World Cup betting tips: French fancied to win this game of Russian Roulette
IT is here. Just 1,432 days after Mario Goetze scored an extra-time winner to see Germany crowned world champions at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, we stand on the cusp of another World Cup.
No sporting event comes close to this one in term of colour, drama, wall-to-wall entertainment or, in most cases, controversy.
Mention a classic game from the past and most fanatics will be able to tell you who scored, who was sent off, and what pub they watched it in.
No other spectacle has the capacity to turn grown men into little boys, buying ridiculously overpriced shirts and going into shops to pick up stickers, telling the person at the till that they are ‘for my nephew’.
The curtain goes up in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow today, when the host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia, and very quickly the rights (are there any?) and wrongs of awarding the World Cup to Putin’s nation will be forgotten. At least that is the hope.
It might just be the hardest World Cup for fans to follow, given the massive distances between venues and the cost of surviving for a few weeks in Russia, but for us sitting at home watching on the television, it has the capacity to thrill like nothing else.
And what makes this World Cup even more intriguing is the fact that there is no clear favourite.
Each of the contenders has massive strengths and pretty glaring weaknesses. We can talk until we are are blue in the face about who is going to win it, but at best it is an educated guess.
So here goes with my educated guesswork.
If the bookies are to be believed this is very much a four-horse race, with Brazil favourites having been backed in to 4/1 generally ahead of holders Germany (5/1) and Spain and France, who were both available at 7/1 at the time of writing.
Argentina then head a three-strong group of ‘second tier’ nations, but the fact that they are no bigger than 10/1 owes simply to the layers being scared of Lionel Messi, and ignores the fact they only just scraped through to the finals and went down 6-1 to the Spanish in a recent friendly.
Argentina have huge issues defensively and I can’t be having a bar of them, Messi or not.
Belgium are also too short at 11/1, despite the talent in their panel.
Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have the ability to light up the tournament, and they are in a decent group, but this is a team that were hammered by Wales at Euro 2016 and is now managed by Roberto Martinez. Enough said.
England are seventh in the betting at around 18/1 and I expect them to have a decent tournament under Gareth Southgate.
But by that I mean they can reach the last eight, at which point their defence is likely to be found out, and no team can seriously compete at this level with either Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson, or even both, anchoring midfield.
So, realistically, the bookies have got it right – it is a four-horse race, but which of the horses should we be on?
Brazil have edged into favouritism after a number of impressive warm-up wins, and one glance at their attacking options makes it easy to see why.
Neymar is the main man and should be fresh after recovering from injury, while Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho are his support acts in a front three, with Roberto Firmino and Douglas Costa providing excellent back-up.
Yet I’d be worried about the players behind them. A midfield built around Casemiro and Manchester City’s Fernandinho will make sure the soft centre so ruthlessly exploited by the Germans four years ago no longer exits, but neither do they offer much creativity and I’d be worried if Tite’s side have to chase a game, while European sides do traditionally win on their own continent.
Germany, meanwhile, are aiming to become the first side since the Brazilians in 1962 to successfully defend the World Cup, while no holders have even reached the final since Brazil did so in France 20 years ago.
So Joachim Low is going up against the hand of history as well as worrying form, having failed to win for five matches before limping past the Saudis 2-1 last Friday night.
Of course, that run has to be taken with a slight pinch of salt as plenty of experimentation has been going on as Low tries to sort out his options and lessen his dependence on the surviving members of the 2014 squad.
Germany always give a good account of themselves on the big stage, having at least reached the semi-finals of their last six tournaments, but they have been friendless in the betting in recent weeks and don’t have the easiest draw alongside Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.
I’d still expect them to top Group F, but there will be no easy games and an over-reliance on the old guard of Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller might catch up with them towards the business end.
Which leaves us with Spain and France, and I wouldn’t be in a rush to rule out the Spanish, despite the 11th hour departure of Real Madrid-bound manager Julen Lopetegui.
The Spanish eased through a qualifying group that contained Italy and have been scoring for fun in friendlies since.
Lopetegui’s sacking has clearly left plenty of uncertainties, with so much now riding on tomorrow’s Group B clash with European champions Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Win that and Spain will still top a section that also includes Morocco and Iran, and while they aren’t the all-conquering outfit of 2008-12, there is so much class and experience in their ranks, and Lopetegui’s successor will have to go along with the fluid gameplan that destroyed Argentina recently.
David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world, while Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos offer a very strong base, alongside holding midfielder Sergio Busquets.
The attacking options are mouth-watering, with David Silva, Isco, and Andres Iniesta pulling the strings, while Diego Costa is expected to lead the line in his uncompromising style, although there is a chance they’ll go without a recognised centre-forward.
There is plenty to like about Spain, and I would be loathe to put anyone off a bet despite the Lopetegui-shaped hole, but in the interests of putting my neck on the line I’ll say that they might just lose the final to France.
The French should have won Euro 2016 on their own soil but came unstuck in the final against a rugged Portugal side.
Their squad looks stronger now, and player-for-player they have the best panel in the tournament.
That in itself may be a weakness as coach Didier Deschamps chops and changes.
However, the French have been handed a decent group alongside Denmark, Peru and Australia and with the players at Deschamps’ disposal there is no excuse this time.
Right through the team and on the bench there is quality, with Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane providing an excellent platform behind a perfectly balanced midfield of N’golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba.
The latter often flatters to deceive but he is in no doubt that a couple of poor performances will see him replaced, with Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso waiting in the wings, so I expect Pogba to have a big few weeks.
In attack, Deschamps must decide whether to start with the under-rated Olivier Giroud as a focal point or just go for raw pace and creativity in Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and the brilliant Antoine Griezmann.
That’s not a bad headache to have, and either way a united France team will take a lot of beating.
At 7/1 they are the team to be on the side of, while there is a lot to like about the 20/1 offered by Bet365 about France facing Spain in the final.
Of the rest, Uruguay might be the best dark horses at 28/1 with Boylesports.
They were second to Brazil in South American qualifying and should coast to victory in Group A ahead of Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Once in the knock-out stages anything can happen, especially with the Atletico Madrid pair of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the back and Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front, so they might be worth a small each-way wager.
Realistically, however, it is all about that ‘big four’, and France could just be the pick of the bunch.
Bring it on.
A month of amazing action, and another few weeks to finish the sticker album – for the nephew of course.
France, 7/1 (888sport)
France v Spain final, 20/1 (Bet365)
Uruguay, e.w, 28/1 (Boylesports)
Griez is the word in top scorer market
HANDS up if you backed the top goalscorer at the last World Cup?
If you have your hand up you’re either a footballing soothsayer or a blatant liar.
Four years ago in Brazil, Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez made off with the Golden Boot after finding the net six times in his side’s run to the quarter-finals and bagged himself a move to Real Madrid.
Rodriguez, 150/1 before the off, held off Germany’s Thomas Muller, who scored five times for the second successive World Cup.
That tally was enough to share top scorer honours with Diego Forlan, David Villa and Wesley Sneijder in South Africa in 2010, although Muller was the official Golden Boot winner by virtue of assists.
The German is back for more in Russia and will have his fans again at around 33/1 given his proven calibre on the biggest stage, although his strike-rate has slowed down for both his national side and Bayern Munich in recent seasons.
As always, the main factors to consider here are whether a player’s team will go deep into the tournament, or whether they are in a gift of a group and could fill their boots in the early games.
If a selection ticks both of those boxes, even better.
Neymar is almost certain to be involved until the business end and heads the top goalscorer betting at 9/1, ahead of Lionel Messi, who is 11/1 with Ladbrokes.
The latter will be backed by fans with blind faith, but I can’t see Argentina going beyond the last eight and they’re in a tight enough opening group.
I can certainly see the logic behind a flutter on Neymar, but there has to be a chance Brazil’s goals will be shared around between him, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho.
Rather, my main play here will be on Antoine Griezmann, who is certainly France’s number one in front of goal.
The Atletico Madrid man proved his mettle on the big stage by top-scoring in the Euros two years ago and comes into the finals buoyed by a match-winning brace against Marseille in the Europa League final.
While Didier Deschamps is prone to rotating his attacking options, Griezmann remains a constant and also takes his side’s penalties.
At 12/1 in a side who should reach the semis at least, and thus guarantee seven matches, he is crying out to be backed, while the 40/1 offered by Bet365 about a France/Griezmann double has to be worth a pound.
I thought long and hard about including England skipper Harry Kane, but in the end I opted for Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku instead.
The case for both is much the same in that they are the main strikers for teams who should reach the last eight and start off in a group that contains Panama and Tunisia.
Yet, Belgium might just create more chances in the opening games and Lukaku will be raring to go after missing the last couple of weeks of Manchester United’s season with an ankle knock.
He showed his fitness by scoring three times in friendlies against Egypt and Costa Rica and has a great international scoring record, with 36 strikes in 69 games.
Lukaku has plenty of faults but is known to shine against minnows and should be backed each-way at 18/1 with William Hill.
Elsewhere, Edinson Cavani has never been in better form and is far too big at 25/1.
The PSG man scored 10 times in qualifying and has just been the top marksman for the second season on the bounce n France.
Uruguay could go very well over the next month and while Luis Suarez will also be looking to get on the end of chances, Cavani has looked sharper this term and should be capable of at least getting the four goals that would all but guarantee an each-way payout.
Finally, Spain’s Isco can go better than his 50/1 quotes suggest, while at 5/1 he could easily be Spain’s top scorer ahead of Diego Costa.
The Real playmaker has a decent scoring record at international level – 10 goals in 26 – and got a hat-trick against Argentina in March.
He is an integral part of a fluid attacking system and while he’s not an out-and-out striker, that hasn’t stopped James, Sneijder or indeed Muller going well in the past.
Antoine Griezmann, 12/1 (General)
Romelu Lukaku e/w, 18/1 (William Hill)
Edinson Cavani, e.w, 25/1 (General)
Isco, e/w, 50/1 (Sky Bet); top Spain scorer, 5/1 (Bet365)
Best of the rest...
THE race for the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player at the World Cup, is always a hard one to predict, but if you’ve read the rest of these pages you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Antoine Griezmann.
If France win the World cup for the second time he will be the star so he is worth a small interest at 25/1 with Bet Victor.
Two little Spanish superstars are also live hopes in this market, with David Silva hoping to build on a superb season with Manchester City in the red shirt of his national team.
The little master is another to keep an eye on at 33s, while his team-mate Andres Iniesta should be backed at the same price with Ladbrokes.
Fifa would love nothing better than to give an award to one of the best players of his generation, and if the Spaniards can get to the latter stages a political decision could well be made.
GARETH Southgate’s England are a long way away from being genuine contenders in Russia, but with expectation at realistic levels for a change they could quietly impress.
England haven’t won a knock-out game at a tournament since the ‘Golden Generation’ saw off Ecuador in the last 16 in Germany 12 years ago and righting that wrong will be a priority.
It is a toss-up whether Belgium or Southgate’s men win Group G ahead of Panama and Tunisia, but they will qualify and have a decent last 16 tie, probably against Colombia or Poland.
Win that and either Brazil or Germany should lie in wait and the party stops there, so the 11/5 on offer generally about an English quarter-final exit is worth a look.
RUSSIANS might never admit to vulnerability, but they could be set for an early exit from their own World Cup.
Stanislav Cherchesov has an ageing squad at his disposal and they concede goals at an alarming rate.
While the hosts should start with a win against the only side in the finals lower than them in the Fifa rankings, Saudi Arabia, they are likely to find Uruguay far too good while Egypt are very tight defensively and have the superb Mo Salah to get goals.
The Africans are a better team than Russia and with their game the pivotal one in Group A, I can see the hosts not reaching the last 16.
They are 9/4 with Sky Bet not to qualify which is very tasty.
SPEAKING of Group A, Uruguay might be the bet of the opening round at 10/11 to top the section, and they are a rock-solid foundation for any accumulators at this stage.
Mexico always reach the knock-out stages and can follow Germany out of Group F at the expense of South Korea and a workmanlike Sweden.
The Mexicans are 5/6 to go through, while for a decent treble I’d also throw Serbia in to qualify from Group E behind Brazil.
Switzerland and Costa Rica make up that group but the Serbs have experience in defence and an excellent midfield in Man United’s Nemanja Matic, Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic and highly-rated Lazio youngster Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
Crucially, they also have an in-form striker in Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored a glut of goals on loan at Fulham in their run to promotion.
Serbia look a better package than either of their rivals in Group E and at 11/10 to qualify they can add the gloss to an 8/1 treble.