World Cup 2018 qualifiers: Which surprise nations could reach the finals?
Holly Thackeray | July 23, 2016
Fresh from rounding up what was truly the year of the underdog across sport, Coral turn the spotlight on this September, when World Cup 2018 qualifying begins for European teams.
After Iceland were just one of the dark horses to reach the Euro 2016 finals, winning legions of adoring fans along the way as they beat the odds to feature in France and impress there, we consider which countries could replicate that on the road to Russia.
British Isles sides bar England did their nations proud at the Euros but Scotland were the glaring omission having narrowly missed out – can they right that wrong ahead of Russia?
The tartan team have an easier pool on paper this time, with only the Three Lions, now under new boss Big Sam, looking a threat.
Gordan Strachan’s spirited side is peppered with Premier League, Scottish top-flight and Championship players that should be more than able to hold their own versus Slovakia who stuttered in France, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.
Scotland are, therefore, a real shout to be the latest Home Nations hero at 3/1 to qualify for the next World Cup.
Romania (3/1 to win their own Group E), illustrated with aplomb in Euro 2016 qualifying just what a clad iron defence can do for your chances, as they shut out then reigning champions Spain on their path to progression.
Greece are certainly in with a shout of doing something similar in Pool H, which they are priced at 15/2 to top. Belgium are the obvious and heavy favourites for supremacy, but the Pirate Ship can sink a Bosnia and Herzegovina contingent that boasts impressive names but has proven incredibly inconsistent.
Cyprus, Estonia and Gibraltar don’t have the pedigree to pull off a shock, but the Greek’s completed one of the most memorable before – when they won Euro 2012 as unfancied outsiders.
With Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos there is the base for another resistant rearguard.
Hungary (14/1 to scale the Pool B summit) were another like Iceland and Albania that were not expected to qualify for the Euros, though they did so by defeating play-off favourites Norway in both stubborn and spectacular style.
The Magyars more than did themselves justice in France before coming undone to Belgium in the last 16 and possess a talented gaggle of young-guns (defender Adam Lang, playmaker Laszlo Kleinheisler, deep conductor Adam Nagy) with a healthy mix of experienced cult heroes (skipper Balazs Dzsudzsak, midfielder Zoltan Gera and keeper Gabor Kiraly).
Euro 2016 champions Portugal were held to a thrilling 3-3 draw by heroic Hungary when they met in the pool stage and there’s no reason the Magyars cannot pinch points from the Navigators again. While, Switzerland are also fair game, as are potential cannon fodder the Faroe Islands, Andorra and Latvia.
Republic of Ireland
Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have intriguing chances of World Cup qualification after shining on the Euros stage.
Norn Iron are 7/1 to progress in a Pool C in which, after world champions Germany, their most realistic opposition is a Czech Republic team that flattered to deceive in Euro qualifying, as they followed it up with a slump in France.
Though, it is the Republic that look tastiest to reach Russia from Group D. At 3/1 just to qualify, their biggest rivals are a woefully out-of-form Austria and fellow British Isles boys Wales – with whom they hold an even head-to-head record of five wins apiece and three draws.
As for the pluckiest of underdogs themselves, Iceland are a 13/2 chance to carry the torch for sporting outsiders again by winning a fairly open Group I.
In France, punters were able to see first hand that Our Boys possessed both a fiery intent and ice cold composure in-line with their nation – the smallest to ever reach the Euro finals.
In their Pool the path to Russia is blocked only by favourites Croatia and, after the Nordic nation’s antics in crushing England and co, nothing is impossible.
While, if Iceland end up in search of a second place play-off route, they have already proven they can trounce other main rival Turkey, while ageing Ukraine were sub-par in the Euros, and Finland should pose little threat.
Speaking of Pool I, there is also a late inclusion to consider in Kosovo – a team only officially granted membership from UEFA and FIFA since May 2016.
So, if you’re looking for an underdog it doesn’t come much better than this. Regional rivals Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina may have already snapped up most of the talent in the multicultural area of southeastern Europe, but Kosovo’s contingent are not without merit.
The last squad contained many promising young players, including Hannover’s Valmir Sulejmani and Frankfurt’s Besar Halimi, while Manchester City starlet Bersant Celina has one goal in his three caps so far.
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