With qualification drawing to a close for next year’s finals in Russia we take a look at five of the ‘underdog’ teams that could cause an upset or two at the 2018 World Cup.
Despite having a population of under 5 million and struggling with injuries during their qualification process, Costa Rica have made it to their fourth World Cup finals after easily gaining an automatic place for the 2018 Russian World Cup.
With 4 wins, including a 4-0 humbling of USA, and 4 draws in qualifying Costa Rica will look forward to next summer and will be plotting to cause more upsets when they visit the next World Cup in Russia.
Los Ticos boast a fantastic record at World Cup finals with an impressive 5 wins and 4 draws from 15 matches and most recently reached the quarter finals of the competition in Brazil in 2014 much to the dismay of English supporters everywhere.
With captain and former Fulham midfielder Bryan Ruiz leading the small central American side the Costa Ricans look dangerous in attack, finishing their CONCACAF campaign with the second best goal difference behind eventual winners Mexico.
Other players to look out for include Arsenal’s former winger Joel Campbell, Real Madrid shot stopper Keylor Navas and San Jose Earthquakes striker Marco Ureña who will all be looking to help their side get out of the group stages again at another World Cup finals.
The scenes when a late Mohamed Salah penalty sealed Egypt’s passage to the 2018 World Cup were incredible. The well-known African country are still celebrating as their side have qualified for their first World Cup finals since Italy 1990.
Yet to ever win a match at the World Cup, The Pharaohs will be itching to set the record straight during the 2018 finals in Russia.
Egypt came through qualification in great form. Winning 4 of the 5 matches they have played so far, the Egyptians have qualified with a game to spare as they brushed aside Uganda and Ghana with impressive ease.
Star man Mohamed Salah is the leading goal scorer in African qualification this campaign too as he heads into the final match versus Ghana with five goals already to his name.
But it’s not just their speedy and tricky winger who could cause problems for their opposition in Russia next summer.
Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi and Braga’s Koka could be ones to watch going forward whilst 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Haday and centre backs Ahmed Fathy and Ahmed Hegazi add much needed experience to the Pharoahs likely final 23-man squad.
Manager Hector Cuper is already talking up his side too, stating to media after their dramatic win over Congo, “our aim to reach the second stage in the World Cup.”
The Super Eagles are back again for the 2018 World Cup and are looking like a force to be reckoned with.
After a massively successful qualifying campaign which has seen them amass 4 wins and 1 draw out of 5 matches so far in the so-called ‘group of death’ in Africa, Nigeria could prove to be a tough draw in Russia next summer. Thanks to a 4-0 dismantling job of Cameroon and a huge 3-1 win against top ranked African side Algeria, Nigeria have qualified with a match to spare.
But despite being somewhat underdogs in Russia next summer, former international Seyi Olofinjana believes Nigeria should target the quarter-finals at the 2018 World Cup.
“We’ve been to a few World Cups in recent years, and we need to be looking at progressing further – rather than crashing out in the early stages,” Olofinjana told BBC Sport.
”I think the country should be looking at perhaps the quarter-finals,” added the former Nigerian midfielder.
This is only the sixth time the Super Eagles have reached the World Cup finals and on their five previous occasions their highest finish came in USA ’94 where they were unlucky to be knocked out by eventual finalists Italy 2-1 after extra time in the round of 16.
Nigeria will be looking towards their frontline to deliver the goods when they visit Russia next year.
With Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho all likely to be called into the final 23-man squad, Nigeria will be looking to use their attacking line as their best form of defence during the 2018 World Cup.
With the help of a phantom goal in their final CONCACAF qualifier against Costa Rica and the USA’s inability to beat lowly Trinidad & Tobago, Panama have finally made it to their first ever World Cup finals in Russia 2018.
Despite some luck in their final match up with Costa Rica, Panama have the potential to ruffle a few feathers when they make their debut at international footballs top level in the summer. With a blend of vast international experience, some talented younger players and a ‘nothing to lose’ sort of attitude, Panama could prove to be an unlikely stumbling block for some bigger teams next summer.
For their two crucial qualifiers against the US and Costa Rica this month, Panama boasted five internationals with over 100 caps each and currently have their top 7 most capped players and top 2 all-time goal scorers available for call-up and selection.
Granted the small central American country is perhaps more well-known for its world-famous canal but this group of players have cemented their place in Panama’s sporting history and will be looking to build on that in 2018.
Los Canaleros (the canal men to both me and you) didn’t have the best qualification campaign in terms of quality going forward as they only scored 9 goals in 10 matches but defensively Panama looked solid. Despite a pummelling in Orlando where the US ran out 4-0 victors, Hernan Gomez’s side only conceded 10 goals in 10 qualifying matches.
Panama will have to rely on no nonsense defender Roman Torres to steady the ship in Russia 2018. The centre back who currently plays for MLS side Seattle Sounders has 105 caps for his country and his experience at the back will be invaluable if the minnows want to escape the group stages next summer.
South Korea are certainly well-known on the international football stage, mostly thanks to their 4th place World Cup finish in 2002, but will come into the 2018 World Cup on the back of a mediocre qualifying campaign by their own usual high standards.
In the first group stage of Asian qualification the Taegeuk Warriors unsurprisingly breezed past lesser opposition in the form of Lebanon and Myanmar among others but struggled in the second round of the campaign narrowly beating Syria and China for automatic qualification for Russia 2018.
Regardless, South Korea are Asia’s most capped team in the form of World Cup appearances with 2018 being the tenth time the Reds have made the World Cup group stages. Maybe a surprising statistic to some, South Korea have now qualified for the last nine World Cups in a row, a feat to be proud of.
Unfortunately, the Reds have largely struggled during their previous World Cup campaigns. Of their previous nine visits, they have only made it out of the group stages on two occasions and overall have only won five matches out of a possible 31 World Cup matchups.
However, their 2018 campaign could prove to be a successful one if their key players hit form in time for the tournament.
Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is the countries stand out player and has enjoyed a largely successful qualification process in an individual sense. The winger has now amassed 59 caps and 18 goals for the Taegeuk Warriors and will be a major threat to opposition in Russia next summer.
Captain and Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng will also have to be on-form if South Korea are to get out of the group stages and compete in the knockout rounds of the 2018 World Cup.
Comment below who you think will be the stand-out underdogs at the 2018 World Cup in Russia!!