Five early upsets that could shape tour­na­ment

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS / 2018 WORLD CUP - Martin Rogers

The ul­ti­mate win­ner of the World Cup usu­ally comes from one of a hand­ful of elite teams with a long his­tory of suc­cess, yet each tour­na­ment in­evitably fea­tures a few early upsets that no one could have pre­dicted.

While many of the usual sus­pects look to be in a ruth­less mood again, ex­pe­ri­ence tells us the ex­perts will be shak­ing their heads at some of the out­comes in the open­ing group stage over the com­ing weeks.

We take a look at games in which the up­set radar could start flick­er­ing, caus­ing ner­vous mo­ments for tra­di­tional pow­ers.

Brazil hasn’t lost a group game at the World Cup for 20 years and hasn’t come par­tic­u­larly close to it, ei­ther. But Switzer­land won nine in a row to be­gin its qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign and sur­vived a Euro­pean play­off. The Swiss up­set a seem­ingly un­beat­able team by knock­ing off Spain in 2010. It will go in as a mas­sive un­der­dog but might have more of a chance than the odds­mak­ers sug­gest.

The English pub­lic cel­e­brated the out­come of the draw in De­cem­ber and con­fi­dently ex­pects easy pas­sage to the knock­out rounds. That might be pre­ma­ture, as Tu­nisia has the smarts to slow the tempo of the game and cause trou­ble. As Eng­land showed in los­ing to Ice­land at Euro 2016, it doesn’t han­dle pres­sure, a tight de­fense and a fiercely de­ter­mined op­po­nent very well.

Poland was one of the seven (plus host Rus­sia) seeded teams for the tour­na­ment, but hold on a sec­ond.

It con­ceded more goals than any other Euro­pean qual­i­fy­ing group win­ner and never looked spec­tac­u­lar de­spite mak­ing the quar­ter­fi­nals of the 2016 Eu­ros.

For Sene­gal, Kali­dou Koulibaly is the star of a stout de­fense, while Liver­pool’s Sa­dio Mane has the abil­ity to break down any team.

The per­cep­tion that Germany never slips up dur­ing the group stage is fair, and the reign­ing cham­pion won its first game of the tour­na­ment the last four times, scor­ing 20 goals in the process. The sec­ond game some­times brings wob­bles, though, a draw with Ghana last time and de­feat to Ser­bia in 2010. Sweden is re­silient, beat­ing Italy in a play­off to qual­ify, and Bun­desliga star Emil Forsberg will have a point to prove.

Nige­ria is ar­guably the strong­est of the African teams and has the phys­i­cal­ity to match up against any­one. The Su­per Ea­gles faced Argentina four years ago and nar­rowly went down 3-2 but qual­i­fied for the last 16 any­way. A re­cent friendly, al­beit with­out some of Argentina’s top stars, went com­pre­hen­sively Nige­ria’s way. If Argentina al­ready has a top two spot in the group wrapped up by the time the teams meet, the prospect of an up­set is even more likely.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/ AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Emil Forsberg (left) is a force for Sweden.

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