THE discussion around this time every four years in pubs and offices frequently centres on who is going to win the World Cup. While it is interesting enough to rate the merits of the very best, my own preference is to assess the potential for an underdog story.

That doesn’t necessarily equate with an outsider lifting the trophy in Moscow on 15 July. Ultimate victory remains the preserve of the select few. But as a commentator, I enjoy telling a tale of the unexpected, a story of over-achievement.

Cameroon captured hearts in 1990, Bulgaria to an extent in 1994, Senegal and co-host nation South Korea most certainly in 2002. In more recent times you could point to Ghana, unluckily denied by Uruguay in the last eight in 2010 and Costa Rica who had a similar fate bestowed upon them by the Dutch in 2014.

So who, amongst the less favoured sides in 2018 looks capable of making a run to the latter stages of the World Cup? There will surely be at least one group of players defying the odds.

There is a groundswell of feeling for Egypt. A lot of it has to do with a group that looks less taxing than most featuring the two lowest ranked sides in the competition, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Plus there is Mo Salah's presence, although the Liverpool talisman will have his work cut out to make an early impact due to the shoulder dislocation he suffered in the Champions League final.

I don’t really see it with Egypt, whether or not Salah participates. One man, as good as Salah is, rarely makes a team and within Africa there are better squads.

The very best of the African sides could well be Morocco. There is a good balance within the team, a sturdy defence and potential game changers in Hakim Ziyech, cutting in from the right on to his left foot and Nordin Amrabat on the opposite flank. So far, so good but having landed in the same group as Spain and Portugal, the Moroccans will have to play above themselves. If they start with a win against Iran, there is no reason why Herve Renard's team can’t take points from an oft erratic Portugal.

Iran are the team I have formed something of a sentimental attachment to through covering them a lot at the last World Cup and trying to stay on top of their intriguing and unusual narrative. There is a chaotic side to Iranian football that is paradoxically appealing. Scheduling games these past few weeks has been a challenge for Team Melli but in Carlos Queiroz they have an able tactician. Alireza Jahanbaksh was this season's top scorer in the Dutch Eredivisie with 21 goals, while Sardar Azmoun, Russia based with Rubin Kazan is on the shopping list of various continental clubs.

The group is the great enemy of both Morocco and Iran and the same is true of Tunisia and Panama who are together with England and Belgium. But whereas Panama, in their first World Cup, with an ageing side will struggle at times just to escape from their own half, Tunisia offer a much more credible threat. There is a neat and tidy quality to much of their work. No out and out stars are present here, although I like the authority of captain Ferjani Sassi and fellow midfielder Ellyes Skhiri.

Can Costa Rica be classed as minnows after their meteoric rise four years ago? They have the same core group in place but the element of surprise is no longer a factor. Tactically, they set up the same way as they did in Brazil with a solid back three and speedy wing-backs, one of whom certain to start is Celtic's out of favour Cristian Gamboa.

Their opener against a Serbia team I rate highly could be one of the most watchable games of the group stage. Serbia are packed with midfield talent to the point where coach Mladen Krstajic is going to have to disappoint someone: a true problem of luxury. They are less well off in defence and attack but Aleksandar Mitrovic is a natural finisher as he demonstrated in the second half of the season at Fulham. Serbia are a side to take seriously.

The same applies to the other team in the tournament from the Balkans, Croatia. Like Serbia, they are positively laden with talent in the middle of the park. Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric on opposite sides of the Spanish Primera divide with Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, can control any game.

Croatia’s initial group stage meeting with Nigeria should be one to savour. The Super Eagles have plenty of individual quality with the likes of Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses but can they coalesce as a team? Iceland will have no worries on that front and while they are the romantic choice of many, I’m not convinced the smallest nation ever to reach the finals can repeat the heroics of Euro 2016.

Others to consider? Peru and Mexico who both defeated Scotland recently. There is plenty to admire about both, particularly Peru given the joy etched on their players’ faces after 36 years away from the World Cup. But I don’t have these two on my list of teams going far.

Instead, I suggest looking at Group H, perhaps the least predictable of all the sections. Colombia and Senegal are my picks to progress at Poland’s expense and a quarter-final appearance is within the compass of both.

Colombia keep the ball confidently and have two players who can light up any game in James Rodriguez, one of the out and out stars in 2014 and the mesmerising Juan Cuadrado.

Senegal, quarter-finalists in 2002, are coached by the man who captained them at the Far East World Cup, Aliou Cisse. There is a substantial spine to this team with Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the most accomplished defenders in Europe and Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham typifying the overall robustness. Then Sadio Mane completes a pretty powerful package.

Whoever emerges from the shadows, will have stories to tell, just as compelling as the eventual winners.

There is something sober and likeable about the current England squad and it all starts with Gareth Southgate. He might not have been the overwhelmingly popular choice to take over when it fell apart for Sam Allardyce, but is the ideal fit in 2018.

England frankly have taken themselves too seriously at too many World Cups. Expectation levels have been lowered this time and everyone is better for it.

There is also a discernible style and tactical plan. Southgate, greatly influenced by his experience as a player at Euro 96 will use the three man defence of that era. The emphasis is placed on ball retention and patience. In Harry Kane, England have the kind of finisher who will take a mile, if given an inch. Kane usually speaks for himself. Getting the best out of other key figures Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli could hold the key. Southgate must calculate game by game how to tweak his midfield in line with the assignment.

It would be a mistake to regard Tunisia as cannon fodder in the first game. England's possession game should serve them well here. However John Stones must be aware that one casual moment could be ruthlessly seized upon by a capable side.

Panama should not represent a serious obstacle, but the third match against talented Belgium is an altogether different matter. Still you would anticipate English progress to the knockout stages as one of the top two,

Beyond that, it gets difficult. I can see England reaching the quarter-finals but struggle to make a case for them thereafter, particularly if on a collision course with Brazil, as is possible. Penetrating against better sides is the challenge and it is hardly the greatest England defence of all time.

Mind you, that is the beauty of the Southgate era. No talk of golden generations, just the here and now. England fans might enjoy this World Cup ride more than usual.