After a profitable weekend betting on the World Cup playoffs, it would be a mistake to not try and find some value now we know the 32 teams heading to the 2018 World Cup. And looking down the list of teams qualified, I think this is one of the easiest World Cups to win ever.
Next summer we will be missing Italy, Chile, Holland, and the USA, which are three potential winners and a team you would want in your group. The USA knocked out both Portugal and Ghana from their group in Brazil 2014 before holding Belgium to a 0-0 draw in the knockouts if you remember.
Instead, we have the likes of Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland, Serbia, Peru, Panama and even the hosts Russia. Throw in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia, Iran, Morocco and Australia, and that’s nearly half the field who look pretty poor and if teams play without the fear of losing then they have a great chance.
But as we seen all too often at international tournaments over the last 15 – 20 years, a ‘brave’ defeat is seen as acceptable, and both Portugal (Euro 2016) and Greece (2004) have both proved a safety-first approach is a formula that works. Between them, they won just four matches out of 13 in 90 minutes, yet both lifted the trophy.
We saw a lot of this type of play in the qualifiers over the weekend with just four goals scored in the six matches, and it was disappointing only one was in our favour. Northern Ireland were cruelly dumped out by a terrible penalty decision in a tie otherwise looking like heading for extra-time while New Zealand really missed captain Chris Wood.
Wood was only fit enough to start both games on the bench, and despite going to Peru at 0-0 with the away goals advantage in their favour, it was an always an uphill task. However, the Sweden v Italy tie played out just as expected with Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura clueless in his approach and team selection. A single Swedish goal was enough for a 3.75 winner at 1.5 points.
Looking ahead to 2018
Back to the future, and there are a couple of noticeable pointers to look out for ahead of the draw. As hosts Russia are in pot 1, and teams outside of that pot will want them in their group. Both Portugal and Mexico beat them in last summer’s Confederations Cup and they recently drew with Iran. You only have to look at the performances of CSKA Moscow and Zenit in the Champions League over the past few years for further evidence of their ability.
In terms of other teams who look a bit like they are over ranked, then Peru and Switzerland are in pot 2 instead of a Chile and Italy and you would want them in your group for sure. Iran are also a pot too high in number 3. So there are likely to be some significant movements in odds depending on how the draw pans out.
Reigning World Cup champions Germany are 6.4 favourites and it’s hard to disagree with that. Since being knocked out in the group stages of Euro 2004 and famously investing in revamping their youth production and development, they have made six consecutive semi-finals. Keep putting yourself in those positions and it will click.
They have a great squad with fantastic depth, as shown by their Confederations Cup success last summer with a reserve squad. In terms of weaknesses, there’s possible question marks up front and in the full-back area since Philipp Lahm retired, but they won the World Cup with Benedikt Howedes playing there so perhaps not too much of a concern.
Latin American Chances
Brazil are 2nd favourites at 7.0 but I think they are overrated, probably due to the ease in which they qualified, finishing 10 points clear of Uruguay. But the South American qualifying standard wasn’t great, and Paraguay and Ecuador nearly ousted the likes of Argentina and Colombia so it’s hard to properly judge. They drew 0-0 with both Bolivia and England when odds-on, and lost 1-0 to Argentina without Neymar.
Neymar is world class but I worry about his petulance and selfishness. He stupidly got himself sent-off for handball and losing his temper against Colombia in the 2015 Copa America where Brazil were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Paraguay, and we’ve seen him sent-off for PSG for retaliation as well as constantly trying to undermine Cavani on set-pieces.
As for the rest of the squad, Gabriel Jesus is good but he’s not Ronaldo, and Coutinho is out of position on the right flank. Casemiro is a great holder, but the rest of the midfield is a much of a muchness, with an ability and desire both emphasised by 29 year-olds Paulinho and Renato Augusto both playing in China.
After the first XI, there isn’t much depth at all and their tournament results with a lot of the same players don’t make for pretty reading. This is not the Brazil of peak Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka and I will probably be looking elsewhere come next summer.
Argentina meanwhile are single figures and it’s difficult to get with them despite the unbelievable talent they have available. I can’t remember a time they’ve appeared cohesive even with Lionel Messi. They were runners-up in Brazil, but I wonder if they were on the right side of variance to be there as they won two penalty shoot-outs and a match in extra-time across those tournaments.
Looking further back, Argentina hadn’t made the semifinals since finishing runners-up in 1990. Jorge Sampaoli, who guided Chile to 2015 success, has only been at the helm six months, and you wonder if a) he will have enough time to adapt his ideas and b) whether Argentina are equipped with the players to play a high-pressing game.
Vive La France? No. Viva Espana!
France are slight third favourites and possess terrific talent but I worry about their cohesiveness and the manager Didier Deschamps. His unwillingness to pick Karim Benzema yet bring on Andre-Pierre Gignac to win Euro 2016 will always hang over him. Dimitri Payet pretty much single-handedly took them to the final, yet against a deep side he took off the only man capable of unlocking Portugal after 58 minutes.
They’ve stuttered in a lot of their qualifiers winning 2-1 v Belarus, 1-0 v Bulgaria, drawing 0-0 v Luxembourg and 0-0 v Belarus as well as losing 1-2 v Sweden. I think there’s a huge danger he doesn’t know how to make the most out of this set of talented players.
Spain come next in the betting and Julen Lopetegui has done a good job of transforming them into a more potent side. Despite the goals they’ve scored, I’m still concerned they’re missing a top-class striker. Alvaro Morata has a great goals record but there’s a reason he wasn’t first choice at both Real Madrid and Juventus, whilst Diego Costa faces a long battle to regain form and fitness when he moves back to Atletico, and there’s a question mark over his compatibility with Spain’s tiki-taka style.
Personally I would play David Villa despite his age and club. Lopetegui has beaten all of France, Belgium, and Italy without conceding, and given their previous success with much of the same defence and midfield, I want to keep them onside at the prices, but they’re a watching brief for now.
And the money goes to….
Time is money so I’ll cut to the chase a little. Belgium have Roberto Martinez in charge so it’s a no from me. And in terms of outsiders, I like both Portugal and Croatia. Portugal are in pot 1 and while their World Cup record is a bit patchy, they’ve made the semis or better in four of the last five Euros, culminating in winning last summer.
As I said with Germany if you’re good at putting yourself in those positions they will have a great chance. Fernando Santos has built them into a solid side and obviously they have Cristiano Ronaldo upfront and there’s a fantastic group of young players coming through.
Croatia have an unbelievable midfield and should be dominating games with it. However, I worry about the experience of new coach Zlatko Dalic who’s spent the majority of his career managing in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
This is a good base to work from and provides some interesting thoughts. I’ll look to revisit this at the end of the season when the squads are named and we know the draw and make my bets for the 2018 World Cup.