Every World Cup, there’s always at least one underdog team that exceeds expectations. Four years ago that team was Costa Rica. They finished the group stages on top of a group that included England and Italy, reached the quarter-finals and were eliminated by the Netherlands on penalties.
Four years before that, Ghana had a similar run before going out to Uruguay in a quarter-final, again on penalties.
Ghana did this as the sole African country to reach the knockout stage in the tournament held on their home continent. Clearly benefitting from familiar crowd support. Similarly, in Brazil, Costa Rica was an un-fancied Central American upstart facing European powers with strong domestic support.
Serbia can benefit from familiar surroundings
What I’m saying is, the tournament this year is being held in Russia, unfamiliar territory to most of the (non-Russian) players, even the other Europeans.
I think we can count out a deep Russian run, their domination of Saudi Arabia notwithstanding. For an underdog pick, I’d look at the other three Eastern European countries in the tournament that may get a boost if the Russians bow out. Poland, Croatia, and Serbia. Of the three, the best bet for an underdog pick this year is Serbia.
Solid core with a star on the rise
The Serbian starting eleven is well balanced with a blend of experience and quality. It’s studded with current and former English Premier League talent.
The back line includes Zenit St. Petersburg’s Branislav Ivanović, who’s won everything there is to win during his ten years at Chelsea. The captain is Alexandar Kolarov of Roma – former Manchester City stalwart.
The midfield is anchored by Manchester United’s Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević of Crystal Palace, who has an excellent two seasons there.
In attack, Newcastle United’s Aleksandar Mitrović who recently spurred Fulham on to a promotion to the Premier League on loan. In support of Mitrović is Southampton’s Dusan Tadić and Torino’s Adem Ljajić, both skilled passers and goal-scorers.
But Serbia’s possible breakout player this tournament, and the one who could turn out to be their difference maker is Lazio’s 23-year-old Sergej Milinković-Savić.
Reports are that he has agreed a deal to join Juventus this summer after an excellent season with the Roman club. He should slot into the Serbia side in front of Matić and Milivojević in midfield, and behind the attackers. His makeup is similar to Paul Pogba. Standing at 6’4” tall and physically imposing, he is a skillful dribbler, passer, and goal-scorer. Here’s a few of his highlights if you haven’t yet had a chance to see him play:
If I had to bet on a relatively un-fancied outsider to make waves in the next few weeks, it would be Serbia.