Belgium, France and Chile: Underestimate them at your peril

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With just a few days to go before they contest the opening game of the 2014 World Cup, Brazil are favourites to regain the title they claimed for a record fifth time 12 years ago. The next best odds are with Le Seleção’s rivals Argentina, closely followed by Germany and reigning-champions Spain.

Whilst these heavy weights of the international game are likely to be involved in the latter stages of the tournament though, there remain a number of dark horses that could determine the destination of the coveted trophy. Marc Wilmot’s Belgium come in to the tournament on the back of an unbeaten qualifying campaign and are priced at 18/1 to win the World Cup. Despite being considered outsiders, they will not let the bookmakers’ estimations stymie their exertions. Appearing on this stage for the first time since 2002, the Red Devils could well repeat the feat of finishing fourth as they did in 1986 and possess a squad bristling with pedigree from back to front.

Thibaut Courtois has impressed at club level since making his Genk debut in 2009, whilst the defence is marshalled by their ever impressive Captain, Vincent Kompany. Joined at the back by North London duo Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Verthonghen, the Belgians have a strong foundation on which to build. Further forward, despite enduring an indifferent season, Marouane Fellaini will accompany Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembélé in an athletic midfield that will out-compete those of their Group H adversaries.    Wilmot’s side boast an array of potent attacking options that will surely strike fear in to their initial opponents’ defences too. Chelsea pair Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku enjoyed excellent campaigns in England’s top-flight and will have Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Adnan Januzaj in support. Progression from a pool containing Algeria, Russia and South Korea looks likely and although they might meet a Cristiano-Ronaldo-inspired-Portugal in the next round, Belgium could well go far.

Elsewhere, France may have won the tournament on home soil in 1998 but they too can be deemed dark horses heading in to their opening game against Honduras, having required a two-legged play-off victory over Ukraine to reach Brazil. Didier Deschamps, their captain in that World Cup triumph and at the European Championships two years later, faces the task of blending a squad that contains youth and experience in equal measure. Captain Hugo Lloris may be prone to rash decisions, but there is no doubting his quality, whilst the defence contains seasoned Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, as well as promising Eliaquim Mangala and Raphaël Varane. PSG’s Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi offer the disciplined approach that will allow the likes of Paul Pogba, Franck Ribéry and Mathieu Valbuena to roam at will and although Karim Benzema is perhaps profligate, he will have more than enough chances to put their Group E opponents to the sword. Deschamps’ decision to leave Samir Nasri out in the cold drew widespread consternation, but there is sense in his assertion that, “I built the best squad, I did not pick the 23 best French players”.

Runners-up to Italy in 2006, Les Bleus will surely not repeat the performances that saw them exit at the group stage in 2002 and 2010 and a round of sixteen tie against Bosnia and Herzegovina offers the real hope of a subsequent quarter-final appearance. Aside from the prospect of a surprise European showing, Chile have the potential to equal the feats of their more illustrious South American rivals. After finishing third in the CONMEBOL qualifying section, La Roja immediately set their sights on improving upon their tenth place finish in South Africa four years ago and with Jorge Sampaoli at the helm, they have reason for optimism. The 54 year old adopts a similar philosophy to former Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa and his side will undoubtedly cause problems for Australia, Holland and Spain in Group B.

Much hope will rest upon the shoulders of Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez, though he is joined in attack by players with equally devastating pace and trickery. In midfield, Arturo Vidal is an injury concern ahead of the tournament but, if fit, he too will be an essential element of any Chilean success along with Juventus team-mate Mauricio Isla and Cardiff City’s Gary Medel. Although they are unlikely to topple the reigning World Champions and win the group, Sampaoli’s team will deem Holland’s period of defensive transition as an opportunity they are capable of seizing upon. The prospect of facing hosts Brazil in the first knock-out round would faze many international sides but, given the propensity for football to throw up unexpected results, the side ranked thirteenth in the world would take their place in the last 16 with relish and could even serve up the shock of the tournament on June 28th.

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