Minnows in Mother Russia

Minnows in Mother Russia

We’re on the eve of the World Cup and if you still don’t know about some of the smaller teams in this year’s competition now’s your chance to get clued up.


For a lot of us it’s all about Neymar’s Brazil, Messi’s Argentina or if Germany can be the first team to successfully retain their title in the modern era. Instead of focusing on the big boys it’s time to take a look at the minnows, to celebrate the underdog, and to shed light on some of the lesser known teams.
 

It’s not all about FIFA Rankings, in fact they don’t really reflect the true nature of international football, especially when you get further down the table. FIFA has slowly come to realise that, and just recently they decided to overhaul and revamp the whole system. It’s hard to single out a few teams, especially since the World Cup was enlarged once again and casts its net ever wider across the globe. Instead we’ve decided to focus on teams that perhaps have the least experience at the World Cup, and see what we can come to expect from them this summer.

Egypt

Despite being invited to the first inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, Egypt missed the boat (literally), only managing to make their first appearance three years later, closer to home in Italy. But despite this early affiliation with football’s biggest tournament, Egypt don’t seem like a standard fixture of the competition, and that’s because they’re not.

Egypt Factfile
  • Coach: Héctor Cúper
  • Star Man: Mohamed Salah
  • Nickname: The Nubian Pharaohs
  • Group: A
  • FIFA Ranking: 45 Previous appearances: 2
  • First appearance: 1934
  • Last appearance: 1990
  • Best Finish: Group stage

Egypt are appearing in their first final since 1990, largely due to star man and joint-top goal scorer in qualifying, the name on everyone’s lips at the moment – Mohamed Salah. Salah scored five goals including a last minute penalty in their final game against Congo to secure Egypt’s place in the finals. Egypt weren’t totally convincing in qualifying, losing one and drawing one but were rightly stand out favourites to go through. 

They’re drawn in Group A against hosts Russia, perennial overachievers Uruguay and bottom ranked Saudi Arabia. It’s fair to say that Egypt could’ve been handed a much tougher draw than what they’ve landed. It’s true that they’re up against a Uruguayuan team that came second in their South American qualifying group and have on-fire pairing Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez to contend with. But even with Russia having the advantage of the home crowd this time round, the Russian team appears so poor that the weight and pressure on them could be a hindrance if anything.

Regardless of if Salah can get himself back to fitness in time, manager Héctor Cúper will set them up defensively. Since taking on the task of revamping his Egypt side, Argentinian Cúper has tightened them up and prefers a 4-2-3-1 formations with two deep lying midfielders protecting the defence. Although Egypt are notoriously weak against set pieces, especially crosses, they’ll need to iron out those cracks, especially against Uruguay. 

Going out at the group stage is not an option, especially with Mo Salah in his prime

7 times Africa Cup of Nations winners Egypt have been dominant on home soil and they’ll want to impress on the world stage. If they start strongly against Uruguay they have a great chance of making the round of 16. If not they’ll have to pick it up in their remaining two games. Going out at the group stage is not an option, especially with Mo Salah in his prime.

Iceland

Hailing from the land of fire and ice, the Icelandic national football team have done anything but blow hot and cold over the last few years. Since former Sweden manager Lars Lagerback took over and miraculously managed to steer them to Euro 2016 they’ve never looked back. Nobody expected much from them in France in 2016 but they even made it out of their group towards the quarter finals, inflicting a shock defeat on England in the round of 16. Lagerback’s protégé and former full-time dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson has continued Iceland’s punching-above-their-weight status, sending them into their first World Cup Finals in their history.

Iceland Factfile
  • Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
  • Star Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
  • Nickname: Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys)
  • Group: D
  • Fifa Ranking: 22 Previous appearances: 0
  • First appearance: -
  • Last appearance: -
  • Best Finish: -

The boys from the north were put into a tough group for qualifying with the likes of Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine to successfully navigate. Although it wasn’t all smooth sailing, Iceland proved they weren’t just a fluke, and finished top of their group. Defeats against Croatia and even Finland have shown that Iceland are anything but perfect, but their hard working and team mentality has seen them put on a plane to Russia.

The question is – how long will we be doing the Viking Clap this summer?

Drawn into what is arguably the toughest group in the tournament, Iceland are pitted against three teams who have considerable experience at the World Cup in Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. The Icelanders won’t take much solace in an out-of-sorts Argentina team who struggled in qualifying when they see the team sheet. Where they can point to positives is their experience against a Croatian side they know better than most, and who they’ve already overcome once in qualifying. They’ll have to take three points from Nigeria if they’re to stand any chance of making it out of this one.

Hallgrimsson has proved himself more flexible than his mentor Lagerback, with Iceland moving between a 4-4-2 and tougher 4-5-1 against more capable teams. They don’t expect to make it out of the group this time round, but they’ll be celebrating it as a victory if they do. The question is – how long will we be doing the Viking Clap this summer?

Panama

Another team making their first appearance at a World Cup Finals are Panama. Arguably the weakest team in the tournament alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia. Nobody expects much from the Central Americans, but that won’t spoil their party. The Panamanians had one of the tightest qualifications out of any team in this year’s competition, sliding through on goal difference with only 5 goals between themselves and fourth placed Honduras.

Panama Factfile
  • Coach: Hernán Darío Gómez
  • Star Man: Luis Tejada
  • Nickname: Los Canaleros (The Canal Men)
  • Group: G
  • Fifa Ranking: 55 Previous appearances: 0
  • First appearance: -
  • Last appearance: -
  • Best Finish: -

The Canalmen drew more games than they won in their qualifying group, but they were key draws at that - against the USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Alongside victories against Costa Rica, Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, it was enough to see them through.

They'll find it difficult to get a winning result in their group, let alone getting out of it

Panama journeyed to Europe to add a boost to their World Cup preparations more recently, playing friendlies against unfamiliar opponents in Denmark and Switzerland. This experience will serve them well, and led to experiments with formations that have made them more flexible than before. Whether they can employ shifting tactics comfortably remains to be seen, and they'll find it difficult to get a winning result in their group, let alone getting out of it.  

Manager Hernán Darío Gómez will most likely setup defensively, attempting to frustrate the stronger nations of Belgium and England in their group matches. It will be up to their opponents’ attacking prowess to break that resolve if Panama can find the organisation and guile to make it work.

Senegal

For those too young to remember or with a less than optimal memory, they may be surprised to find out that Senegal have actually featured in the knockout stages of a World Cup once before. Senegal’s only appearance in the finals saw them make it to the quarter final stage. Senegal impressively navigated a group containing France, Uruguay and Denmark, finishing in second place. They then met Sweden in the round of 16, only to win after added time. They were only undone by a solitary goal from Turkey, making 2002 an extremely successful freshman campaign.

Senegal Factfile
  • Coach: Allio Cissé
  • Star Man: Sadio Mané
  • Nickname: The Lions of Teranga
  • Group: H
  • Fifa Ranking: 27 Previous appearances: 1
  • First appearance: 2002
  • Last appearance: 2002
  • Best Finish: Quarter Final

Senegal performed strongly in qualifying, topping the group undefeated with four wins and two draws. Many will point to the likes of star man Sadio Mané, who has impressed in the Premier League and Champions League alike this season. In reality Senegal had nine separate goal scorers over seven games in qualifying, proving that their goals can come from anywhere on the pitch. They’ll take much encouragement in knowing that fact.

Senegal have a genuinely impressive looking squad packed with talent

Out of all of our minnows Senegal have to be the most exciting prospect at this World Cup. Sure Egypt have Mohamed Salah, and Iceland and Panama have the fairy tale journeys to Russia woven into their backstory now, but Senegal have a genuinely impressive looking squad packed with talent. Aside from star man Mané, Senegal have Lazio central defender Kalidou Koulibaly, Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye, one-time Man United man and Stoke City forward Mame Biram Diouf, as well as rising talent and Barcelona academy throwaway Keita Baldé amongst their ranks.

Senegal will take much encouragement from a group containing no distinctive heavyweights. Paired against Poland, Colombia and Japan, Senegal do have a few tricky avenues to negotiate. Their manager Allio Cissé had his tactics repeatedly criticised in qualifying despite their finishing position but his players stuck behind him. If they continue to operate as a team there’s no reason why Senegal can’t be this year’s surprise outfit.

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