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The Sleepers To Watch In The World Cup Knockout Rounds

The World Cup is not traditionally the tournament for underdogs. The trophy has been lifted by just eight countries — and five of those have won multiple times. But there’s usually enough room for a few Cinderella stories to creep into the knockout phase: Bulgaria (1994), South Korea (2002) and Turkey (2002) were unexpected semifinalists, while Cameroon (1990), Ghana (2010) and Costa Rica (2014) crashed the quarterfinals. At least one country seems to do this every four years.

We see three teams that could fit the bill this summer. Before the tournament, each of them had no greater than a 3 percent chance of winning it all, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, but each has performed well so far and could make a strong run in the knockout rounds.

Croatia

3 percent chance pre-tournament to win it all, 7 percent now

As we noted in our preview of Group D, Croatia is blessed with an abundance of central midfield talent, most notably Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona. Getting the pair ticking together was the most important challenge for manager Zlatko Dalic coming into Russia.

The two started together as a double pivot in Croatia’s opening game against Nigeria, but the risk of playing two aging, attack-minded central midfielders is too great against teams with a potent counterattack — as Germany found out after fielding Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos together against Mexico. Dalic’s solution against better teams seems to be playing the pair in front of Marcelo Brozovic, who is comfortable taking care of the defensive duties, freeing up Modric and Rakitic to focus on the attack.

In its second game, Croatia comfortably outclassed Argentina — which employed an extremely high press to avoid playing through Croatia’s midfield. The Argentine press allowed Modric and Rakitic to become the focal point of Croatia’s counterattacks, feeding the ball quickly into their wingers, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic.

Both Modric and Rakitic scored in a victory that crystallized Croatia’s position as an underdog to watch this summer. Croatia should get a relatively easy matchup against Denmark in the Round of 16 and would be a tough out for any team after that.

Mexico

Less than 1 percent chance pre-tournament, 1 percent now

Mexico’s chances haven’t risen much, but that’s mainly because of how tight Group F is after Germany’s last-gasp winner against Sweden. Despite winning its first two matches, including beating the defending champions in the opener, El Tri has just a 72 percent of making it through the group right now, with its fate riding on the match with Sweden.

If it does make it through, Mexico has a pesky combination of compact defensive structure and electric counterattacking ability that will cause any big opposition real problems. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano is looking like this World Cup’s breakout star, with a goal and an assist in his first two appearances — no surprise to those who saw him help PSV Eindhoven to a title this season in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Offensive statistics per 90 minutes for Mexico’s Hirving Lozano with PSV in the Dutch Eredivisie, 2017-18

Rank
Goals 0.65 3
Assists 0.30 14
Shots 3.83 8
Open-play assists 1.45 23
Successful dribbles 2.34 26

Among attackers with a minimum of 800 minutes

Source: Football Whispers

The terrifying pace of Lozano, who is rumored to be a target of Barcelona, is complemented well by the positioning and hold-up play of Javier Hernandez, with the two combining for goals against both Germany and South Korea. Carlos Vela, meanwhile, has a relatively free role in the attack, drifting into pockets of space to get the ball and take men on.

If Mexico does manage to finish first in the group, it will probably have to play Switzerland, another team that has performed surprisingly well in Russia.

Switzerland

2 percent chance pre-tournament, 3 percent now

Twenty minutes into the opener against Brazil, when Philippe Coutinho scored a characteristically brilliant long-range goal for the Selecao, many had already written off Switzerland’s chances of getting anything from the game. But the underdogs rallied in the second half, grabbing an equalizer to frustrate the Brazilians and hold out for a crucial point.

Unlike other small teams, the Swiss press high and aggressively rather than waiting for their opposition to come to them: The team ranks second for possession regains in the attacking third of the pitch per game so far in Russia.

Possessions won per match in the attacking third of the field for 2018 World Cup teams, through June 24

team Possessions Won
Argentina 8.0
Switzerland 7.5
Belgium 7.5
Brazil 7.0
Serbia 6.0
Denmark 6.0
Russia 5.5
Spain 5.0
France 5.0
England 5.0

Source: Opta Sports

Against Serbia, Switzerland came from behind dramatically to snatch a victory. The Swiss now have a 96 percent chance of making the round of 16, despite a controversy over political celebrations that threatened to embroil the team: Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, who each scored a goal against Serbia, made eagle gestures referring to their Albanian Kosovar heritage,1 and team captain Stephan Lichtsteiner also made the gesture. Luckily for the Swiss, though, FIFA decided to fine rather than ban them.

Switzerland has a style of play that could cause serious problems for bigger teams — and is in the strongest position it has been to reach a quarterfinal for the first time since 1954.

Check out our latest World Cup predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country.

Bobby Gardiner is a product manager at Football Whispers. He writes about soccer through an analytical lens, with a particular interest in team tactics.

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