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Could we see a shock World Cup winner for the first time since 1954?

A number of pre-tournament favourites have struggled to live up to expectations in Russia.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

OF THE 26 matches at the 2018 World Cup so far, just seven have been won by more than a single goal.

There have already been 13 goals scored in the final 10 minutes, and seven of those have meaningfully influenced the outcome (i.e. winners or equalisers).

Based on the first round and a bit of games, there seems to be a consensus that an outstanding side has yet to emerge.

Teams cited pre-tournament as contenders have either dropped points (Brazil, Germany, Spain) or performed below expectations (France).

In general, the supposed weaker teams look better organised than ever, thereby explaining the multitude of tight matches.

It is also perhaps true that there is no standout team of the calibre of Spain circa 2008-2012 or even Germany four years ago.

Of course, that does not necessarily mean the powerhouses should be written off — 2010 winners Spain memorably lost their opening match 1-0 to Switzerland before triumphing, while in 2014, Germany could only draw their second match 2-2 with Ghana before going on to lift the trophy.

It’s hard to think of any instance of a previous winner who hasn’t at least stumbled along the way.

Yet perhaps what is surprising is the lack of a shock winner at the World Cup in recent memory — the Spanish in 2010 were the last first-time winners, and they were clearly the best team in the world at the time, having won the Euros two years previously and boasting an abundance of players with Europe’s top clubs.

Before that, France lifted the trophy for the first time in 1998 — they were hosting the competition and had a hugely talented team with arguably the best player in the world at the time (Zinedine Zidane).

You would arguably have to go all the way back to 1954 to find the last surprise winner, when an unseeded West Germany outfit beat a highly fancied Hungarian side 3-2 in the final.

In this year’s tournament, there are just four teams who are so far guaranteed a place in the knockout stages — Russia, Uruguay, France and Croatia, while only Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Peru and Costa Rica have been eliminated.

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Of the big teams, the progress of Germany, Argentina and even Brazil is looking far from certain. And if Iran play as well as they did against Spain the other night, they could cause Portugal serious problems in their final group game.

The Euros have shown that is entirely possible for an ordinary enough side to go all the way — underdogs Greece memorably prevailed in 2004, while few people were tipping Portugal to triumph two years ago.

Of the aforementioned four teams to have qualified for the knockout stages, only France have been talked of as genuine contenders.

Yet is it really so far fetched to think a perceived second-tier international side could be the team celebrating on 15 July?

Could Croatia maintain the excellence they showed against Argentina the other night and go all the way? Might Harry Kane inspire England to a first win since ’66? Will Luis Suarez guide the Uruguayans to an unlikely triumph?

Brazil and Spain remain the bookies favourites and it’s hard to argue that player-for-player, they are superior to everyone else in the tournament.

Yet player-for-player, Germany are better than Mexico, but it did not prevent an upset from occurring.

Once a team gets to the last-16, they are four games away from glory. Luck and other factors aside from talent can have a huge influence on tournament football in particular.

And given how close the games in Russia have been so far, a surprise seems more likely than ever.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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