BY JAMIE ALLEN
May and June is an exciting time for football fans, especially in the year of a major tournament. The domestic season for most of the major European leagues comes to a climax and the World Cup is just around the corner. The build up to Brazil has begun to gather momentum since the turn of the year and fans around the globe are deliberating over all aspects of their national team; who will make the final squad? How will the team play? What formation should the manager employ? The list goes on, but what is certain is that football is to dominate the summer months.
Whilst the discussion around the overall winners of this year’s World Cup will obviously centre around the usual suspects of Brazil, Spain and Germany, there is a special term reserved for the outsiders. One team is often given the label of the ‘dark horse’, a term which denotes a sense of possibility and a feeling that maybe these guys could surprise the big teams, upset the odds and maybe even go all the way? Who are the outsiders and can they be considered a ‘dark horse’ in Brazil?
To address the elephant in the room straight away, we’ll start with Belgium. The hullabaloo surrounding the Red Devils has been unparalleled and everyone seems to have the Belgians down as this years ‘dark horse’. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the Premier League will be aware of several of the most talented Belgian players. Most notably Chelsea’s wing-wizard Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s imposing centre-back Vincent Kompany and the powerful forward, Romelu Lukaku also of Chelsea who has spent the last two seasons out on-loan, firing West Bromwich Albion and Everton up the table respectively.
If you couple the Premier League crop with the rest of the Belgians from around Europe such as Thibaut Courtois, Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Driers Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne to name a few, then this is undoubtedly the most talented group of players Belgium has produced for decades. Current manager, Marc Wilmots masterminded his teams rise to the top of Group A in the qualifiers, leading the way by nine points ahead of Croatia with eight wins and two draws cementing their place in Brazil.
Is Belgium a ‘dark horse’ for this year’s World Cup? No, not to my mind at least. Belgium have many talented players who are lighting up leagues around Europe but therein lies the problem; the current squad are both collectively and individually too good to warrant the tag. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Red Devils take down one or two of the bigger nations during the tournament. The Belgians received arguably the easiest group drawing Algeria, Russia and South Korea in Group H and it is expected they will make the quarter-finals at the very least.
Outside of Brazil and Argentina, there are three other South American nations looking to make an impact in the summer. Uruguay and Colombia, who sit at opposite ends of Brazil; Uruguay to the south, Colombia to the North, then there’s Chile, situated to the far west. Before footballing ability can be considered, these three nations will have a slight advantage over their European counterparts in that they share similar climatic characteristics with the host country. The ‘climate’ argument is somewhat limited and has been applied in the broadest sense to the South American teams; for example, many of the important players from the above nations have spent much of their careers plying their trade in the European leagues where climate can vary considerably.
An air of expectation will always loom over two-time World Cup winners, Uruguay as long as Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are leading the attack. Considering the pair’s potency in-front of goal, between them they’ve scored over 45 league goals, a betting man would fancy their chances of reaching the quarter-finals regardless of the climate. Suárez in particular has been in impressive form for Liverpool this season, scoring on a regular basis and laying on plenty of chances for his team mates. Cavani has played second fiddle to the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimović at Paris Saint-Germain but still remains the French club’s second top-scorer.
Uruguay’s weakness lies in defence; the ageing Diego Lugano still captains the side and Martin Caceres has been in and out of the Juventus side this season. Diego Godin does provide a little bit of solidarity at the back after a relatively consistent season with Atlético Madrid but it is still an area that could be exploited. Uruguay have the toughest group with Italy, England and Costa Rica in Group D but their very recent history in the tournament (i.e. reaching the semi finals in 2010) puts to bed their chances of taking the title of ‘dark horse’.
Colombia has an exciting pool of talent to choose from and this showed in the qualifying phase, finishing second behind Argentina. A strong contingent of the current squad can be found in Serie A with Fredy Guarín, Juan Cuardrado, Cristián Zapata, Luis Muriel and Victor Ibarbo all playing in the Italian top flight. Guarín in particular has been the focus of several transfer rumours during a difficult season for Inter Milan 2013/2014. However, the speculation soon subsided after the midfielder signed a contract extension until summer 2017 in March. Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez joined AS Monaco in a deal that was reportedly worth €100 million in the 2013 summer transfer window. Despite Monaco’s financial power, the price tag shows how highly regarded the two players are.
Falcao, Colombia’s talisman striker, is currently facing a battle against the clock after a knee injury picked up in January which required surgery put his chances of making the World Cup squad in doubt. Recent reports have suggested that he is making a swift recovery and could be fit in time for the start of the tournament in June providing a major boost to his team. The mercurial James Rodriguez, on the other hand, has been in solid form for Monaco this season making over 30 appearances for the French outfit and scoring goals and setting up his team mates along the way.
Colombia have shown their quality, playing some of their best football during the qualification phase and finished only two points behind Argentina in the final table. Add to this the fact that two of their star players commanded a combined fee of €100 million last summer and the ‘dark horse’ label is now looking less and less applicable. They are the strongest team in Group C with Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan and should progress to the round of 16. In my opinion, Colombia do offer the possibility of a genuine surprise but only if they manage to make it as far as the semi-finals. But do they warrant the ‘dark horse’ title? I would say no.
A recent hipster favourite, Chile, pushed Colombia all the way for the runners-up spot in the qualifying phase finishing only two points behind in third position. Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez are the most widely known players amongst the squad with Juventus’ midfield general, Vidal putting in dominant displays in Serie A. He is another player who has been linked with moves abroad, touted as the player who could solve Manchester United’s midfield woes and his importance to Chile is paramount.
Chile showcased their credentials in the later part of 2013 when they visited Wembley in November where they managed a convincing 0-2 victory. Barcelona forward, Sánchez scored two goals that night in a display that saw England outplayed by their South American opponents and if that is anything to go by, England will not fancy their chances in the summer. The Chileans showed they could control a game with possession and also provide that clinical edge in front of goal to come away with victory.
Whilst Chile have their star players in Vidal and Sánchez, the rest of the squad has very few roots in the major European leagues, discounting Gary Medel, Matías Fernández and Mauricio Isla who play in the Premier League and Serie A respectively. Of all the South American sides, Chile would be my tip for the ‘dark horse’ title.
As for the European nations, there aren’t many teams who can be considered the tournaments ‘dark horse’. However, if there’s one side that fits the bill then it’s Switzerland. Coached by the vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland dominated their respective qualifying group finishing at the top of Group E, seven points clear of Iceland and undefeated over the course of the qualifying phase.
A number of the Swiss side currently play for teams across Europe including Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus and the Napoli trio of Gökhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili. The squad also contains a number of exciting young players to compliment the more experienced members, Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich, Granit Xhaka of Borussia Mönchengladbach and Josip Drmić of 1. FC Nürnberg. Shaqiri is a particularly exciting attacking midfielder and Drmić has proven himself a goal scorer for lowly Nürnberg in the Bundesliga this season.
Switzerland could be the team to spring a real surprise in Brazil. The Swiss have a mix of young and experienced players, a manager who is a proven winner and nothing is really expected of the team. There is an air of ‘Greece 2004’ about the Swiss which makes them a true ‘dark horse’.
The attraction of football lies in its unpredictability and tournaments are the perfect format to rear a surprise. Chile and Switzerland are my ‘dark horse’ tips and I’ll be very interested to see how they fare at the World Cup. After all, anything is possible during the knockout phase and there could well be a few other surprise packages in Brazil.