The wait is finally over and the 2018 FIFA World Cup is set to begin this Thursday. The host nation, Russia, will kick-off the tournament playing against Saudi Arabia, in a game that will feature the two lowest-ranked teams in the FIFA ranking going toe-to-toe.
That game shouldn’t cause the world to stop, however, as there are several other teams that are worth watching more than Russia or Saudi Arabia. And even though most football fans will keep an eye on the usual suspects such as Brazil, Germany, France, Spain and Argentina, we have decided to go one step further. And here are four teams that are definitively worth watching during the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup group stage.
Let’s keep in mind that Morocco might not be a sexy alternative to make it out of the Group Stage. After all, the African side got squared in a tough Group B alongside Spain, Portugal, and Iran. However, if there is one team that have enough talent and experience to pull the upset and make it out of a tough Group as this one, that’s Morocco. They already showed their defence will be incredibly hard to break down during the final stage of the African World Cup Qualifiers, since they did not concede A SINGLE GOAL during their final six matches. Yes, you read that right. They went six straight games – against Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali – with a clean sheet. And to make things even better, they have not lost in more than 12 months, going 18 games (W14, D4) undefeated.
Arguably, Morocco’s biggest star is Juventus’ centre-back Mehdi Benatia, but they have lots of other interesting pieces worth checking out as well. There is Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, one of the most underrated wingers in Europe and a player that can change the momentum of a game with only a few touches in the final third. There is striker Khalid Boutaib, who has seven goals with the Moroccan side and could earn a start upfront. And there is Hakim Ziyech, who will join Ajax after the World Cup. Definitively that sounds like a team loaded with talent, and one that could easily turn more than a few heads on Russian soil.
Peru had to work harder than expected to reach the 2018 World Cup Group Stage, although their qualification was indeed a surprise considering they left Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador out of the tournament. Los Incas finished in fifth place of the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers and later topped New Zealand on an inter-continental Playoff Round to secure their spot on Russia. As a result, Ricardo Gareca’s men will play in Group C alongside France, one of the main candidates to win the title, Australia and Denmark. These two teams also reached the World Cup while going through exhaustive Playoff rounds.
One could think that Peru will battle with Australia and Denmark for the second place… but those who say that, clearly have not seen Peru play. Los Incas are going through an impressive undefeated streak, and the numbers do not lie: 15 straight games undefeated (W10, D5), have not lost since November 2016, and a couple of impressive performances in the build-up to Russia that included wins over the likes of Croatia, Iceland and a draw against Sweden.
As if that wasn’t enough, Peru will also have Paolo Guerrero on the squad, as the Flamengo striker received permission to play in the tournament. His sole presence makes Peru an even more dangerous side. And considering how good they have been over the past 18 months, there is no reason to think they can’t pull a few upsets along the way.
Out of the three teams listed here, Croatia have the bigger chance to perform a deep run in the tournament. It only takes a look at their current squad to see why they are one of the most underrated teams in the world. With a stellar trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic in midfield, as well as names such as Ivan Perisic and Mario Manduzkic upfront, Croatia should inspire fear in basically any team in the world. They have enough talent to pull more than a few upsets along the way, and several experts view them as a potential darkhorse, just like they were in France 98 when they finished in third place.
Croatia are in Group D alongside Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, a zone that many experts consider to be the “Group Of Death” given the fact that easily any of the four teams could come out alive into the knockout stages. Even though Argentina appear to be favourite on paper, no one should sleep on Croatia. They destroyed Greece during the World Cup UEFA Playoff Round, and maintain the core that has been so successful over the past few years. At the very least, they are a team to watch going forward. Win or lose, they will undoubtedly give neutral football fans something to cheer for.
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