The five surprise package teams to keep an eye on at the 2018 World Cup

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.

Costa Rica

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.

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Costa Rica twice beat USA in qualifying to secure a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. 

Egypt

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.”

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Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Haday celebrates his sides 2-1 win over Congo which sends Egypt to their first World Cup since 1990.

Nigeria

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.

Nigeria Celebrates
Nigeria qualified for the 2018 World Cup with a game to spare despite been drawn in the so-called ‘group of death.’

Panama

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.

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Panama’s Roman Torres celebrates with fans as the tiny central American country qualify for their first ever World Cup finals. 

South Korea

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.

South Korea Celebrates
Could South Korea and Tottenham winger Son Heung-min be the man to spur the Reds onto more success at the 2018 World Cup?

 

Comment below who you think will be the stand-out underdogs at the 2018 World Cup in Russia!!

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Premier League quartet after Bury youngsters

Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton are ready to swoop for defender Jordan Bedeau, 17, and forward Callum Styles, 16, who have both broken into League One side Bury’s first team this season, according to ESPN.

The pair are enjoying their first taste of consistent first team football action this campaign at Manchester based club Bury in League One.

Both Bedeau and Styles have broken into Bury’s first team in recent weeks and their emergence has put a number of the Premier League’s big guns on high alert.

Bedeau, a 17-year-old centre-back, has featured in Bury’s last six games, while forward Styles has started in the Shakers last three League One matches.

Last season Callum Styles made history when he became the first player born in the 21st century to play in the Football League when he came on for the last 15 minutes of their final game against Southend United. However the youngster was later embroiled in controversy as the Shakers were then deducted three points by the Football League authorities as Styles had not been properly registered by back room staff for the encounter.

With four of the biggest teams in the country already on the case, struggling Bury are bracing themselves for a double swoop for the pair and reluctantly admit that the youngsters will be moving up the football ladder in the near future.

All four Premier League sides sent scouts to watch the pair in their most recent League One match, a 3-1 loss at home to leaders Sheffield United.

Josh Cullen staying with the Bantams for the season

Bradford City have announced that on-loan West Ham United midfielder Josh Cullen will remain at the club for the rest of the season.

The West Ham youngster has spent the last season with the Bantams after originally joining on loan from the Hammers in February 2016. During that time Cullen has become a firm fan favourite at Valley Parade.

The 20 year old box to box midfielder recently voiced his desire to stay with the club for the remainder of the season.

Making 22 appearances for the club so far this term, the central midfielder has been a main stay in boss Stuart McCall’s starting XI during his stay with the West Yorkshire outfit. Despite only scoring on one occasion this term for the Bantams, his work ethic and desire on the pitch has seen him rise to be one of the best players  at the club.

The extension of the deal will further cover any additional matches Bradford City may play in the League One play-offs should they qualify come the end of the season.

In a short statement by the club, Bradford City admitted that they were “delighted to be able to confirm that midfielder Josh Cullen has extended his loan deal at the Northern Commercials Stadium from parent club West Ham United.”

Boss Stuart McCall stated after his sides 2-1 win at Northampton on Saturday that the deal to extend Cullen’s stay at the club was important. Speaking to media he added “We need to sort out Josh (Cullen’s loan) first but I’ll leave that up to the owners. I’m sure we’ll have meeting after meeting this week.”

Wednesday and Wolves share the spoils

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Att: 30,549

Sheffield Wednesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers played out an entertaining 0-0 draw at Hillsborough. Wolves will feel like they should have taken all three points though, hitting the post and bar and having a clear penalty appeal turned down. 

Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal made 5 changes coming into this match up with Wolves. Captain Glenn Loovens was a notably absentee, rested after the Owls New Years Eve draw away at Preston. Palmer, Pudil, Wallace and Nuhiu were the other ones to miss out with Hunt, Sasso, McManaman, Lee and Forestieri coming into the starting XI.

Callum McManaman, brought in on loan from Premier League side West Brom in the week made his first start for the club.

Wolves boss Paul Lambert too rang the changes with Connor Ronan, Joe Mason and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson coming into the starting line up for Ivan Cavaleiro, Bright Enobakhare and Nouha Dicko.

The first real chance of the match fell to the home side as Barry Bannan’s free kick was met by the head of centre back Vincent Sasso who saw his effort acrobatically’ tipped over the bar by Wolves ‘keeper Carl Ikeme.

Wolves had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down in the 16th minute as Joe Mason was brought down in the box but referee Simon Hooper decided the ball was played.

The Owls went close again soon enough as shot stopper Ikeme struggled to hold onto a deflected Steven Fletcher effort before blocking Fernando Forestieri’s on target rebound.

Wolves again had another strong penalty appeal turned down by referee Hooper as Westwood looked to have clearly felled Matt Doherty in the box. A decision that boss Paul Lambert clearly felt aggrieved by stating in his post-match press conference “how that wasn’t given was incredible – it was a stonewaller.”

Wanderers should have had the lead in the 40th minute. A cross clipped in from out wide saw a Jon Bodvarsson flick hitting the underside of the Wednesday cross bar. Joe Mason followed up but from just a few yards out managed to balloon his effort over the bar much to the delight of those Wednesday fans sat in the Kop. A possible miss of the season!!

The visitors started the second half brighter as Mason crashed a shot against the post from just outside the area after a mistake from Owls right back Jack Hunt.

Defender Matt Doherty also saw an effort blocked on the line by Wednesday defender Adam Reach as Wolves went in search of a goal to break the deadlock at Hillsborough early on in the second half.

Wednesday struggled to hold the ball for the first 20 minutes of the second half and looked void of any creativity as Wolves looked threatening. Joe Mason with another effort for the Wanderers after going through one on one with Westwood, the Wednesday stopper again thwarting the Midlands side forward.

The Owls had a huge penalty appeal of their own turned down in the 81st minute as Lucas Joao’s attempt was blocked by Wolves’ Richard Stearman, a decision that would have been harsh on the visitors due to Stearman’s close proximity to the Portuguese forward.

Neither side had any other notable chances in the last 10 minutes.

Wolves will feel like they should have left Hillsborough with all three points but Wednesday held on to leave the home side in 6th place and the play-offs whilst the visitors stay in 16th place in the table.

Man of the match: Connor Ronan

Connor Ronan, still only 18 and making his first start for the Midlands outfit, had an eye catching run out at Hillsborough. Always looking to get forward, the winger took on his man on several occasions and offered excitement for the travelling Wolves supporters.

Marc McNulty heads back to Bramall Lane

Forward Marc McNulty has left Valley Parade after Chris Wilder and Sheffield United activated the recall clause on his season long loan deal with the Bantams.

The forward, who was largely used as a back up option by Stuart McCall at Bradford, has being recalled by Wilder after Blades striker Leon Clarke suffered an injury over the New Years period.

The striker made 16 appearances for Bradford during his stay in West Yorkshire, starting 6 of those but only scored once during that time.

The departure of McNulty leaves City needing another striking option up front with fans voicing their displeasure at the lack of goal scoring by the Bantams so far this term.

The Owls win in a heated South Yorkshire derby

It was Sheffield Wednesday who took all three points during tonight’s feisty South Yorkshire derby at Hillsborough as they ran out 2-0 winners.

In front of a bumper crowd of 27,248 this match was evenly contested throughout. The Owls will be happy with their win but Barnsley will be disappointed not to have taken something from the contest.

Owls manager Carlos Carvalhal was delighted with the crucial win stating that the team played with heart and deserved the win against their Yorkshire counterparts. Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom stated “we’re disappointed with the result but satisfied with the performance.”

It was Barnsley who had the first big chance of the match in the 22nd minute as Kieran Westwood stopped a Tom Bradshaw shot as the forward was played through one-on-one with the keeper.

The Owls also came close soon after as forward Lucas Joao saw his glancing header flash just wide of the Tykes goal from a corner.

The Owls took the lead in the 37th minute through an owl goal and a moment to forgot for Barnsley centre back Angus McDonald. After some neat build up play out on the right Liam Palmers cross was met by the head of Joao. His effort was poked at by McDonald who saw his touch take the ball past goalkeeper Adam Davies

Josh Scowen had a headed effort that went close but in truth the first half largely failed to live up to expectations.

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Barnsley played well during the contest but didn’t take their chances as they lost 2-0 at Hillsborough.

It was Barnsley again who started the second half strongest and went close to grabbing an equaliser when Bradshaw saw his close range header held well by Westwood.

Wednesday should have doubled their lead soon after. Tom Lees missed a golden opportunity as he got on to the end of a corner that was floated in from the right but somehow skewed his shot wide when it looked easier to score.

The Owls did manage to double their lead eventually. Ross Wallace drifted in a corner which fell invitingly for Sam Hutchinson who saw his deflected shot fly past the hapless Davies.

The match heated up after the Owls doubled their advantage as controversy ensued. Tykes substitute Adam Hamill seemed to stamp on Wednesday scorer Hutchinson after a strong tackle with referee Peter Bankes giving the midfielder his marching orders. Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom and Wednesday coach Lee Bullen were also both sent to the stands after a confrontation on the sidelines after the sending off.

The Owls saw out the 2-0 victory in the later stages relatively comfortably as the Tykes started to tired. The win sees the Yorkshire club  stay in 6th place and the play-off places as Barnsley stay in 11th place in the Skybet championship table.

Panthers powerless to stop far superior Steelers

Known as the ‘biggest game in British ice hockey’, this fixture seriously lived up to its hugely hyped up pre-match billing as the two-time reigning champions Sheffield Steelers thrashed the Nottingham Panthers 8-1.

Mathieu Roy and Colton Fretter both scored twice for the Steelers with further strikes coming from Jesse Schultz, Robert Dowd and Ben O’Connor. Panthers captain Brad Moran scored with the consolation very late on.

In a physical confrontation it was the Steelers who made their time with the puck count most which left boss Paul Thompson delighted with the result, adding in his post-match press conference that “it was all very rewarding, very pleasing” despite the last second Panthers goal.

With over 8,000 fans packing into Sheffield Arena on Saturday evening, the battle between the Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers was one not to be missed. With the Steelers bang inform and two of the strongest rosters in the league going head-to-head the ice hockey on display from the Steelers in particular was amongst some of the finest you’ll see all season in the EIHL as they easily overpowered the Panthers. The Panthers were looking to stop the rot and obtain a win for the first time in their last five outings.

It was Nottingham’s early poor discipline that paved the way for the Steelers to take the lead as forward Robert Dowd redirected a powerful Christoffer Bjorklund shot from the point to give them the lead after 9 minutes whilst on the powerplay. Steelers fans only had to wait 25 seconds until the goal sirens were sounded again as Colton Fretter fired past Panthers goaltender Jindrich Pacl from close range.

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Colton Fretter celebrates his first tally of the night

Granted, the Panthers were without four players through injury and others on the ice were struggling on less than full fitness but they offered very little in the opening period of the match and found themselves 3-0 down going into the break as man of the match Mathieu Roy scored a rebound from a John Armstrong shot on goal.

Showing a worrying lack of team spirit in the first the Panthers were slow out of the blocks once again in the second period, struggling to hold the puck and possession confidently at any point on the night. As Steelers Davey Phillips put out a big hit on an opposing player, him and the Panthers Jeff Brown traded punches as Nottingham looked for a way back into the contest.

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Steelers Davey Phillips and Panthers Jeff Brown dropped gloves at the start of the second period

But it wasn’t to be as first Fretter struck again from close range before Roy also grabbed his second of the night with a sweet slapshot from mid-range.

If Panthers fans thought it couldn’t get any worse before the second period ended, they were wrong. Ben O’Connor this time taking advantage of more poor defending to score the goal of the night with a fantastic solo effort, taking on two Panthers before coolly slotting home. The Steelers were having a party and the Panthers weren’t invited.

The third period followed suit and saw the Steelers increase their lead to 8-0 thanks to a tip in from forward Jesse Schultz and an easy finish from Markus Nilsson who ghosted into the Panthers goal mouth and deked round keeper Pacl with alarming ease. There was a late consolation for captain Brad Moran and the Panthers in the final second of the game which ruined the home teams’ potential shut out but it did little to lift the embarrassment of the result for the away side, a team that are much, much better than how they performed on the night.

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Jesse Schultz redirected a shot from the point to put the Steelers 7-0 up.

Speaking to media after the match Sheffield Steelers boss Paul Thompson was quick to heap praise on his side as expected. “It’s two big points against our biggest rivals. It does make our heart smile tonight” whilst man of the match and ‘the king of Sheffield’ as he’s known by Sheffield fans Matheiu Roy added “we never stopped, we never looked back and we got the result.”

The win keeps the Steelers in 4th place in the EIHC, 7 points behind leaders Cardiff Devils but with 5 games in hand. The Panthers stay 5th place in the table and will want to quickly forget about their extremely poor showing at Sheffield Arena.

Photo credit: http://sheffieldsteelers.co.uk/steelers-8-1-panthers/