Mark Stinchcombe: “The Three Lions need to seize the opportunity and be slightly less cautious. But another nervy game looks in-store”

12 min

Finally! It was a great quarter-final stage for me last week with three winners out of three and three good calls. Uruguay narrowly ousted Portugal, Brazil beat Mexico in a game of few chances and France beat Argentina 4-3 in probably the game of the World Cup so far. And I have to talk about the star of the show Kylian Mbappe.

I said last week his pace could hurt an ageing Argentina defence, and it took just 13 minutes for him to do so with a sensational run from his own half culminating in a penalty.

He was involved in everything good France did and he really is a superstar at just 19. Thanks in no small part to him France won the expected goals 1.36 – 0.86, excluding the penalty, and this fully justified our -0.25 selection.

Uruguay then went onto to make it two out of two for the day, beating Portugal 2-1. The Iberians may have outshot them 20 -5 but in the end I said the difference was between the two sides defence and that proved to be the case. Brazil then made it a full house when they beat Mexico 2-0 on Monday to secure under 2.5 goals.

It always felt like unders had a good chance of winning with the first goal not coming until the 51st minute and the second not until the 88th. Excluding those two big chances, the average xG across the other 31 shots was just 0.06 as both sides lacked composure. It was good to capitalise on a market that hadn’t given the same respect as most of the others. This was a World Cup knockout match after all.

Can Gareth bring it home? Maybe.

This week I’m focussing on Saturday’s quarter-final matches, and first up England take on Sweden.

Gareth Southgate’s approach v Colombia was pretty alarming given the opposition was missing its best player and was far too reminiscent of previous English sides in hanging on and hoping for the best. There was a huge opportunity to make the quarter-finals, yet Southgate’s side played in a ‘just enough’ style.

Given England’s problem of a lack of game management, it was always going to be risky. People can point to the fact that Colombia needed a 93rd-minute goal to force extra-time, but they should never have been in the position of having a corner deep into injury time. It was their first of the match! Hardly an indication of a side intent on taking the game to England.

The Three Lions are now just 2.58 to reach the final and need to seize the opportunity and be slightly less cautious. However, based on what we’ve seen, that looks unlikely, and another nervy game looks in-store. England managed just 12 shots in 90 minutes and excluding the penalty, just one was on target, recording a non-penalty xG figure of just 1.02.

The list of sides Gareth Southgate has beaten in his tenure reads Panama, Tunisia, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Holland, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta and Scotland. It’s hardly a who’s who of international football and it’s hard to justify backing them at the prices here, especially given Sweden’s performances so far.

And I wonder if Southgate’s lack of experience and ability (relegated and sacked by Middlesbrough) will ultimately cost England.

England manager Gareth Southgate has done a fantastic job of diluting the media hype around his side but can he get his side across the line against the Swedes?

Sweden, on the other hand, are doing their nation proud.

They are getting a 100% out of every player and performing to their maximum ability. Organised, strong, and hard-working, every player in the team knows their role and what is expected of them. They’re not flashy but they know if they defend well they will always have a chance.

We saw this in the play-offs when we backed them to qualify against Italy over two legs successfully winning 1-0. And having beaten France and Holland in qualification, as well as pushing Germany all the way here, we know they can be very tough to beat. In fact they’ve been impressive going forward in the World Cup, creating good chances.

If we exclude their two penalties, their average xG reads 1.6 – 1.0, keeping three clean sheets.

England, on the other hand, are yet to keep a clean sheet and Sweden to qualify at 3.0+ is a tempting bet but it’s hard to be confident enough the price is too big when we only have one ‘big’ competitive Southgate approach to a game to go on.

Having watched Sweden’s approach in big games v Switzerland where they had just 39% possession against an average side, as well as v Italy where they had only 35% across the two games, it seems likely the game will play out similar here. It’s really hard to look anywhere other than unders despite a line of just 2.0.

We have 0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 0-2 and 2-0 onside and that looks a logical approach to a cagey game.

Can the hosts pull of a miracle semi-final?

The final quarter-final match is Russia v Croatia and quite frankly the odds on the Balkan side are ridiculous.

I think Croatia are an even money shot at best and that’s not because I really rate them, it’s the fact that Russia are awful. People have seen four games here (one of which they lost 3-0 to Uruguay) and have decided they’re good. How’s this for short-termism?

Croatia were 1.99 v Denmark, how on earth can they now be 2.28? Russia are at best on a par with the Danes and it probably has a lot to do with Croatia only just getting past Denmark on penalties, while Russia famously knocked out the 2010 winners in the same manner. However, if we look at the underlying data, it should have been far more comfortable for the Croats and the Russians should already be out.

Croatian players celebrate their penalty shootout win over Denmark.

Croatia won the xG count 1.86 – 1.02, excluding the Modric penalty, and Russia were comprehensively beaten 1.98 – 0.32 excluding their penalty. So I’m afraid the odds don’t tally up for me.

I wrote in the Matchbook eBook Russia aren’t very good and I stand by that, yet people want to base their opinions on what they did against Saudi Arabia and an Egypt side with an unfit Salah needing a result. I can’t have that and my opinion remains unchanged.

The same goes for Croatia. People have been falling over themselves to praise them but they beat Nigeria with an own goal and a penalty, toiled with a bad Argentina and required a calamitous goalkeeper error to open up the game before a penalty shootout v Denmark. And I’ve made reservations here a few times about the managers lack of experience.

Having said all of that, that doesn’t excuse this price and Croatia are a good bet with the draw onside here so I’m having two points on -0.25 on the Asian Handicap and I’d advise you to do likewise.

Recommended bets:

  • Sweden v England under 2.0 goals 1.95 – 1pt
  • Croatia -0.25 ~1.93 – 2pts

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