5 underdog teams to watch at 2018 World Cup

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Everyone is aware that the likes of Germany, Brazil and France are favourites to lift the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but who are some of the dark horses that could make a deep run?

There are some quality sides out there that are flying under the radar and could provide value throughout the competition.

We pick out five that you should keep your eye on and could shock some of the bigger names this summer.

Croatia

Croatia have a star-studded line-up, with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic in their ranks.

Compliment that with Real Madrid's Mateo Kovacic, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan, and you have the makings of a great squad.

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In their World Cup qualifying group, they finished second to Iceland, winning six of their 10 games and only conceding four goals in the process, which was bettered by only England and Spain, who leaked three goals.

Finishing second meant Croatia had to go through the play-offs, where they beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate, with Modric, Kalinic, Perisic and Kramaric all on the scoresheet.

In the 2016 European Championships, Croatia were knocked out in the Last 16 stage, beating Spain 2-1 in the group stage to finish top of Group D, which also included Turkey and Czech Republic.

They were dumped out in extra time by eventual champions Portugal, with Ricardo Quaresma scoring in the 117th minute.

This will be Croatia's fifth time at a World Cup, with their best result coming in 1998, when they finished third, with striker Davor Suker winning the golden boot with six goals.

This year, Croatia will be in Group D alongside Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.

Keeping Lionel Messi quiet will be a tough task for most teams at this tournament, and they could struggle against Argentina, but have the quality to get something from the game if the opposition aren't at 100%.

It is expected they will comfortably beat Nigeria in their first game on June 16, and therefore it will likely come down to a decider between Croatia and Iceland, just like it was in qualifying.

Not many expect Croatia will stand much of a chance, but the same was true for 1998 and look how well they done there.

Luka Modric Luka Modric

Egypt

With Liverpool's Mo Salah in such fine form, you can't rule him carrying that into the World Cup and doing damage with his national side.

Salah has been the best player in the Premier League this season since his move from Roma in the summer, scoring over 30 league goals.

He has also played a key role in Liverpool's Champions League run, combining with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to great effect.

There has also been talks that he is the front runner for the Ballon d'Or, with Salah the only man who currently has a chance of breaking the dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

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He could further strengthen his credentials to be considered the best player in the world with a fantastic campaign on the biggest stage in Russia, and could single-handedly fire his side into at least the last 16 stage if he can carry over his current form.

They qualified for the tournament by picking up 13 points from their six group matches, which included Uganda, Ghana and Congo.

That was earned them a place in Group A alongside hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.

It is a wide open group, with Uruguay probably the most likely to top it with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in their side, but Egypt will fancy their chances of causing a shock and securing second place over Russia.

They have very capable players in the form Mohamed Elneny, Ramadan Sobhi and Ahmed Hegazi, who all play in the Premier League.

Much will rely on Mo Salah, but if the players around him can support and create chances, then Egypt could be dark horses for a deep run.

Mo Salah has been in great form this season Mo Salah has been in great form this season

Colombia

Colombia lit up the 2014 World Cup by reaching the quarter-final before a 2-1 defeat to hosts Brazil.

James Rodriguez showed what a star he was at the tournament by picking up the golden boot having scored six goals, and earned himself a big money move to Real Madrid following the competition.

This will be their sixth World Cup campaign, having finished in the Last 16 back in 1990, and failing to make it out of the group stage in 1962, 1994 and 1998.

Their all-time top goalscorer is Radamel Falcao (29), and the South American side will be hoping their captain can find his best form for this competition.

Colombia qualified for the showpiece in Russia by finishing fourth in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, behind Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

They've been drawn in Group H alongside Poland, Senegal and Japan, and will be quietly confident that they will be able to top that group.

Poland have the potential to cause damage with Robert Lewandowski in the squad, who is one of the best strikers in world football.

Senegal have star quality in the shape of Sadio Mane, but Colombia will back themselves to get a win over the African nation, and also secure three points against Japan.

They will face a tough match in the Last 16 if everything goes to script, with the winners of their group taking on second place in Group G, which will likely be England or Belgium.

With the likes of Falcao, Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado in their team, Colombia are more than capable of causing a few upsets and replicating their 2014 campaign.

James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot in 2014 James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot in 2014

Uruguay

Even with the star quality in their squad, Uruguay are still a big price to reach the latter stages of the competition.

Strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are capable of destroying any defence, and with them being supported by goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, Christian Stuani and Rodrigo Bentancur, they had a quality squad.

Uruguay are two-time World Cup champions having picked up the title in 1930 and 1950, and have a rich history of success at the biggest tournament in the world.

They finished fourth in 1954, 1970 and most recently 2010, while getting out of their group on another four occasions.

In 2014, they were drawn alongside Italy, England and Costa Rica, with many expecting it would be the Italians and English making it through.

They couldn't have been more wrong, with Costa Rica topping the group and Uruguay in second, with England failing to win a single game and Italy only picking up three points.

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Finishing in second hurt their chances as they were knocked out by Colombia, while Costa Rica were drawn against Greece, who Uruguay would have been massive favourites against.

Only Brazil scored more goals in South American qualifying than Uruguay, but will have to improve defensively to go deep.

They won the China Cup recently, beating Wales in the final, and will be looking for more knockout football success in Russia.

We mentioned Uruguay's group with Egypt earlier, and they likely face either Portugal or Spain should they progress through their group.

If they were to get through that, France or Argentina could await, but Uruguay have the quality to cause a massive shock at the competition.

Luis Suarez taking a penalty at the China Cup Luis Suarez taking a penalty at the China Cup

Switzerland

Switzerland have a very solid squad, and on the back of a fantastic qualifying campaign could prove to be very dangerous.

They boast the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Breel Embolo, Granit Xhaka and goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who alongside captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez provides quality in the Swiss defence.

They won nine of their 10 matches during qualification, only losing to Portugal in the final game which meant they had to go through the play-offs while the unbeaten Portuguese booked their place directly in the competition.

Vladimir Petkovic's side were drawn against Northern Ireland, and scraped through 1-0 on aggregate, with a highly controversial Rodriguez penalty proving enough.

They will be in Group E in Russia alongside hotly-fancied Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia, and open their campaign on June 17 in Rostov.

It will be a massive surprise if Brazil don't top the group, so Switzerland will be targeting two wins from the other games, and that is very achievable.

They will then run into another favourite for the tournament, Germany, if they finish in second place, so have a very difficult path.

They are dark horses, but with their capable squad and chance of group progression, anything can happen after that.

Xherdan Shaqiri will be a key man for Switzerland Xherdan Shaqiri will be a key man for Switzerland

Words: Johnny Morton

Images: PA

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