Ahead of the big World Cup kick-off in Qatar, we take a look at the prospects of some of the more unfancied teams hoping to cause a stir at the tournament.
After an unforgettable tournament at the Euros last summer, bouncing back from the trauma of an opening game in which star player Christian Eriksen suffered a heart attack on the pitch to rally to the semi-finals stage, Denmark will be dreaming of comparable success at the Qatar World Cup.
Following up their strong Euros showing with an almost impeccable World Cup qualifying campaign which saw the Danes top their group, and continuing this form into the Nations League by beating World Cup holders France home and away, will go to this winter’s tournament with confidence
In Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark have a popular and charismatic manager who has elevated the national team to a new level. Since taking over in 2020, Hjulmand has assembled a very balanced-looking squad who are all extremely comfortable in possession.
Christian Eriksen remains the key cog, and his participation at the World Cup in Qatar just over a year on from his heart attack at the Euros will mark a special moment for the sport. The playmaker is still very much at the top of his game having enjoyed an impressive start to life at new club Manchester United in the Premier League.
Denmark’s other standout players include Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Andreas Christensen and Euros breakout star Joakim Maehle in defence, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in midfield and Kasper Dolberg up front in what is a squad without any real glaring weaknesses.
Although the Danes look in a good place heading into the World Cup, they are faced with a potentially difficult pathway in the knockout stages which could well be their undoing, with the likes of Argentina and Mexico possible round of 16 opponents.
However, their two victories against World Cup group opponents France in the Nations League has proven their capability of overcoming tough opposition. Having never progressed past the last 16 stage of a World Cup finals, this Denmark side may just have what it takes to change that.
Beaten World Cup finalists in Russia in 2018, this side have been able to hit unimaginable heights. Although members of that heroic team have now retired and other key personnel have entered the twilight of their career, the Croatians can be acknowledged to still possess a strong squad ahead of the Qatar Finals.
Talisman Luka Modric is still very much around, with the winner of the 2018 World Cup’s Golden Ball award and subsequent Ballon d’Or honour still playing at the highest level for Real Madrid. Alongside Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic and Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia’s midfield is undoubtedly one of the strongest heading to Qatar.
Croatia can also lay claim to having one of the best young defenders on show at the tournament, with 20-year-old RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol having been strongly linked with a big money summer transfer to Chelsea.
The Croatians will enter the World Cup on the back of very impressive form, too, topping a tough Nations League group alongside World Cup holders France, Denmark and Austria.
It would be a tough ask to replicate their success of four years ago in Russia, but it’s clear this Croatia outfit remain a force to be reckoned with and will fancy their chances once more.
As two-time winners of the competition, have a rich history in the World Cup finals. Quarter-finalists in Russia four years ago, La Celeste will have aspirations of going deep into the tournament again in Qatar.
They certainly have a squad capable of doing so, with a fearsome-looking striking pool including Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Darwin Nunez in their ranks. Although nearing the end of their careers, Suarez and Cavani are still tigerish competitors with the ability to cause any defence problems.
In Liverpool new man Nunez they have a striker capable of reaching similar heights in the game, with the Qatar Finals an opportunity to display his talents on the world stage.
As for Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde, Uruguay have a player who looks destined for a big tournament with the 24-year-old enjoying an outstanding start to the La Liga season.
With other distinguished personnel within the squad such as Atletico Madrid’s Jose Gimenez and Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo at the back, and Spurs’ Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield, the Uruguayans will undoubtedly provide a stern challenge for any opposition in Qatar.
Although Diego Alonso’s men have been drawn in a tricky-looking group alongside Portugal, Ghana and South Korea, they will still expect to progress through to the knockout rounds where anything can happen.
In star player Sadio Mane, Senegal have a bonafide world-class player with match-winning quality. It’s fair to say much responsibility will rest on the Bayern Munich man’s shoulders if they are to enjoy a successful tournament.
Senegal are captained by Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly, with Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and Watford’s Ismaila Sarr other players familiar to fans of English football.
After bizarrely missing out on qualification to the knockout rounds of the Russia World Cup four years ago via fair play points after finishing level with Japan, this Senegal squad will be desperate to progress through what appears a generous group this time in Qatar.
Drawn alongside the Netherlands, Ecuador and hosts Qatar, the Senegalese should have what it takes to progress through the group in at least second place.
This could allow this Senegal team to gather a level of momentum in the tournament which could propel them towards something special, such as becoming the first African team to ever reach the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Participating in their third World Cup as an independent country, Serbia have never progressed past the group stages of the tournament. The Eagles will be looking to change that this time around in Qatar, with an impressive crop of players assembled under manager Dragan Stojkovic.
Qualifying for the Qatar showpiece in dramatic fashion after a 90th-minute winner from Aleksandar Mitrovic against Portugal sealed top spot in their group in qualifying, continued their good form by topping their Nations League section to achieve promotion to League A this year.
It is in attack where Serbia’s quality stands out, with both Juventus hitman Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham goal hero Aleksandar Mitrovic at their disposal in what appears one of the deadliest strike forces in the tournament on paper.
Their squad can be observed to have a nice balance, too, with Messrs Mitrovic and Vlahovic supplied by the likes of Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ajax’s Dusan Tadic in midfield, and protected by Fiorentina’s impressive Nikola Milenkovic in defence, in a 3-5-2 formation.
With this level of talent in their ranks and following a strong run of results, this Serbian team will go to Qatar with belief of writing a new chapter in the country’s football history by successfully navigating the group stages and doing battle in the knockout rounds.
Reaching the round of 16 in each of the last two World Cups and the quarter-finals of last summer’s Euros after knocking out favourites France, are a football nation with a growing pedigree in major international tournaments.
This Swiss squad could be assessed as solid if not spectacular, with perhaps a dearth of real world-class match-winning talent balanced out by a lack of any glaring weaknesses in their ranks which makes them a difficult team to play against.
Switzerland’s most distinguished players can be recognised as captain Granit Xhaka of Arsenal, Manchester City’s new defensive powerhouse Manuel Akanji and Monaco forward Breel Embolo who shone at last summer’s Euros. Xherdan Shaqiri is also still a fixture of the side, with the 108-times capped Chicago Fire player having enjoyed a stellar international career to date.
Murat Yakin’s men represent a difficult proposition for any team, with their experience and strong spine making them a streetwise outfit. It is this experience and knowhow which could push them over the line in a difficult group alongside Brazil, Serbia and Cameroon and make a foray into the knockout rounds once more.
After missing out on the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018, the will be back with a point to prove on the international stage in Qatar. With qualification to the knockout rounds looking viable in a group alongside England, Wales and Iran, The Stars and Stripes will be aiming to cause a stir at this winter’s tournament.
It is fair to say this United States side is currently not of the same standard as previous cohorts which were able to reach the heights of the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 and round of 16 in 2010 and 2014, but it is a young group who have potential moving forwards.
Gregg Berhalter’s squad can be recognised as being largely comprised of players under the age of 25 who are still improving, with Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic the poster-boy. Other key men who will be central to the team’s success in Qatar include Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest, and Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams in midfield of Juventus and Leeds United respectively.
Within the USA’s ranks there are definitely young players with the ability of emerging as the tournament’s breakout stars, such as Giovanni Reyna of Borussia Dortmund and striker Ricardo Pepi on loan at Groningen in the Netherlands from German club Augsburg.
This lack of experience within the USA camp could prove decisive in what will be a pressurised environment in Qatar, with this tournament perhaps likely to represent a learning experience for future tournaments in which the team may be better placed to make a bigger impact. The talent is there, however, so don’t be surprised to see these young Americans catch fire in Qatar.