The 2014 World Cup is set to kick off in less than three weeks' time, when hosts Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo. The Croatians are one of many sleeper picks who have a real shot at upsetting one of the title favourites, but they are far from the only ones.
A total of 32 teams will be doing battle at the World Cup, and each team is deserving of their spot in the tournament. Underrating a single opponent can be lethal, as all teams had to work hard to make it to Brazil.
In this article we'll have a look at three teams who might not have a chance at winning the tournament, but who could play a massive role by eliminating one of the top teams.
At this point, the Red Devils seem to have outgrown the status of "sleeper" and are even being called contenders (or vastly overrated) by a multitude of pundits.
Odds Shark even has the team as the fifth favorites to become world champions, ridiculous odds for a young and inexperienced team that will be playing in its very first World Cup since 2002.
Looking at World Cup predictions, however, seemingly everyone foresees a similar pattern: Belgium will win Group H and run into Germany or Portugal in the Round of 16, ending its tournament. And that is a dangerous train of thought.
Portugal's biggest strength lies in its wing play, which disguises the fact that its midfield triangle isn't the most physical in the world. Germany meanwhile have serious injury concerns at the defensive midfielder position, as explained by Bundesliga expert Clark Whitney:
A year ago, seemed Germany would have WC's best DMs. Now Gündogan, both Benders out, Khedira & Basti recovering from injury. Repeat of 2010— Clark Whitney (@Mr_Bundesliga) May 23, 2014
Everyone likes to talk about Eden Hazard and his impact on the Red Devils, but the team's biggest strength lies in their central axis.
The midfield trio of ex-Standard Liege players—Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Defour (or even Moussa Dembele, depending on who starts)—boasts arguably more physicality than any similar triangle in the world, and its ability to win back the ball in a hurry and set up the attack is what makes Belgium such a dangerous team.
Germany's injuries and Portugal's reliance on wing play makes for a dream matchup for the Red Devils in the Round of 16, and the team would like nothing more than to have a shot at either team.
How people are still dismissing France as if they're a bunch of scrubs is beyond me. The French midfield is led by one of the most exciting talents in all of football in Paul Pogba, and Karim Benzema is the leading striker for Champions League winners Real Madrid.
Hugo Lloris is a solid presence in goal, and he has the likes of Patrice Evra, Raphael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala and Mamadou Sakho playing in front of him.
As for their wingers: I think most teams wouldn't mind fielding the duo of Franck Ribery and Antoine Griezmann.
They'll have to navigate a manageable group containing Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras, and while a slip in the group stages isn't out of the question, Les Bleus could be a very dangerous squad once they make it to the Round of 16.
Should Switzerland win Group E, a date with Argentina seems like a very real possibility for the French team. For all of their offensive firepower (Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, to name a few), the Argentine defense went largely untested during qualification.
Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina shouldn't trouble the team too much either, opening the door for complacency to do its thing. And with no one seemingly giving two cents for France's chances beyond the group stages, a Round of 16 meeting could turn into a nightmare scenario for Argentina.
No one is looking forward to playing Jorge Sampaoli and his Chile squad this summer, and a date with Brazil seems very likely if the Chileans can get past an always tricky Holland side.
The Brazilians are the heavy favorites to lift the World Cup at the end of the tournament, but their path to the final will not be easy. A group containing the aforementioned Croatians, Mexico and Cameroon is no cakewalk, particularly given the tremendous pressure the hosts will be under.
Chile, on the other hand, would come out of the group stages with no pressure whatsoever, and Sampaoli's team plays the kind of perfectly organized football that could trouble the Brazilians.
Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla are all great players, but Chile doesn't have to rely on its stars to make the difference. With no selfishness in the squad, the work rate of the Chilean players is simply incredible.
The two teams have a healthy rivalry going, as reported by FIFA's official website, and the possibility of a Round of 16 encounter with Brazil is something that will truly excite the Chileans.
Knocking out the Brazilians on their own turf would arguably be a bigger triumph for the team than medaling without ever facing the hosts, and people shouldn't sleep on it happening if Chile get the chance.