World Cup 2014: Dark horses
Ivory Coast, Colombia & Belgium are among the dark horses to lift the 2014 World Cup
Spaniards aside, football fans may be growing tired of seeing ‘La Roja’ lift every piece of international silverware up for grabs.
So for something refreshing, here are five underdogs that could produce a surprise challenge at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
For all the brilliant individuals in their talented squad, the golden generation of ‘Les Éléphants’ has miserably failed to live up to the high expectations of them. But despite their frequent shortcomings, the Ivory Coast boasts the attacking quality to worry almost anybody, at least on paper.
Sabri Lamouchi has a wonderful blend of quality players and up-and-coming stars at his fingertips and come Brazil 2014, the likes of Abdul Razak, Max Gradel and Lacina Traoré will have developed into fine players.
Although questionable in goal and in defence, the Ivory Coast squad is teeming with world-class ability in the final third. Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and Seydou Doumbia are all dangerous players capable of worrying any defence with their speed, power and invention.
Although he will be 36-years-old at the forthcoming tournament, Didier Drogba’s desire to lead his country until the conclusion of the next World Cup is a huge boost towards the chances of Ivory Coast claiming a few scalps in Brazil.
Verdict: A lot rests on the shoulders of Cheick Tioté and Didier Zakora – the two holding midfielders expected to protect a vulnerable Ivorian defence. The likes of Doumbia and Bony should get the job done up front, and ‘Les Éléphants’ are an outside chance if the back-line can somehow hold firm at the other end.
Sides facing ‘Los Cafeteros’ are likely to fall into the trap of solely concentrating on marking the most potent Colombian threat - Radamel Falcao. Of course, the Atlético Madrid assassin is one of the most clinical finishers on the planet, but the South American outfit hold more than one ace up their sleeve.
The Colombian squad is riddled with pace, so any gaps freed up by one or more defenders marking Falcao will be dashed in to by one of Colombia’s many speedsters. Jackson Martinez, Victor Ibarbo and Luis Muriel are all proficient attacking threats capable of banging in goals even if teams do manage to keep ‘El Tigre’ quiet.
Although not boasting a rock-solid defence, José Pekerman has a very quick back-four capable of matching nearly anybody for speed. Luis Perea, Pablo Armero and Cristian Zapata are all confident running stride for stride with most forwards, and this will be imperative against other quick teams such Brazil and Portugal.
The Colombian midfield is another key part of the side’s game plan. Marshalled by the versatile enforcer Fredy Guarín, the Inter Milan star is capable of anything required in midfield. Reminiscent of Michael Essien in his prime - but with added flair - Guarín is a tireless stallion, adept in tackling, shooting and passing. Capable of performing in virtually any position, the powerful midfielder will be a crucial player for Colombia in all areas of the pitch.
Verdict: Many will be expecting Falcao to spearhead Colombia’s chances of progressing to any significant stage of the tournament, but in reality Guarín and James Rodríguez are equally vital to their cause. No team can win a tournament relying on a single player, so without their midfield engine or wing wizard shouldering the burden, not even Falcao can carry Colombia to glory on his own.
Still buzzing after their victory at the African Cup of Nations back in February, the Super Eagles have at last fulfilled the potential their talented squad has always offered. Stephen Keshi and the Nigerian fans will be hoping to build on their recent success and re-establish themselves as a force in international football.
Although Nigeria has a decent squad with a healthy blend of experience and youth to call on, the team sheet lacks a player with true top-class ability. Joseph Yobo, Victor Moses and Obafemi Martins are considered the biggest names and although they are fantastic players, none are starting for a top European club every week.
But winning the African Cup of Nations is no easy task, so the squad must be doing something right. As a whole, the team could be questioned, but the sum of all the parts equals quite a convincing overall package. John Obi Mikel plays the all-important ‘Makelele role’ in front of Nigeria’s potentially problematic defence, allowing the likes of Ahmed Musa and Emmanuel Emenike to run riot on the break. Victor Moses is beginning to impress at Stamford Bridge and will be expected to make a telling contribution in Brazil next year.
Verdict: Like many of the African nations, the Super Eagles absolutely must prevent teams from playing around in front of their defence because they lack the quality to stop the likes of Spain picking them to pieces. Mikel will be vital to ensuring their defensive frailties are unexposed, an optimistic ask of a player who has made a number of high-profile errors for Chelsea in the past. But, Nigeria boasts some very mobile players capable of stretching any team – and Emenike and Martins must bring their shooting boots to Brazil if Nigeria is to pose any kind of threat.
It’s quite bizarre that Óscar Tabárez chooses to play a side with such broad attacking talent in a 5-3-2 formation. The main strength of ‘La Celeste’ is in the final third, and they carry enough firepower to worry even the top nations with Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez and Diego Forlán in the ranks.
The main concern with Uruguay’s 5-3-2 is the desire of the two wing-backs to roam forward, Álvaro Pereira and Martin Cáceres. Now, in general there is nothing wrong with this, in fact it actually provides yet another attacking outlet to the Uruguayans, but playing with only two central midfielders is extremely risky coupled with this style. To amend this problem, either the two wingers need to be very diligent covering gaps left behind the fullbacks or the two centre midfielders must sit deep at all times. But even so, both of these solutions will suffocate the attacking freedom of the side when going forward.
The bittersweet problem Tabárez faces is he has too many attacking options to choose from. Suárez, Forlán, Cavani and Gaston Ramirez simply can’t all squeeze into a single formation where they all play in their preferred positions. But even so, as a manager he must dream up a plan where he can utilise his best talent whilst ensuring balance across the park.
The Uruguayan defence isn’t bad, but their playing style makes them look worse than they actually are. The three central defenders become isolated when the fullbacks dart forward, and the midfield is ill equipped to gloss over their glaring defensive fragility. Simply put, the team’s defence is not strong enough to cope with such sparse defensive support from midfield.
Verdict: A change of formation and mindset is needed to allow Uruguay maximum attacking freedom without compromising their defensive solidity. With Cavani and co. on call, ‘Le Celeste’ could easily maintain their intimidating strike force using just one striker and three supporting midfielders. Tabárez has a great squad, but he needs to find the right formula to get the best out of his brigade of forwards while not forgetting about his more than capable defenders.
Many have already tipped a flourishing Belgium side to perform well in Brazil, and rightly so. The ‘Rode Duivels’ are relishing a golden generation of players, harbouring Premier League stars such as Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembélé and skipper Vincent Kompany. Many of their best players still have time to progress even further before Brazil 2014, so they may have a real shot if they start on the front foot.
Unlike the other sides in this list, Belgium has a very strong squad in terms of both quality and depth. Nearly every single player in their best eleven plays in a top European league, and the same can be said for a large portion of the remainder of the squad. The ability of Marc Wilmots to produce a side that can compete with many of the big guns in Brazil holds them in a higher regard than all the nations previously mentioned in this list.
The Belgian side is packed with world-class talent across the board. Goalkeepers Simon Mignolet and Thibaut Courtois are contending for first-choice in the national side and are virtually ever-present at club level. The defence is marshalled by the concrete partnership of Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany – two quick and physically dominant defenders both on the deck and in the air. Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini provide the muscle in midfield to protect the slightly built yet creative talents of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. And last but not least, Wilmots has the luxury of being able to call upon the attacking quality of youngsters Christian Benteke or Romelu Lukaku, who are both already on their way to becoming feared marksmen.
Verdict: Sporting big names like Kompany, Hazard, Fellaini and Vermaelen; on paper the Belgian’s certainly look threatening to any side they may face in Brazil. Oozing quality right through the team, if Wilmots can get his side playing and thinking like the big boys, Belgium stand a genuine chance of pushing right through to the latter stages of the tournament. The ‘Rode Duivels’ should (and will) be taken very seriously by Germany, Spain, Argentina and the like.
Who do you think could be a surprise contender at Brazil 2014? Give us your predictions in the comments section below.
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