Typically, every edition of the World Cup has one of those ‘banana skin’ fixtures in the group phase, where a plucky underdog turns the form guide – and the bookmakers’ odds – on their head to record a victory over a more illustrious opponent.
In 2014, you might just recall the Netherlands’ 5-1 hammering of Spain. The Spaniards were well fancied to go a long way in Brazil, and yet their campaign could not have gotten off to a worst start as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie both bagged braces for the Dutch. Spain were rattled, lost their next game 0-2 to Chile and were dumped out of the competition at the earliest possible point.
Elsewhere in 2014, who can forget Costa Rica topping Group D after humbling Italy and Uruguay, while Portugal’s failure to beat the USA cost them a place in the last 16.
Rewind four years to 2010 and the World Cup was held in sunny South Africa, where the hosts produced one of the greatest shocks in the tournament’s history by beating France, who had reached the final just four years earlier.
That ‘banana skin’ theme continued as Serbia beat Germany, Japan slayed Denmark and minnows New Zealand produced the performance of a lifetime to hold Italy to a 1-1 stalemate.
All of which got us thinking: are there any group games at World Cup 2018 that look likely to produce a shock result? Let’s have a gander:
Walk Like An Egyptian
Tournament hosts Russia kick proceedings off on Thursday against Saudi Arabia, and while you would expect them to get a positive result there it is their second match against Egypt where a potential banana skin awaits.
The Russians haven’t won a competitive match since 2015 – an extraordinary statistic, and their much-hyped dress rehearsal for the World Cup, 2017’s Confederations Cup, ended in disaster when they were eliminated at the group stage.
Their supporters were rather voluble when voicing their discontent, particularly after such a poor showing at Euro 2016, and you would expect that passion to spill over once more should the Russians fail to start this competition well. The absence of key man, Aleksandar Kokorin, won’t help on that front.
Egypt, on the other hand, are progressing well under Hector Cuper. In Mo Salah, when fit, they possess a player who can win any game with a single moment of magic, and yet there are others with quality in their squad too. Mohamed Elneny showed up really well for Arsenal towards the end of the Premier League campaign, while dashing winger Ramadan Sobhi is also highly fancied. Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr will provide a physical central defensive partnership, and like all Cuper sides the Egyptians will be well organised, balanced and tough to break down.
And so at quotes of 16/5 (Betfair) to win the match and 9/5 (Betfair) in the Draw No Bet market, Egypt are a great price to serve up some home truths to the World Cup hosts.
Peru Can Muzzle Great Danes
Denmark’s reliance on Tottenham ace Christian Eriksen is such that if the midfield maestro has an off day, his side really could struggle.
For context, 12 of the Danes’ 20 goals in qualifying were scored by Eriksen and his midfield sidekick Tom Delaney, and that highlights how badly they are crying out for a top-level striker. If opportunities are created, but not taken, then shock results can happen.
We’re willing to doff our cap to any team that makes it through the tough South American section of qualifying, and Peru did exactly that, albeit via a play-off. But the bigger picture shows a side who bested Copa America champions Chile on goal difference and finished just two points behind Lionel Messi’s Argentina, so the Peruvians are clearly no mugs.
Indeed, they beat many peoples’ dark horses for the World Cup, Uruguay, in qualifying, and with pivotal frontman Paolo Guerrero back after his drugs ban was overturned, the South Americans may fancy the job of springing a surprise or two in Russia.
The Icemen Cometh Again
Occasionally, the job of the humble punter in digging out betting value is made easier by the short memories of the bookmakers.
England fans won’t forget the exploits of Iceland at Euro 2016 in a hurry, and the Scandinavians fully deserved their quarter-final appearance.
Was that a flash in the pan for a nation playing in their first major tournament? Absolutely not; the Icelanders topped their World Cup qualification group too….a group which also contained Croatia.
The two meet on June 26 in a Group D clash, and it is rather baffling to see them available at a huge price of 4/1 (Coral and Ladbrokes) to beat the Croatians once again.
Have Croatia become all-conquering overnight? They have some excellent players on paper, but flattered to deceive at Euro 2016 and haven’t gone beyond the group stage of a World Cup in 20 years.
Iceland play with no fear, and at 11/10 (bet365) to win or draw neither should punters.
Beasts from the East
Their run to the last eight of the World Cup in 2014 was one of the most eye-catching performances of the tournament, but there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then for Colombia.
A supremely talented bunch all the same, James Rodriguez is not a fearless 22-year-old anymore and Radamel Falcao, at 32, is perhaps past his best and arrives in Russia on the back of a rather so-so campaign for Monaco.
The Colombians qualified from the South American section but didn’t beat any of the top four sides, instead needing to beat Bolivia and Ecuador home and away to secure the necessary points. As a nation they have only played one World Cup on European soil, and that ended in group stage failure.
Poland’s proximity to Russia ensures they will have plenty of supporters at their matches, and they look to have the ideal set-up for knockout football success: a solid, hard-working side with a frontman in Robert Lewandowski who doesn’t require a second invitation to find the net.
They impressed in qualifying too, and it’s a surprise not to see them priced at nearer the even money mark to beat the Colombians.
Never mind, we’ll tuck into the 23/10 (Betfair) readily available.
Written by Craig Simpkin
A sports journalist with a smorgasbord of experience writing for a variety of publications, Craig is a Leicester fan hoping that England can also achieve the impossible this summer.