With one round of the World Cup in the books, let’s think about dark horses.
Back when it was just a racing phrase, the horses were real but the darkness was metaphorical. Dark horses were those about which the public knew little or nothing, had been kept in the dark. Is it fast? Is it slow? Is it going to stop and try to eat one of the fences? Is it secretly a donkey?
When it comes to football, it’s quite tricky to find such lightlessness. Almost every game is available to watch somewhere, and all the world’s best players are drawn to the bright lights of the Champions League. You have to go deep into the squads to find any unblogged shadows. And in any case, a “World Cup dark horse” has always meant something slightly different. Something more like:
An interesting and leftfield team that isn’t one of the favourites but could, under the right circumstances, do better at a World Cup than their history would suggest. Not win it, of course. The World Cup is never won by a dark horse. But many World Cup favourites are knocked out by dark horses, and this team could do that.
We reckon there are six such teams at Russia 2018, and we’re going to take a look at their running. But before we do, a note on Belgium. The original Red Devils have been controversially disqualified from this competition because, while they may appear to meet all the criteria outlined above, they are in fact not interesting. Not any more. You can’t stick Eden Hazard and Kevin Du Bruyne in the same team and then expect to surprise anybody.
Stretching out in the lead: Mexico
By beating the World Cup holders in the opening, Mexico have basically completed the Dark Horse game already. But the manner of their win suggests they can repeat the trick later in the tournament. This was a masterclass in identifying and exploiting the opposition’s weakness: in this case, the big hole behind an ambitious midfield, in front of a slowish defence. Decent players are always a problem. Decent players with a decent plan can be very dangerous indeed.
Coming up on the rails: Senegal
Group H — that stands for “hoo, buddy” — looked like a glorious mess before it got started, and now we’ve had some games it’s looking even better. We’ll touch on Colombia below, but for now: Senegal! Beyond the hilarious second goal, the most enjoyable aspect of their win over Poland was how effectively they shut down and played around the opposition, particularly in midfield. First they forced Poland to play out of their comfort zone, then they took advantage of their discombobulated brains.
The winner of Group H will play the runners up of Group G, and neither Belgium nor England will be looking forward to Senegal. Everybody else will though.
There are worse ways to begin a tournament than with an unimpressive win. And both Croatia and Uruguay did just that, notching up victories over Nigeria and Egypt respectively. We’ve stuck them in the middle of the pack here because there is, potentially, a lot more to come. Croatia’s smooth-as-silk midfield was hardly tested by the disappointing Nigerians, while Uruguay were defensively solid, and even occasionally dangerous, while carrying an out-of-sorts Luis Suarez. If they’ve managed to bring him back to reality, they’re going to be extremely hard to beat.
Charging off in the wrong direction: Colombia
Oh, Carlos Sanchez, you total and complete clown. Three minutes into a World Cup campaign, and you’ve gone and done that. We don’t think Colombia are completely screwed, because they actually looked pretty decent for a while, despite their numerical disadvantage, and if they can get James Rodriguez fit then they can do special things. But haven’t they made it difficult for themselves.
Stuck in the starting gates: Poland
As noted above, most of the credit needs to go to the excellent Senegal. Still, it’s probably worth mentioning Poland here, if only because they were really disappointing. On paper, theirs was an exciting plan: two proper wingers working to feed Robert Lewandowski. In practice, they found themselves wholly shut down, and ended up pumping increasingly desperate long balls towards their lonely-looking captain. Tear up your betting slips, and head to the bar.