The World Cup knockout stage kicked off in thrilling fashion on Saturday as Argentina and Portugal exited the party early, while France and Uruguay moved one step closer to global dominance.
Ten goals were scored – the majority of them wonderfully taken – and so my recommended selection from the Matchbook Podcast of Under 2 Goals in the evening game sadly sunk.
Considering the Uruguay-Portugal encounter produced just 1.60 Expected Goals in total, we were quite literally undone by the standard of finishing.
That’s the price you pay occasionally when elite players are on show. My non-punting head would love to see a repeat in all remaining knockout ties but the truth is, a reverse to the norm is most likely with 68% of World Cup knockout matches since 1998 delivering fewer than three goals.
One such match that may not follow previous tournament trends is Monday afternoon’s match-up between Belgium and Japan. It’s the most lopsided Last 16 tie and there’s value to be found in backing the favourites to hose up in Rostov.
The Red Devils topped Group G with maximum points having triumphed in the game that neither they, nor England, wished to win to complete their campaign. Belgium now enter the perceived difficult side of the draw but Roberto Martinez’s men should at least cruise through their Last 16 tie on Monday.
Belgium were rarely challenged in their first three fixtures and managed to accumulate nine goals. Having made 10 changes against England, the squad should arrive fresh and, while there remains a few lingering doubts over their 3-4-3 system, the Europeans should still stamp their authority all over this clash.
Japan enjoyed a large slice of luck to reach the knockout phase.
The Asian giants benefitted from a third minute red card against a Colombia side missing James Rodriguez from the start, before escaping into the Last 16 on fair play having picked up an undeserving point from their final two outings.
The Samurai Blue have lost their last five against UEFA opposition – failing to score on three occasions – and their Expected Goals from open play tally of 1.17 in a pool without a standout seed is an obvious concern.
Belgium are unbeaten in 22 matches – winning 17 – and should be too good for Japan. Over the past five World Cup tournaments, 13 of 40 ties at this stage were settled by a margin of two goals or more and the Red Devils can enhance that stat by covering the -1.0 Asian Handicap at 1.66 or better.
Meanwhile, on Monday there is an opportunity to oppose Switzerland. Die Nati have suffered a sole reverse in 25 games– a run that goes all the way back to before Euro 2016 – but Vladimir Petkovic’s troops could be vulnerable favourites for their meeting against Sweden in Saint Petersburg.
Switzerland appeared lethargic and limited in their final group game against Costa Rica – perhaps struggling with fatigue following the exertions against Serbia just days beforehand – and will now also be without two of their key back four defenders in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schar through suspension.
Sweden topped Group F and were excellent for the most part in a devilishly difficult pool.
The Blue-Yellow eased past South Korea, gave Germany a major scare and walked all over Mexico in their third and final fixture.
Having now competed with and/or knocked out the likes of Germany, Italy, Netherlands and France, it’s high time the Scandinavians were given our respect. Their rugged 4-4-2 system has worked a treat and Sweden have now recorded clean sheets in nine of their past 15 competitive outings.
In a game that’s unlikely to provide copious amounts of goalmouth action, it may pay to keep Sweden onside. Since the start of the 1998 World Cup, 50% of favourites have failed to win in 90 minutes and this looks like a great opportunity to get with the underdogs.
We can support the Swedes at 1.73 with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start – a selection that would see us make a half-stakes profit if the game ends all-square, and a full-stakes pay-out should the Blue-Yellow progress to the quarter-finals with a victory in 90 minutes.
- Belgium v Japan – Belgium -1 Asian Handicap @ 1.66
- Sweden v Switzerland – Sweden +0.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.73
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