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2014 World Cup Dark Horses: France, Croatia and four other long shots to consider

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By now, you know the favorites to hoist the 2014 World Cup. More ink need not be spilt on why Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain are the most likely to triumph in this summer’s classic. A good amount has also been written about the chances of second tier candidates, nations like England and Belgium.

But what about the dark horses? Those nations with a chance, albeit a longshot, of upsetting the odds and coming out of nowhere to win the World Cup. Below we take a look at six nations, each of which is listed at greater than 20-1 odds, with a chance of doing the impossible.

LET’S BE REASONABLE…

FRANCE
Fifa World Ranking: 16th
Odds to win Group: 2-3
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 22-1
Why France can win: Sans a storybook run in 1998, France’s worst enemy has forever been themselves. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was shameful and coach Didier Deschamps made sure there wouldn’t be a repeat this time around when he cut clubhouse cancer Samir Nasri from the squad. The mood is right and so is the talent, which Les Bleus have in abundance with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Franck Ribery, Olivier Giroud, Loic Remy and Karim Benzema. Drama-free, deep and talented makes for a pretty good combination for success.
Key factors: Unity and a healthy Ribery.

URUGUAY
Fifa World Ranking: 6th
Odds to win Group: 2-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 28-1
Why Uruguay can win: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan. Those three alone justify the hype. Factor in that just three years ago they ruled South America after winning the 2011 Copa America and La Celeste is a side that’s been there, done that and has the firepower to do it again.
Key factors: Suarez’ health and a defense that doesn’t leak.

source: Getty Images

NOW WE’RE GETTING A BIT RIDICULOUS…

IVORY COAST
Fifa World Ranking: 21st
Odds to win Group: 7-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 125-1
Why Ivory Coast can win: Easy, Yaya Toure. Coming off the best season of his career, the City midfielder is capable of anything, especially when paired with the powerful Cheick Tiote and Didier Ya Konan in midfield. Plus with an improved Gervinho flying up the wing and Wilfried Bony potentially partnering Didier Drogba up top, there’s enough talent there to see The Elephants becoming the first African side to win a World Cup.
Key factors: Young guns stepping up to match the feats Yaya and Drogba.

CROATIA
Fifa World Ranking: 20th
Odds to win Group: 15-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 150-1
Why Croatia can win: The Blazers arguably have the most underrated midfield in the world. Luka Modric is coming off a fantastic season at Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic may very well be one of the best playmakers in the world right now, Ivan Perisic has vastly improved since his move from Dortmund to Wolfsburg, and Mateo Kovacic is a highly-touted 20-year-old poised for a breakout on the world stage. Combine that with a formidable defense that contains Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka and a forward two of Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic and yeah, Croatia has the goods to compete at the highest level.
Key factors: Getting out of the Group and shocking Spain in the Round of 16.

OK, JUST STOP IT NOW; UTTER BLASPHEMY…

source: Getty ImagesUSA
Fifa World Ranking: 14th
Odds to win Group: 10-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 100-1
Why USA can win: Having a coach who has won a World Cup is a huge boost but more than that, America’s chances of doing the incredible simply come down to an inherent sense of belief and momentum. Those two qualities carried a US hockey team filled with amateur and collegiate players past a USSR side in the 1980 Olympics. No reason why it can’t happen on the soccer pitch. Plus, with veterans like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to compliment upstart players like Fabian Johnson and Aron Johannsson, anything is possible. That’s the motto, at least.
Key factors: Staunch belief, surging momentum and a Germany side that plays its B team in the final Group match.

CAMEROON
Fifa World Ranking: 50th
Odds to win Group: 250-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 500-1
Why Cameroon can win: Because history matters and Cameroon remains one of two African nations to ever make it to the quarter-final of a World Cup, at Italia 1990 when they lost to England in extra time. That year The Indomitable Lions came virtually out of nowhere, led by belief and 38-year old striker Roger Milla. This year the squad is led by another veteran striker, Samuel Eto’o, and has proven a stingy side to get past, as Germany saw this past weekend when they drew 2-2.
Key Factors: A defense that defends and Eto’o turning back the clock, catching fire and ripping hat-tricks throughout each stage.

Report: Atletico’s Fernando Torres has interest from MLS, NASL

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - Copa del Rey: Round of 16
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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Spanish outlet Marca claims that a number of North American sides are among the clubs chasing Fernando Torres.

The Spanish striker has only scored more than 11 goals once since 2009-10, and is uncapped since 2014. But that doesn’t mean clubs from China to to the U.S. and the UAE to Japan aren’t interested in the 31-year-old.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

The Marca report claims three MLS teams are interested and also name drops the New York Cosmos of the NASL, who’ve recently brought Venezuelan legend Juan Arango on board.

It’s hard to imagine anyone outside the MLS rich sides taking a risk on Torres. Maybe Montreal would look to reunite him with Didier Drogba, and Torres certainly has experience combining with New York City’s David Villa. As for the third… Orlando City? Chicago?

Your guess is as good as ours, though it could be moot if this is solely about money. China continues to spend well.

Difficult fixture run looms as Aston Villa aims for great escape

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Joleon Lescott of Aston Villa (3L) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal with a header during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Crystal Palace at Villa Park on January 12, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Gabriel Agbonlahor is riding high, as the Premier League Player of the Week broke his duck this weekend and is thinking “great escape” for his Aston Villa side.

Villa has eight points in its last five matches, doubling its season total to 16. That’s still table bottom, but Remi Garde’s bunch would love to see their way out of the drop zone after a brutal start to the season under Tim Sherwood.

What would it take for Villa to pull that off, and avoid the first Premier League relegation in club history?

[ MORE: Premier League Team of the Week ]

Turns out, a lot.

There is no easy match in the next five, and Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are all on the schedule after that.

Villa next five matches
Feb. 14 – vs. Liverpool
Feb. 27 – at Stoke City
March 1 – vs. Everton
March 5 – at Manchester City
March 12 – vs. Spurs

The Villans do have three relegation six-pointers left, and two of those are at Villa Park with Bournemouth and Newcastle United. Villa also heads to Swansea City.

But Villa has to make up 12 points on the Cherries, 11 on Swans and eight on the Magpies. And while they are within two goals difference of Newcastle, they have eight goals to make up on Bournemouth and 11 to make up on Swansea.

That doesn’t include Sunderland and Norwich, sides four and seven points ahead of the Villans (though both have tricky runs left as well).

If Garde’s club is to make its escape, it will be close to unbelievable. That it will close with a match against Arsenal makes it even trickier, but that would be just the final impressive note in what could only be considered a Garde-conducted masterpiece.

VIDEO: Recapping the top stories from an intense Week 25 in the Premier League

JPW at Stamford Bridge
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What a weekend. Let’s relive it.

Round 25 of the Premier League provided plenty more thrills, shocks and excitement as two unlikely title contenders — Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur — are pushing ahead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Our own Joe Prince-Wright recaps all the major headlines from what could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the Premier League title race.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League news

Click play on the video below to join JPW as he battles the elements and checks in from outside Stamford Bridge in London following Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United.

WATCH: USMNT’s Gonzalez nets first for Pachuca, earns exuberant “Gol” call

Marouane Fellaini, ,Omar Gonzalez
AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
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Come for the goal, stay for the “Gol” call.

Or should we say the “Gol. Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Goool-Gol” call.

[ MORE: Angry Louis van Gaal rips journalists for “inventing” stories ]

USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez has opened his account for Pachuca with this 88th minute header, and it’s worth it if just for the auditory performance.

Gonzalez also pulls out the high-capacity weapon celebration, though he’s apparently opted to do the version closer to the “Scarface” finale (Spoiler alert).