After what seems like an eternity of waiting the 2018 World Cup begins in Russia on Thursday and as usual, we should expect it to be a bit of an anti-climax at first.
Generally, World Cup matches are tight and cagey as pressure on teams to perform takes its toll and ‘brave’ defensive defeats are deemed acceptable as opposed to taking an attacking approach that backfires.
This makes finding great bets a little trickier than normal. The best place to start before analysing how the matches could play out, is to investigate the goal expectancy and there we tend to find low goal expectancies meaning the less scenarios there are that could play out.
So our options to find value starts to become limited.
Since 2002, World Cup matches average 2.44 goals-per-game across 256 matches and we can straight away see the difference to the cut and thrust of the Premier League for example, which averaged 2.68pg this season. Group stage matches average 2.52pg (192 games), with only a slight drop off for round one matches at 2.48pg (64 games).
So the fact total expected goals in round one matches this summer is just 38.55 (2.41pg), looks a touch low.
However, we have to take each match on it’s own individual merit. And looking ahead to the first three matchdays there are a few bets I’m interested in.
Morocco to unlock Iran’s defence
First of all I want to side with Morocco v Iran in a game both sides will want to win given Spain and Portugal await them later but at the same time not give anything away. This is summed up by a goal expectancy of just 1.95 and both sides have a reputation for keeping it tight at the back.
Morocco, managed by the legendary coach Herve Renard, qualified in a tough group without conceding a goal, and are well marshalled at the back by Mehdi Benatia and Romain Saiss. But they are also capable up front beating Ivory Coast twice at odds of 4.09 and 3.36, as well as Serbia in a friendly when 3.59.
They arrive in good form having beaten Estonia and Slovakia 3-1 and 2-1 in recent friendlies and they possess a talented midfield in Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda who are both capable of unlocking tight defences. Iran meanwhile, only scored ten goals in ten games in the final round of Asian qualifiers, despite playing against the likes of Qatar and China.
Iran boss Carlos Queiroz emphasis first and foremost on keeping things organised and tight and they kept nine clean sheets in qualifying.
It’s been more of the same in recent friendlies with it taking until the 88th minute to break the deadlock v Lithuania and a 92nd-minute penalty to score against Turkey.
It took until the 82nd minute in the final group game at the last World Cup under Queiroz to score and it looks to be more of the same in Russia. And I think siding with Morocco on the -0.25 Asian Handicap line with half stakes returned for a draw seems like a good play here.
The big one will be free of goals
Portugal v Spain screams a tight game, with both sides viewing the other group games against Iran and Morocco as much more winnable. Portugal coach Fernando Santos is a defensive minded coach, emphasised by their Euro 2016 success winning just one of seven matches in 90 minutes, while Spain don’t appear to have settled on a first choice striker which could upset their rhythm.
There’s a history of tight meetings, these two have met twice in recent tournaments, it finished 0-0 in the semi-final of Euro 2012 and Spain won 1-0 in the 2nd round of the 2010 World Cup. The previous competitive meeting to these was the 3rd group stage game in Euro 2004 where Portugal won 1-0 so a low scoring match looks on the cards but that is already factored in with a goal expectancy of just 2.30.
So instead of backing under 2.25 goals at a short price, I’m going to take a chance on 0-0 at a much bigger price, whilst keeping a saver on under 1.5 goals.
If there are two goals in the match, that was essentially the market’s prediction which I’ll just have to accept. We won’t get anywhere profit-wise long-term betting on the expected.
Portugal conceded an average of just 0.35 xG per-game in qualifying and Spain just 0.60.
Finally, a time to back goals
Peru face Denmark on Sunday afternoon and this looks a great opportunity to oppose the low scoring narrative.
We have a goal expectancy of just 2.30 goals, well down on the round one average of 2.48, and I’ve previously spoken here about how impressed I am with both Peru and Denmark.
I think this has the potential to be a very exciting game. Peru have been given a boost with the return of captain and talisman Paulo Guerrero but in his absence they’ve actually done remarkably well, beating all of Croatia, Iceland, Scotland and Saudi Arabia by more than one goal. They possess a very good midfield full of technicians and Jefferson Farfan has been reinvigorated as a central attacker during Lokomotiv Moscow’s run to win the Russian title.
Denmark meanwhile qualified in style beating the Republic of Ireland 5-1 away from home, to follow up a 4-0 win over Poland. The star man is undoubtedly Christian Eriksen but several of their players ply their trade in top European leagues and should be respected, such as Yussuf Poulsen at RB Leipzig and Pione Sisto for Celta Vigo, with midfielder Thomas Delaney just earning himself a €20M move to Dortmund.
Peru’s qualifiers saw 53 goals in 18 games (2.94pg), with Denmark’s 28 in 10 games (2.80pg). Crucially the expected goals lend itself well to these figures with Peru’s matches averaging 2.5 xG and Denmark’s 2.80.
We are able to back over 2.0 goals here which looks a great bet with the safety net of money back if just two are scored.
- Morocco -0.25 ~1.97 – 1pt
- Under 0.5 goals Portugal v Spain ~9.0 – 0.5pts (0.25pts on under 1.5 goals ~3.00)
- Over 2.0 goals Peru v Denmark ~1.78 – 2pts