Mark Stinchcombe: “Like Boris, I’m opposing Russia. They are lucky they are hosting the World Cup or they wouldn’t have qualified”

16 min

It was major celebration time on Saturday night when Real Betis defeated Espanyol 3-0 to cover over 2.25 goals and turn my biggest bet of the season into what had started to look like an improbable winner. It was one of those games where everything was against you from the weather to the team selection.

There was torrential rain, the flood lights went out more than once and the stop-start nature was not conducive to a free-flowing match. It also didn’t help that Espanyol simply didn’t turn up. They had just four shots in the entire match and it was pretty much down to Betis to make the running.

Three Betis goals in horrendous conditions were enough to cash Mark’s biggest bet of the season.

Handily Betis decided to leave out regular attackers Sergio Leon, Cristian Tello and Joaquin, but somehow the bet won (after 68 minutes) despite a total match xG of just 0.94. You might think we got lucky here, but I feel fully rewarded in my faith in Betis’ attacking depth and quality and in my aggressive staking.

Sunderland are a mess

Earlier in the day Preston comfortably won 2-0 at Sunderland winning expected goals 1.99 – 0.94, which in layman’s terms translates to 1.23 on the -0.25 handicap as I backed them. Sunderland did have a man sent-off after an hour so it’s difficult to read too much into the stats, but Preston were 1-0 up at the time so maybe I should have been more aggressive staking wise here too.

Sunderland are a mess and until they get the majority of high earners off their books they look like there’s only one direction they’re going in. They could even be a bet for relegation from League One next season if their squad is still in the same state. Throw in the fact that home supremacy for them is also slowly eroding away with negativity from the fans, and the end of trouble doesn’t look likely anytime soon.

Preston were comfotable 2-0 winners away at Sunderland last weekend.

It really should have been three from three for me last week with Leicester v Chelsea agonisingly finishing 1-1 after 90 minutes before Pedro popped up with a winner in extra-time. The xG totalled 3.70 after 90 minutes, so really in those terms the chances of over 2.5 goals was 71% or 1.41, so having been on at 1.99 this was an unfortunate value loser. But on to this week and let’s try and make money from some longer terms bets rather than wasting it on meaningless international games.

Finding value from the World Cup groups

This week is an international break and I’m not an advocate of betting on friendlies as you have issues around player motivation, team rotation and new manager tactics so for me these set of games are a watching brief only. They are, however, an opportunity to learn more ahead of the World Cup and with that in mind, I’m continuing my preview of the World Cup by looking at the sides in Group A.

Uruguay (40.0)

Uruguay are slight favourites to win Group A. They qualified for the World Cup by finishing second in South American qualification though they finished 10 points behind winners Brazil and there was just five points separating them from the ultimately eliminated Chile.

The difference in team quality in South America, besides Brazil, is not that great. At the 2016 Copa America, Uruguay (albeit without an injured Luis Suarez), were knocked out at the group stage in a pool containing Jamaica, Venezuela and Mexico. And since that summer of 2016 there have been more worrying results for the Uruguayans.

The Atletico Madrid centra back pairing of Gimenez and Godin is a crucial backbone of this Uruguayan side.

They have suffered defeats away to Austria, Italy and Ireland and it’s not been much better in the qualification stages with a 2-1 defeat in Peru and 3-1 loss in Chile. It makes for alarming reading, especially as one or both of their Atletico Madrid centre-backs were present in Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. Interestingly they were favourites against Austria, Ireland and Peru, and only narrow outsiders against Chile.

Uruguay boss Oscar Tabarez usually lines up in a deep 4-4-2 where he is happy to concede possession, expecting the two world class strikers in Suarez and Edinson Cavani to win the game themselves. Don’t expect this to change this summer. At the 2010 World Cup Uruguay made the semi-finals, and in every game the opposition had more possession, but Uruguay had more shots.

Russia (46.0)

Russia are narrow second favourites for the group, but they are fortunate they are hosting the tournament or else they may have not made it through qualifying.

It’s difficult to judge Russia with the majority of their matches being friendlies, however their performances in last summer’s Confederations Cup were little to get excited about.

After a poor Euro 2016 where they finished bottom of the group, Leonid Slutsky resigned and was replaced by journeyman manager Stanislav Cherchesov. And his tactics of setting up in a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 on home turf saw them only manage to beat New Zealand while suffering defeats to Portugal and Mexico.

Seeing them go off just 1.95 faves at home to Iran since doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

An early exit at last Summer’s Confederation Cup surely does not bode well for the host’s prospects at the World Cup.

Cherchesov has set about creating a new team spearheaded by prolific striker Fedor Smolov. However, they look light at centre-back with the retirement of the Berezutski brothers and injuries to regular starters Georgi Dzhikiya and Viktor Vasin likely to keep them out this summer. Further bad news is a recent knee injury to striker Alexander Kokorin who is also set to miss the tournament. Kokorin, who was left out of last years Confederations Cup, mocked the national team manager in a video along with Artem Dzyuba after elimination underlining the manager’s stock among the players.

Arguably their best defensive midfielder Igor Denisov is also excluded after a falling out. And heavy defeats in European competition for Lokomotiv Moscow, Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow gives some insight into the vulnerability of the side against pace and movement. It’s now three consecutive group stage exits at major tournaments and in all three tournaments they were in the top two in the betting to qualify from the group.

Egypt (301)

Egypt qualified by topping a relatively weak group containing Uganda, Ghana and Congo scoring just eight goals in six matches. Prior to this they made the African Cup of Nations final in 2017 scoring five goals in six matches. Mohamed Salah has scored seven of these goals (47%) and it’s obvious Hector Cuper’s game plan is to keep things tight and hope for some magic from Salah.

Setup in a 4-2-3-1, the spine of the team is a strong one with Ahmed Hegazi patrolling centre-defence and Mohamed Elneny in holding midfield. Much of their defensive prowess is down to 45 year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary who went ten hours and 53 minutes without conceding a goal at the African Cup of Nations.

It’s all about Mohamed Salah for this Egyptian side.

With Salah cutting in from the right, they have plenty of options in attack with Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi, Braga’s Ahmed Hassan Koka and Al Ahly’s prolific Abdallah Said.

But Egypt haven’t faced a non-African nation under Cuper so with Portugal and Belgium lined up in friendlies, it will be give a better idea on how good they are at nullifying threats.

Saudi Arabia (1000)

Group outsiders Saudi Arabia reached the World Cup by finishing second in group B of the Asian section, and were just one point behind Japan and ahead of Australia on goal difference. With Japan and Australia both much shorter prices to get out of their groups despite arguably tougher sections, it suggests Saudi Arabia finished in a false position, especially as Australia required a play-off and extra-time to overcome Syria.

The problem is their success in qualifying was achieved by Bert van Marwijk but after a contract dispute he left to join Australia and his replacement Edgardo Bauza lasted just two months after losing three of five friendly games. He has been replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, who after leading Chile to 2016 Copa America victory and runners-up in the Confederations Cup, resigned after failing to qualify for the World Cup.

Mohammad Al Sahlawi is the Saudi’s main goal threat.

Things haven’t gone well for Pizzi either most recently losing 4-1 to Iraq despite being faves.So it’s difficult to know how they are going to perform but it looks difficult to replicate their qualification form, especially judging by recent friendlies, without van Marwijk. And it’s difficult to know what Pizzi’s long-term likely formation will be. Mohammad Al Sahlawi scored 16 goals in qualifying but just two came in the second stage.

They scored six goals against Japan and Australia though, and twelve different players registered overall, so they are more than capable of scoring from all areas of the team.


Group A is relatively weak and it’s likely their World Cup journey will be ended by the qualifiers from Group B. Uruguay are opposable but only against the right opposition and that doesn’t look to be here. Egypt’s organised and settled approach could shock with Mo Salah causing problems to cumbersome defences but the best bet here looks to be to lay Russia to win the group/qualify.

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