World Cup 2014: Dark horses step into the light

World Cup 2014: Dark horses step into the light
Defender Vincent Kompany (far left) and striker Romelu Lukaku.

The law of World Cup coverage dictates that any mention of Belgium must always be prefaced by a comment on their dark horse status. The shadowy thoroughbreds are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, but they are not alone. Here are the likely lads who could make a dramatic surge towards the spotlight...

BELGIUM

How often must a sporting underdog be referenced before it stops being a dark horse?

The Belgians are blessed with a genuine golden generation and arguably the easiest group in the World Cup. Any outcome other than comfortable progress into the knock-out stages could only be interpreted as a failure.

Despite missing out on major tournament qualification since 2002, Marc Wilmots' men positively swaggered into Brazil, winning eight from 10 and keeping six clean sheets.

For a nation not ranked among the major contenders, the Belgians are saddled with few weaknesses from front to back.

While the English struggle beyond Joe Hart, Wilmots can play Eeny, meeny, miny, moe with Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet.

The spine of the side is stuffed like a Christmas stocking with Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembele, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku, who knocked in a hat-trick during Belgium's recent 5-1 win over Luxembourg.

Mix that with the promise of Adnan Januzaj and the insouciance of some guy called Eden Hazard and the Belgians boast a steely resolve and a silky complexion to their attacking game.

Fullbacks are a little thin on the ground and there is a sense that a few players - Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli and Kevin de Bruyne - are not quite living up to their promise.

But, with a resolute 4-3-3, the Belgians are a strong bet to top Group H.

How far these dark horses canter depends on Hazard. Chelsea turned him into the Boy Wonder. The World Cup could make him a man.

FRANCE

The French have never quite found the middle ground. Their tournament pendulum swings from perfect to pitiful.

They failed to qualify in '94, won in '98, suffered a shameful first-round exit in '02, almost won in '06 and repeated the shameful first-round exit in South Africa. They are due a good one.

At the heart of Didier Deschamps' 4-3-3 formation, Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye are an ideal blend of improvisation and industry. Pogba and Cabaye were the ones who got away from the English Premier League.

Matuidi is the one who no one gets away from. His midfield dominance is Napoleonic; displaying a confidence and stature not witnessed in a France jersey since Patrick Vieira. But the other end of the pitch is marginally less dependable.

Hugo Lloris is a model of consistency; the four men ahead of him are less so. Deschamps isn't certain of his central-defensive pairing, while Patrice Evra's age and Mathieu Debuchy's erratic club season at Newcastle hardly make the fullbacks invulnerable.

However, Deschamps seemingly stumbled upon a winning attack in the 8-0 rout of Jamaica in their final friendly. With Franck Ribery out, Karim Benzema was thrown out to the left wing to support Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena.

By default or design, the switch was revelatory. Benzema and Giroud ruled on the same wavelength, allowing Valbuena to dictate proceedings around the right side of penalty box.

Both a wizard and a rabble-rouser, Ribery's loss is damaging but not disastrous. France have lost a fine individual player, but possibly gained a winning team.

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