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May 27, 2014

Top 5 dark-horse contenders at WC

Can Luka Modric and Croatia make a deep run at the 2014 World Cup?

This summer's World Cup boasts as deep a field of competitive teams as there has been in recent memory; many of the world's conventional powers will be fielding exceptionally strong teams in the tournament. Previous World Cup winners Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, France, England and Italy are all expected to play a significant role in the knockout rounds, while perpetual late-round teams such as Portugal and the Netherlands are also expected to impress.

At the same time, individual play in the 2013-14 domestic seasons combined with World Cup qualifying results in various regions have established an interesting group of dark-horse contenders. These dark horses extend beyond a country like Belgium -- which recently has cultivated so many individual stars that its lack of relative team success appears to be irrelevant -- to a group of lesser-known individuals and teams that could pose a real threat to an established football nation if they advance past the group stages.

Based on the past 18 months, here are five teams that I believe are under-the-radar contenders heading into Brazil; all are poised to shake things up in the group stages and early knockout rounds.

1. Croatia

Croatia has not reached the final 16 of the World Cup since 1998, but based on the balance and pedigree of its current team, there is a fair amount of expectation that it can advance out of Group A (Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon) and potentially make some noise in the later rounds.

One of the hardest issues in assembling a national team is the fact that the best players often play similar roles with their club teams, and therefore managers must make tactical adjustments to keep everyone on the field at the same time. This is not really the case in Croatia's midfield, as Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitic appear to complement each other in their respective positioning with their club teams.

Heat map of Luka Modric's touches in 2013-14 La Liga season, left, and Ivan Rakitic's touches in 2013-14 La Liga season, right.

Modric completed 42 passes per 90 minutes in the middle third of the field...