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World Cup 2022: Who could be dark horses in Qatar? Profiling Serbia, Poland, Senegal and more

The World Cup is nearly upon us and whilst esteemed colleague Ben Snowball has been looking at who will win and how the tournament might play out, this writer is taking a look at something a bit different.
After spending some time digging into who might be the surprise stars of the tournament we’re now looking at teams. Yes, it is dark horses o’clock!

Everyone loves a dark horse, often a feel-good team that strikes gold with a player(s), system or even just pure vibes. Every World Cup we see a host of big teams stutter and a smaller team come up and take advantage.

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So we’ve picked out six teams that we feel could be that surprise package. We’ve left out the obvious favourites plus 2018 dark horses Croatia, who aren’t really dark horses anymore.

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We start with Serbia and if there is one of these teams that we – this writer really – feel most confident about producing that Croatia-type jump, it is Serbia. And there is one primary reason why. It is often said that one of the keys to international football is not overthinking things and putting your best players in the best position possible for them to succeed. And that is exactly what manager Dragan Stojkovic does.

Stojkovic prefers what is in essence a 3-4-1-2 formation and by doing so he brings the best out of his key players. Ajax’s Dusan Tadic gets to play as a No. 10. In front of him are Dusan Vlahovic of Juventus and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic. Filip Kostic plays as a left wing-back, easily his best position – hey Max Allegri! Take notes! – and Lazio superstar Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is protected by Sasa Lukic to get forward and link up with the other attacking stars. His brother Vanja will start in goal. At the heart of the back three is Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenkovic, who should be starting for a Champions League team in the next twelve months such is his talent.

Much like Croatia, it feels as if many of Serbia’s players have taken a massive step forward all at the same time. They didn’t lose a game in qualifying, forcing the group’s highest ranked-team Portugal into the play-offs. Serbia drew 2-2 at home against Cristiano Ronaldo and co and took a 2-1 win back home with them from Lisbon in the crucial last game to book their place. Serbia are coming, are you ready?

Dusan Vlahovic e Nikola Milenkovic, Portogallo-Serbia 14/11/2021

Image credit: Getty Images


You remember how Senegal got here right? Yep that’s correct, it was that incredible blockbuster clash against Egypt that ended up level after two games and extra-time, having to be settled on penalties. Just over a month after beating the same opponent in the same way to lift the Africa Cup of Nations, Senegal had to do it all over again. This team has guts, make no mistake about it.

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They’ve also got stars, lots of them. The headline is of course Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane who will be there despite the injury scare he suffered just before the tournament. There’s also Kalidou Koulibaly, Ismaila Sarr and Edouard Mendy amongst others. Through the squad there is a wealth of experience at the very top level, these players have been there and done that, they are rightly the best Africa has to offer.

But yet, it always feels as if there’s a little bit more left. Watching Senegal is not always the most enjoyable experience and you do worry whether Aliou Cisse’s pragmatism might end up costing them in games they should win, such as their prospective group encounters against hosts Qatar and one of our other dark horses, Ecuador. It doesn’t really help either that Mane’s form for Bayern this season has been a bit hot and cold and now he finds himself half-injured. However if someone like Krepin Diatta or Boulaye Dia can really step up and take the pressure off him, Senegal might become a real handful.


Sadio Mane will be in the Senegal squad for the World Cup in Qatar.

Image credit: Getty Images

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Ah, Uruguay. Truly one of football’s miracle stories given the size of their population – under 3.5 million – in relation to the amount of sensational footballers they tend to produce. There is no squad at this World Cup that has such an interesting, and frankly unusual, collection of players, all at completely different stages of their careers. We have no idea how boss Diego Alonso is going to fit them all in.

The one thing we do know is that Fernando Muslera, he of 133 caps, will once more be in goal but after that? At centre-back Ronald Araujo looked nailed-on before a horrible injury so who starts now? Sebastian Coates has enjoyed a fabulous renaissance at Sporting CP so maybe he’s in? There’s Martin Caceres, now 35 but enjoying a surprising second wind in America with LA Galaxy. Diego Godin is still playing at the age of 36. We didn’t even mention Jose Maria Gimenez and his patchy form for Atletico Madrid.

Up front you have a similar problem. Darwin Nunez is the future but hasn’t started that well at Liverpool. Facundo Torres and Agustin Alvarez are also young but they’ve been excellent for Orlando City and Sassuolo this season. Edison Cavani is getting warm with Valencia and we can’t forget about Luis Suarez, title-winner with his boyhood club Nacional.

But all of that may not matter. Because at the time of writing they might just have the most in-form player in the world right now. Federico Valverde is currently on a tear so hot he’d make a Finnish sauna blush. There is almost no-one who is playing as well as Valverde and that might be enough. Never mind the headache you have about who plays alongside him – the current options are Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Lucas Torreira, Nicolas de la Cruz, Manu Urgarte, Mauro Arambarri and Cesar Araujo amongst others – just let Fede do his stuff. Uruguay’s talent is undeniable, and if Alonso can figure out how to use all of them, everyone else could be in a whole lot of trouble.

Federico Valverde (Real Madrid), buteur face au Barça

Image credit: Getty Images

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South Korea

If there was a tournament for Son Heung-min to absolutely take over, this is going to be the one – despite his eye socket fracture. At the age of 30, Son, whilst not having his best season for Spurs, should be at his absolute peak and he is perfectly placed to lead South Korea out of a group that contains Portugal, Ghana and fellow dark horse Uruguay. And do you want to know the best bit about it? He might have a new running mate.

Because it seems as if at long last Lee Kang-in might have finally put it all together. It did not work out at Valencia for a number of reasons but the move to Mallorca might well have saved his career. Paired with Kosovan target man Vedat Muriqi in Javier Aguirre’s 3-5-2, Lee has shone, taking full ownership of the team and becoming the primary creative hub. If he can play like that in Qatar and allow Son to focus purely on scoring goals and terrorising centre-backs, South Korea could be very dangerous.

It’s not just those two either. Kim Min-jae would be in contention for signing of the summer if it wasn’t for his illustrious Napoli team-mate Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, such have his performances been. Lee Jae-sung remains an excellent player for Mainz and Hwang In-beom is one of the more underrated midfielders around at the moment. There’s also Wolves’ striker Hwang Hee-chan and, whilst he’s been relegated to the bench for his club, Freiburg’s Jeong Woo-yeong will be a key figure whether he plays out wide or through the middle. Underestimate South Korea at your peril.

Heung-min Son

Image credit: Getty Images

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We were very close to putting Denmark here. But ultimately we felt that a Euro 2020 semi-finalist might be pushing the term dark horse a little too far. So instead we’ve gone for Poland, who remain a real worry for us at the back but might be an absolute joy when they go forward.

We’re still not 100% sure what Czeslaw Michniewicz will do when it comes to formation, but then again he’s only been in the job nine months, after Paulo Sousa decided to jump ship and join Flamengo just three months before the World Cup play-offs. For the most part Michniewicz prefers a 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation although against the Netherlands in June he randomly threw in a back four out of nowhere.

Regardless of the system the star of the show will be Robert Lewandowski, one of the greatest No. 9s we will ever see. We wouldn’t bet against seeing Lewandowski in 2026 given how well he looks after himself, so don’t assume it’s the last hurrah for him just yet. If there’s a two-striker system, Juventus’ Arkadiusz Milik should be the partner, but, to be honest, we prefer the 3-4-3 with Sebastian Szymanski (one of our names to watch players) and Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski playing behind him. That might be the path to causing the most destruction to the opposition with Roma’s Nicola Zalewski and Lens’ Przemyslaw Frankowski marauding from wing-back. Wojciech Szczesny remains a fine goalkeeper but whomever plays in the back three doesn’t exactly fill us with confidence, so that might be the one sticking point. But still, they’re going to be worth a watch.

Robert Lewandowski

Image credit: Getty Images


Last, but certainly not least, we come to Ecuador. A team who were nearly thrown out of the World Cup at one stage. Managed by Gustavo Alfaro they are a team without superstars – although there are one or two on the cusp – but rather a side who have benefited from a sudden golden generation, led in part by the revolutionary youth development work going on at Independiente del Valle.

It should be a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 for Ecuador and the strength of the team is undoubtedly the midfield. Moises Caicedo is developing into a bona fide superstar at Brighton and his partners Carlos Gruezo and Alan Franco are no slouches either. Plus Jose Cifuentes might be one of the best midfielders in the MLS. A move to Europe feels inevitable this winter.

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There’s promise at the back too. Piero Hincapie is a fine young defender and in Pervis Estupinan and Angelo Preciado there are two extremely exciting young full-backs. Keep an eye out for Moises Ramirez in goal, he’s going to be a steal for someone in January.

Moises Caicedo of Brighton and Hove Albion celebrates after scoring their second goal during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Leicester City at American Express Community Stadium on September 4, 2022 in Brighton, United Kingdom

Image credit: Getty Images

The worry is who is going to score the goals. Realistically it all rests on wily captain Enner Valencia, who boasts a very respectable record of 35 goals in 74 caps. Help will have to come from the wing and perhaps Gonzalo Plata (who at one stage was thought to be the jewel of this generation) if he can catch fire. His permanent move to Real Valladolid seems to have done wonders for his confidence. Or maybe Alfaro will give Brighton’s third Ecuadorian – Jeremy Sarmiento – a go and see if he can spring a surprise as a wildcard. Either way, this young team is a fantastic story and are going to be great fun to watch.

– – –

To celebrate the 2022 World Cup, we have launched our new bracket game, where you can give your predictions, challenge friends and create mini-leagues.

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