Every World Cup has what we would consider a dark horse, a team that isn’t expected to win or necessarily even get that far in the tournament, but goes on to shock the world. In 2010 it was Uruguay, Costa Rica in 2014, and in 2018 Croatia made it all the way to the final! Before predicting the five most likely dark horses in 2022, I need to set the ground rules. The team has to be either a Pot 3 or Pot 4 team, meaning there will be no Pot 2 teams on this list like the Netherlands or Uruguay or Croatia. All of these teams are ranked between eighteenth and thirty-eighth in the world rankings at the time in which the draw was made, meaning that none of these teams are considered to be amongst the top ten favourites to lift football’s ultimate prize. Now with that out of the way, here are five teams to look out for this World Cup!
The consensus pick at this tournament for best African side on paper, Senegal were desperately unlucky in 2018 to not reach the last sixteen, but look set to reach the knockout stage this time around. The Lions of Teranga go into the tournament as 2022 Africa Cup of Nations champions, having beaten the African powerhouse Egypt in the final, and then for the better of Egypt again in the third round playoff.
This is a very talented squad, filled with players applying their trade in Europe’s elite leagues. Leading the way is Bayern Munich striker Sadio Mané, the reigning African player of the year has plenty of big game experience with Liverpool and Bayern, he has thirty-four goals in ninety-three games for his country. Anchoring the defence is the Chelsea duo of centre back and 2019 Italian Serie A defender of the year Kalidou Koulibaly, and FIFA goalkeeper of the year Édouard Mendy. They also have plenty of quality in forward Ismaïla Sarr, midfielders Krépin Diatta, Idrissa Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Pape Guey.
Senegal are in group A with Netherlands, Qatar and Ecuador, a group they would expect to finish at least second in, and possibly first. Should Senegal finish second, they’ll likely (based off the seedings) face England – which would be a winnable game for Senegal, setting up a quarterfinal appearance since 2002. Should Senegal reach the last eight, there’s no telling what this teams limit is!
Serbia failed to qualify for the Euros in 2020, but have rebounded to reach their fourth World Cup since 2006 and they did it in dramatic fashion. Needing a win in Portugal, Serbia scored a last minute winner in Lisbon, meaning that they topped their group and qualified automatically for the 2022 World Cup ahead of a very talented Portuguese squad.
This is a highly talented team, especially up front. Juventus striker Dušan Vlahović is just twenty-two years old, and already has eight goals for his country, averaging a goal every two games. But even then, Vlahović is not the main attraction upfront, that honour goes to Serbian top scorer, Aleksandar Mitrović. Mitrović has fifty goals for his country including six already this colander year, the best World Cup teams have clinical strikers, and Serbia have two of them. Complimenting Vlahović and Mitrović is a talented core that includes Luka Jović, Nikola Milenković, Dušan Tadić, Filip Kostić and Nemanja Gudelj. Many of these players are coming into the World Cup in their late twenties and early thirties and are primed for a deep run in the competition.
Serbia are in a very open group that includes Brazil, Switzerland and Cameroon and while Brazil is a tough task, Serbia will expect to get at least six points in this group and will be confident in doing so. Providing they do that, (finish second in the group) they’ll face the winner of Group H which consists of Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana and South Korea, a collection of teams that Serbia will not be scared to play.
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It’s been sixty-four years since Wales were in the World Cup, but if you have paid attention to The Dragons over the last half decade or so, you know not to take them lightly. Wales made it out of the group stage at the two most recent UEFA European Championships, including a magical semi-final run in 2016. Desperately unlucky to miss out in 2018, this time round Wales survived the gauntlet of two single game knockout ties against Austria and Ukraine to reach their first World Cup since 1958.
A staple of the Welsh golden generation has been veterans Chris Gunter, Joe Allen, Ben Davies, Wayne Hennessey and the two X-Factor talents of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. Aaron Ramsey has been at times regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world and has played for big clubs such as Arsenal and Juventus. Bale meanwhile has been the talisman for Wales who lives for the big stage. Bale was made the most experience signing ever by Real Madrid in 2013 and he helped Los Blancos win four champions league titles and at his peak was regarded one of the best footballers on the planet. Ramsey and Bale are not the players they once were, but are both very capable of putting in quality performances for their country.
Helping the elder core are younger players Neco Williams, Daniel James, Harry Wilson, Ethan Ampadu and Joe Rodon, giving the team some much injected youth into the side to compliment the likes of Bale and Ramsey. Manager Rob Page is a very likeable figure who is able to motivate his side to rise to the big occasion. This will be key when they face England, a game considered to be a derby for the Welsh and will give the team extra motivation against the Groups top team. Their other Group B opponents are the USA and Iran, two teams that Wales know they can beat. Once out the group, we seen that in 2016 this Wales team can go on a deep run, and if Bale can bring his A-game to the tournament, they’ll be confident of doing it again.
Full disclosure, this is a bias pick, but not a delusional pick. I live in Canada and follow this team very closely, and while they have a very difficult group, it’s not an impossible group. Canada got to the World Cup by overcoming the odds, they went unbeaten in four games against the CONCACAF giants of the USA and Mexico, and have a core of players applying their trade across Europe. Winger Tajon Buchanan and central midfielder Stephen Eustáquio have both excelled in the Uefa Champions League this season, while striker Jonathan David is amongst the top scorers in Ligue 1 and seems destined to move to an elite club in Europe. But the most notable player for the Canucks is Bayern Munich left back Alphonso Davies, Davies possess electrifying speed and ball control and a world class ability to create chances. He may genuinely be one of the best left backs in the world, and perhaps one day might be considered the best.
Backing up those elite four are a number of talented players such as Milan Borjan, Cyle Larin, Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston and Canada’s potential breakout star of the tournament, Ismaël Koné. There is also the evergreen midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who at thirty nine will be one of the oldest ever players to make their World Cup debut (should he play).
Manager John Herdman has created a winning mentality into what was previously CONCACAF’s biggest underachiever, they have a solid core and very dangerous players. A strong start against Belgium is crucial, Belgium have ageing defenders and Canada have a lot of speed on their wings, if they can somehow contain Kevin De Bruyne, then they will face a fighting chance. Croatia will be tougher, but if they can give themselves a chance of the last sixteen against Morocco, this team will be happy. Once out of the group, the belief and momentum in this team will be amongst the highest of any team left in the tournament, and John Herdman will have his players, and an entire nation ready to believe they can go on a deep run.
Like Canada, this is a very good team in a very difficult group. If the draw was kinder, Japan would be considered an easy choice for the last sixteen, but they were very unfortunate to be drawn against the 2010 winners Spain, and the 2014 winners Germany, as well as 2014 quarterfinalists Costa Rica.
But this is a side considered to be the best in Asia, they topped a difficult World Cup qualifying group that included Austria and Saudi Arabia, and in 2018, they gave the eventual third place side Belgium a massive scare. Four years later, this is the best squad Japan has ever had, with the vast majority of the squad applying their football in top European leagues. Defenders Takehiro Tomiyasu, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo are key components in a tough to break down Japanese back line, and further upfield; Takumi Minamino, Daizen Maeda, Wataru Endo, Ritsu Dōan and Daichi Kamada give this Japan team plenty of talented players that can hurt teams.
It’s a testament to their ability that many people are reluctant to outright say both Germany and Spain will advance from the group, Japan is capable of getting at least a draw against either. Germany are somewhat of an unknown quantity after back to back tournament failures in 2018 and 2021, meanwhile Spain never seem to be set when it comes to having a goalscorer in the team which is always something that has the potential to hold them back. Should Japan defy the odds to reach the last sixteen, there is a strong possibility of once again facing Belgium in the last sixteen, and I’m sure the Japanese would love nothing more than to exercise the demons of 2018 and reach the last eight for the first time!
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