, they should be able to get out of their group with something in hand, and once they take their place in the knock-out stage, anything can happen.