Mark Stinchcombe: “England should be relishing this contest against a side that has to play back-to-back extra times and I’ve found a smart way to oppose Croatia for this one”

9 min

Last weekend was a good reminder that being risk averse can be a useful strategy. It was a big win for England but a small loss for me after I backed under 2.0 goals in their quarter-final against Sweden, and to be honest I feel fairly fortunate to come away with a push. This was another very good reminder that trying to manoeuvre around an under 2.0 goal line is a very risky strategy because it is already factored into the price. The xG only totaled 1.76 but Jordan Pickford being awarded man of the match tells us it was fortunate Sweden didn’t score.

In the Croatia game I feel as though I was very unlucky as taking -0.25 here rather than the match odds meant half our stake was returned when it finished 1-1. A wonder strike from Russia’s Denis Cheryshev was the main reason for Croatia not winning in 90 minutes, as they comprehensively created the better chances winning the expected goals 2.22 – 0.48 during normal time. They also missed some good chances such as when Ivan Perisic hit the post.

Taking some lessons through to this week and in the first of the semi-finals France take on Belgium as slight favourites at 2.59 and I think I have to agree with this. Both sides have very good attacks, although some may argue Belgium are stronger with Lukaku, Hazard, Mertens and De Bruyne, but it’s easy to forget we’ve hardly seen any of Fekir, Dembele and Thuavin. They could all be crucial in the latter stages of a tournament when subs can make a huge impact.

Belgium players celebrate Januzaj’s goal against England. 2018 could be the first time since 1962 that a final is contested between teams that played in the same group.

Allez les bleus on Tuesday night

Where I think the sides differ is defensively. France have a very solid back five, which is perhaps even more solid than usual with functional full-backs in Hernandez and Pavard preferred over the offensive minded Mendy and Sidibe. Belgium on the other hand are playing with an expansive 3-4-3 system, and I think they could be exposed with Vincent Kompany, who didn’t start any of the group games, now somewhat parachuted into the heart of defence.

The left-wing back spot has to come under scrutiny with either of the two wingers Carrasco or Chadli occupying the role, and Kylian Mbappe could be the difference against either of these here. Jan Vertonghen was also exposed for Japan’s opener in this channel. Brazil outshot them 27 – 9 and while the game dynamics may have played their part, they can’t afford it to keep giving up big opportunities with the xG resulting 2.87 – 0.54 in the Brazilians favour.

At the time of writing, Kylian Mbappe is the second favourite to win the Golden Ball – after Harry Kane.

I kind of feel Belgium are fortunate to be at this stage having been 2-0 down to Japan and outplayed by Brazil in huge parts of their quarter-final win. I’m not a huge Deschamps fan, but I don’t rate Roberto Martinez and feel his luck could run out here with his over offensive tactics exposing them one game too much. Courtois has only conceded one goal more than Lloris but has had to make an extra 10 saves to keep the opposition at bay.

However, rather than take France in the match odds, I’m going to back them to qualify in case of extra-time/penalties, to slightly reduce variance. As mentioned earlier sometimes it makes sense to play a little cautiously and my opinion of France overall being the better team doesn’t make me feel strongly enough to back them in 90 minutes here.

Is it actually coming home?

Could it be coming home in the other semi-final? It certainly might be with England 1.68 to reach the final and second favourite at just 3.75 to lift the trophy. They should be relishing this contest against a side that has to play back-to-back extra times and while I’m not going to suggest Croatia are hugely lucky to be here there’s elements of luck in winning penalty shoot outs. And there’s no getting away from the exhaustion physically and mentally the players must have experienced.

Subasic is a major injury doubt.

Goalkeeper Subasic went down in the final minute of the game clutching his hamstring and Sime Vrsaljko was forced off in the early stages of extra-time. These are just two examples of what some of their players are experiencing. England should be the fresher of the two sides with their comfortable 2-0 victory over Sweden, and there is a bet I like here based on the fitness of both sides: England to score first at 1.96.

This is a very similar price to England -0.25 and in Southgate’s 23 games in charge, England have opened the scoring 17 times (74%), which includes v France, Spain, Italy and Holland whereas Zlatko Dalic’s side have opened the scoring in only 5 of his 11 matches in charge (45%).

It’s only a small spread of data for Dalic’s side but conceding first to Russia, Denmark, Senegal and Peru doesn’t make for great reading and Southgate’s record alone looks very impressive. This looks an excellent way to oppose the Croatian’s fitness whilst avoiding the match odds.

Recommended bets:

  • France to qualify 1.83 – 1 point
  • England to score first 1.96 – 2 points

Click here to browse more of Matchbook’s World Cup markets.