The 'usual suspects' may well hog the World Cup trophies and runners-up medals but there's been no shortage of surprise packages that reach the semi-finals. Our Chris Hammer picks his five outsiders...
By Chris Hammer
I'd wager most predicted World Cup wall charts out there will end up having any four of Brazil, Germany, Spain, France and Argentina in their semi-finals. Maybe England if they're feeling patriotic, or Belgium/Uruguay/Portugal if they're feeling daring.
Who will have simulated Costa Rica, Japan, Egypt, South Korea, Denmark, Senegal etc to be there?
And why would they, it's the same old teams every four years isn't it? There's only seven previous winners in this 32-nation field and only one other (Sweden) has ever reached the final without ever lifting the trophy.
But down the years we’ve seen no shortage of surprise packages managing to find a way to the last four, whether it’s down to under the radar stars, teamwork, questionable refereeing decisions or the luck of the draw.
If we look back at the last five World Cups which have been in exactly the same format as this one, the following nations have been involved in the third/fourth play-offs.
- Netherlands v Croatia (1998)
- South Korea v Turkey (2002)
- Germany v Portugal (2006)
- Uruguay v Germany (2010)
- Brazil v Netherlands (2014)
I think it’s fair to say five of those sides exceeded global expectations to be there, especially in 2002.
Say what you like about South Korea’s magical run (the Italians will call it something else) but Turkey 'only' had to beat Japan and Senegal during the knockout stages to reach the semi-finals while in 2010 the draw opened up nicely for Uruguay, who defeated South Korea and Ghana.
Shocks and surprises do happen and big-priced outsiders will end up with a far more comfortable route than they can ever anticipate now.
You only have to looks at the odds 'to qualify' from each group to see that most countries stand a fighting chance of reaching the last 16, even if they’re the outsiders of the four.
In those last five tournaments we’ve had the likes of Romania (1998), Nigeria (1998), Denmark (2002), Sweden (2002), South Korea (2002), Japan (2002), Mexico (2002), Switzerland (2006), Paraguay (2010), USA (2010), Uruguay (2010), Colombia (2014) and Costa Rica (2014) all topping groups they weren’t meant to.
And we've seen Spain (2014 & 1998), Italy (2014 & 2010), England (2014), Portugal (2014 & 2002), France (2002 & 2010) and Argentina (2002) all fail to progress.
These upsets ruin your wallchart predictions but it does give you an opportunity to make some money on the no-hopers – if you were prepared to think imaginatively outside the box at the start.
So let’s try to do just that.
Starting with Saudi Arabia, who are 250/1 to reach the semi-finals, I worked my way up from the bottom to find some chunky-priced nations who could feasibly get that far.
They needed to tick the following boxes:
- Not a complete minnow
- At least one or two recognisable stars
- Encouraging qualifying campaign
- A reasonable chance of beating anyone outside the big five
- A route that could realistically see them avoid the big five
It took a while and there are a few leaps of faiths in here but I’ve come up with five outsiders from 16/1 to 40/1 that I'll be backing to reach the last four.
Sweden - 16/1 to reach the semi-finals
How they qualified: They finished second behind France in a tough qualification group that included the Netherlands and Belarus before defeating Italy in a play-off.
All without a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Why they can go far: It’s all about the team ethic. Although their biggest names such as Emil Forsberg, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Berg, Seb Larsson and Ola Toivonen won’t exactly strike fear into opposition, they’ve proved how effective the collective can be.
They even defeated the much-fancied France during qualifying and only suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat in Paris after taking the lead - so they can clearly make life tough for the top teams.
Group F: The leap of faith comes very early with this prediction – they need to win a group with Germany, Mexico and South Korea.
The Germans, who leave Leroy Sane at home, haven’t been that impressive of late and while I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see them pick up momentum as the tournament goes on, I can envisage a couple of draws against the Swedes and Mexico, leaving the door open.
Last 16: If they don’t win the group they’ll face Brazil and it’s game over. But winning it leaves Sweden with a clash with my other pick Serbia and both sides will view it as completely winnable.
Quarter-Final: Should they come through then I have them up against Colombia, who’ll beat Group G runners-up Belgium after topping Group H. Have I lost you yet?
Even if Belgium – or alternative Group G runners-up England – beat Colombia, I’d say Sweden have a fighting chance to defeat either.
Semi-Final: They now play Spain and lose, but the job is done.
Scroll down for four more picks
Serbia - 18/1 to reach the semi-finals
How they qualified: They won a very tough group with Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria, who recently beat Germany. All four harboured genuine dreams of Russia but Serbia had most quality, losing just once and winning six games to finish two points above Ireland.
Why they can go far: Serbia have plenty of quality and experience from defence right through to attack. Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic is the star man and alongside Crystal Palace's Luka Milivojevic, they'll allow Lazio’s Sergej Milikovic-Savic and Duscan Tadic of Southampton to provide the creativity for Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, who netted six times in qualifying.
Aleksandar Kolorov and Branislav Ivanovic are their familiar names at the back who will make them hard to beat.
Group E: They don't have much chance of topping a group with Brazil but I'm backing them to finish runners-up ahead of Switzerland and Costa Rica.
Last 16: As you may have guessed, I have them playing shock Group F winners Sweden, who they would fancy their chances of beating. If, however, they do come up against Germany, I would hold out realistic hope of a big shock given the recent vulnerabilities of Joachim Low’s side.
You may remember four years ago, Germany needed extra-time in the last 16 to see off Algeria so don’t count on them hitting full stride by this stage.
Quarter-Final: Exactly like the Sweden scenario, I’d be fairly confident if they faced Colombia, Belgium or England.
Semi-Final: Spain await and they'll mostly likely lose.
Peru - 28/1 to reach the semi-finals
How they qualified: They were fifth in the 10-team South American qualifying zone, finishing ahead of Chile and Paraguay while they were only two points behind third-placed Argentina. A play-off with New Zealand followed in which they triumphed 2-0 on aggregate.
Why they can go far: They recovered brilliantly after winning just one of their first six qualifiers and their impressive run since then – as well as their two impressive Copa America campaigns in 2015 and 2016 - shows why you shouldn’t lazily regard them as the worst of the dangerous South American contingent.
They're 11th in the FIFA world rankings, for whatever that’s worth!
Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero, 35, has been cleared to play after his doping ban was temporarily lifted while their other attacking talisman Jefferson Farfan is at home in Russia having plied his trade at Lokomotive Moscow. Also keep your eye on energetic left-winger Edison Flores, who netted five times in qualifying.
Group C: They are a massive – almost insulting - 9/1 to top a group which includes France, Denmark and Australia. Considering how lacklustre a talented France side looked during qualifying – scoring just 18 goals in 10 games – this could be a prime shock group and it wouldn’t be the first time France have suffered. They’ve finished top, second and bottom twice in the last four finals.
Last 16: I have faith they can be one of the surprise group winners which would pit them against Group D runners-up Iceland, which is clearly winnable.
If Peru finish second then they’ll have to do things the hard way and meet Argentina. But as explained above, very little separated the two nations in qualifying and both games between them finished in draws.
Quarter-Final: If they've beaten Iceland in my intended last-16 tie then next is the winner of the match between my Group B runners-up Portugal and my surprise Group A winners Egypt... If you're still with me, thank you.
That match is winnable but unfortunately the bet is dead even if they managed to beat Argentina. That’s because Spain will be there, unless Russia have used home advantage to stun them in the last 16.
Semi-Final: If they have got this far via the group winners route then it’s Brazil and out. I know it all seems a bit far-fetched now…
Egypt - 28/1 to reach the semi-finals
How they qualified: The Pharaohs topped their group containing Uganda, Ghana and Congo with one game to spare, taking 13 points from a possible 18. You won’t be surprised to know Mo Salah was top scorer in qualifying with five.
Why they can go far: Salah is the primary reason after a barnstorming season for Liverpool and while he may miss the first game against Uruguay - in which case expect a goalless draw - there's still enough hope. Coach Hector Cuper has a wealth of experience and success at the highest level and could well mastermind a fairytale run for a nation that’s never gone behind the group phase.
Other familiar faces in the squad include Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Ramadan Sobhi (Stoke), Ahmed Hegazi (West Brom), Ali Gabr (West Brom) and Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa).
Group D: They are 13/2 to top this group and I'm backing them to do it. Cuper's side don’t concede many and Salah should punish Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, who are ropey at the back, while Russia are vulnerable hosts.
Last 16: In winning the group they’ll come up against either Portugal or potentially Morocco if Cristiano Ronaldo's side stutter. Either way, victory is more than possible.
Quarter-Final: A clash with the winner of my dream last-16 tie – Iceland v Peru – will await next and obviously I'll be putting my feet up with a White Russian if that all comes off!
Semi-Final: Brazil and out.
Iceland - 40/1 to reach the semi-finals
How they qualified: They became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup by topping a fiercely competitive group that included Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey and Finland. The darlings of Euro 2016 won seven of their 10 games, losing twice, with their success was built on their work ethic and the talents of Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Why they can go far: Despite having a population of just 335,000 – which is around one million fewer than Trinidad and Tobago, who were the previous smallest nation in World Cup finals history – they've somehow got a squad good enough to qualify for back-to-back major tournaments and build a reputation of being so hard to break down.
Knocking England out of Euro 2016 after an unbeaten group phrase was one thing but to follow it up with another successful qualifying campaign means you can’t laugh them off. Aside from Sigurdsson, there’s familiar faces such as Cardiff skipper Aron Gunnarsson, Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Aston Villa’s Thor-like Birkir Bjarnason, who has been an almost ever present for Iceland since 2011.
Group D: They are 3/1 just to qualify from this group, which contains Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. I won’t go overboard and say they’ll top it at 10/1 but they’ve already got the measure of Croatia in qualifying while the challenge of Nigeria won’t faze them.
Last 16: In finishing runners-up they’ll hopefully face one of my other outsiders in Peru or, most likely, France. But would you really be surprised if it’s Denmark? Two of those eventualities are more than winnable.
Quarter-Final: If you’re still with me then you’ll already know I’d be forecasting them to meet Egypt or Portugal.
Semi-Final: Brazil and goodbye.
The irony of all this is that one of my five could reach the semi-finals via a completely different route of opposition. They may of course all just finish where they’re supposed to in their groups - third or fourth.
It could be another big priced surprise package that does what I’m claiming is possible – Senegal, Switzerland or Japan perhaps.
Just think outside the box and target those tempting semi-final odds.
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