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The Inside Track on Three World Cup Outsiders

We now stand less than two weeks away from the beginning of what is being billed as one of the greatest World Cups of all time. As the pre-tournament excitement builds with every passing day, all talk turns to which side has enough quality, focus - and not to mention a little bit of luck - to lift the famous trophy.

We now stand less than two weeks away from the beginning of what is being billed as one of the greatest World Cups of all time.

As the pre-tournament excitement builds with every passing day, all talk turns to which side has enough quality, focus - and not to mention a little bit of luck - to lift the famous trophy.

The hosts, once again full of that Samba swagger that propelled them to global success in the 90s, current holders Spain, and the organised, efficient machine that is Germany all find themselves at the forefront of those predictions - but the truth is, it is a long time since this competition has been so open, and there will be plenty of sides making their way to South America harbouring genuine aspirations of surprise success.

Not least, Belgium. The humble Lowlands nation might sit some 5,500 miles from the tropical climes of Brazil, but it's fair to say that, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku in their squad, their manager Marc Wilmots' has the hottest side in world football right now.

Of course, the name-dropping doesn't stop there. Simon Mignolet, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele, Kevin Mirallas.

Such is the individual quality of the Belgian squad, that it could easily pass as a Premier League select 16 - and I reckon that with such top-level experience to hand, the Flemish country will be quietly confident that they can mount a real challenge this summer.

One of the secrets of the nation's success lies in their youth development policies. Following a poor showing at the 2000 European Championships - a tournament jointly-hosted by Belgium - the nation took stock, and decided that it had to go back to the drawing board.

Much like the current Spanish system, where players head to a training camp at Las Rozas from an early age, Belgian coach Michel Sablon implemented real vision and focus into his country's systems - even creating a brochure, which was handed out to schools and amateur football clubs in the country.

The message was clear: in order for Belgium to climb out of the muddy backwaters of international football, two themes were important: consistency, and continuity.

A standard formation was rolled out across the country - 4-3-3, with wingers, midfielders and a flat back four - alongside the notion that winning, at any cost, was not the answer. After some coaxing and persuasion, coaches across the country began to slowly accept the changes.

The result is clear to see. Marc Wilmots now has a strong core of players within the current squad which have all played together for a long, long time - many since under 18, in fact - and the side possesses identity and mutual understanding rarely seen at international level.

And out of that system was born their secret weapon. A genuine, world class game-changer. The player that Jose Mourinho billed as the 'best young player in the world' earlier this campaign.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard has enjoyed an incredible season down at the Bridge, and, after his rise to the top of world football, all eyes will be on the wing wizard as his side make the trip to Brazil next month.

With Parisian giants PSG sniffing around the player, their boss Laurent Blanc went public last week on his love for Hazard. "He is a player who can eliminate others", he said in an interview.

Sometimes, for all of the preparation and tactics in the world, it takes that moment of magic, a stroke of genius, to spur a side on to a trophy like the World Cup. Without doubt, Hazard possesses that ability in abundance.

Despite the weight of expectation being placed on the shoulders of the star though, as the saying goes - one man doesn't make a team.

Try telling that to Colombia, the South American nation in which 47 million football fanatics are currently praying for a miracle.

For them, the next few weeks is not about the race for the trophy, but a race for fitness - as star striker Radamel Falcao battles to return from a serious knee injury in order to lead the line for his country this summer.

The Monaco star is widely recognised as the best striker in the world, and many were expecting him to cement that reputation in Brazil, but a sloppy-if-innocuous tackle during a French cup game back in February threatened to put paid to the star's World Cup dream.

That said, Los Cafeteros boss Jose Pekerman does have a wealth of talent to choose from - and many of his stars could well be making their way to the Premier League in the near future.

Jackson Martinez, so often the hero at Porto, is likely to cover Falcao's absence should the forward not make the cut, and with 47 goals smashed in 60 games for his club, he's certainly no mug.

Behind him, Fiorentina's dazzling winger Juan Cuadrado, a skilful player full of tricks and pace, has long been linked with a move to Liverpool - and is likely to provide some eye-catching performances this summer.

His wiley old boss is something of a tactical chameleon, but favours attack-minded variations, featuring attacking full backs, and plenty of creativity from Falcao's Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez in the middle of the park.

Alongside Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan in Group C, Colombia can consider themselves lucky to have avoided the major nations, and shouldn't have much of a problem making it through the first round of the competition - earning themselves a few fans in the process.

Ultimately, the presence, or indeed absence, of their star striker could dictate their final placing in the competition - but, in truth, they probably won't even need him for their first three outings, and if he can return, fighting fit, for the second round, we could well see the Tricolour go far this year.

Over the Andes mountains, and sitting next-door-but-one to Brazil, Chile may well be eyeing Colombia's current striker situation with a tinge of envy.

They head to the tournament in the midst of something of an injury crisis themselves - and to make matters worse, midfielder Pablo Hernandez was forced to pull out last week, due to his failure to recover from a leg muscle complaint.

That makes him the sixth to drop out of Jorge Sampaoli's 30-man provisional squad since it was named at in mid-May, and means that the boss only needs to discard of one more player when he names his final 23 this week.

What Chile lack in numbers, though, they more than make up for in grit and dogged determination.

Indeed, there is a real feeling in the republic that this could be the best side they've ever had - even emulating the success of the 1962 team which made it's way to the semi-finals of the competition on home turf.

Sampaoli certainly has some serious quality to choose from - the likes of Mauricio Isla and Arturo Vidal at Juventus have been turning heads in Serie A, Cardiff's Gary Medel, also known as 'the Pitbull' is a tough-tackling and often over-enthusiastic battler in the middle of the park - and, in Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez, the nation has a real talisman up top.

The only drawback for the Reds is the strength of their first round opponents. Drawn in the 'Group of Death' alongside current holders Spain and the Netherlands, they will do exceptionally well to even reach the last 16.

One thing's for sure - as the eyes of the world turn firmly to the big boys, the Spains, Brazils and Germanys might just be tempted by the odd glance over their shoulders.

There are plenty of pre-tournament outsiders, carrying the hopes of millions, who will be well aware that they can write themselves into the history books this summer.

And what a story that would be.

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