World Cup Preview

World Cup

From June 14, 32 teams from around the globe will head to Russia for the 21st edition of the football World Cup. An estimated 3.4billion people are expected to tune in for 64 games, with the winner set to be crowned on July 15 at Moscow’s magnificent Luzhniki Stadium.

Despite the usual concerns over security and building schedules, the tournament is again set to break records and the talent on show is sure to excite both avid fans and newcomers alike.

With under a fortnight to go until the big kick-off, now seems the perfect time to look at the runners and riders for what promises to be a spectacular edition of the beautiful game’s greatest showpiece.

Usual suspects lining up

 Five-time winners Brazil are the 5.50 favourites and despite losing influential full-back Dani Alves, look ready to go. The news on talisman Neymar continues to be positive and boss Tite appears to have found the perfect blend of pragmatism to allow his attackers to excel.

The current crop of samba stars should have no issues against Group E opponents Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica, while vitally, topping the group should also see them avoid Germany until the final.

The Selecao won 3-0 when they faced Russia in Moscow in March and the same confidence is likely to be flowing through the French team. They also cruised home against the hosts, triumphing 3-1 in St Petersburg days after Brazil’s success.

Les Bleus are blessed with arguably the deepest squad of anyone heading to the World Cup but still have something to prove after losing in the final of Euro 2016.

Boss Didier Deschamps was the captain when his country won the tournament in 1998 and they are 7.00 to repeat the trick. Although Group C should be a formality, a lack of cohesion on the field still prompts doubts though and anyone looking for harmony are likely to favour reigning champions Germany.

Die Mannschaft are second in the outright betting at 5.75 and will be keen to channel the spirit of four years ago.

Joachim Low’s men produced one of the greatest performances in the tournament’s history when they defeated hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals and completed the job by batting past Argentina in extra-time.

Group F provides a friendly draw to the holders, who took a perfect 30 points in qualifying and will not fear Mexico, Sweden or South Korea in the early stages, while a potential quarter-final against England could be on the cards.

For those looking for value in the Golden Boot market, Thomas Muller could be the one. The man known as the “Raumdeuter” due to his all-action style took the gong in 2010 and with 10 goals in two World Cups, is a suitable candidate.

Champions of eight years ago Spain came through a tough qualifying group which also featured Italy and after stagnating under Vicente del Bosque, the more energetic Julen Lopetegui has reinvigorated the team.

7.00 in the outright betting puts them on a par with France but like Les Bleus, indecision over their style of play, as they switch between a target man and a ‘false nine’ may be La Roja’s downfall.

Of course, it was Argentina’s Lionel Messi who the ‘false nine’ role was invented for and in what is largely expected to be his final World Cup, the Barcelona star will likely carry La Albiceleste’s hopes. Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria provide an exceptional supporting cast but they are all attackers and this could be Argentina’s downfall.

Jorge Sampaoli is an astute coach, but a lack defensive cover, especially in the full-back areas, where winger Eduardo Salvio looks set to be employed, appears to be a recipe for disaster.

While they are fifth in the outright betting at 10.50 there is always an upset at the World Cup and Argentina’s unbalanced squad maybe the casualties. Group D against Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria will be tough and 6.00 for them to fall at the first hurdle is an interesting price considering they recently lost 6-1 to Spain and struggled through qualifying.

Belgium’s (12.00 Tournament Outright) mass of attacking talent is also outweighed by a lack of numbers defensively and they like Group G rivals England (21.00) are in need of a big tournament. One thing to look at for the Three Lions could be for Harry Kane to emulate Gary Lineker by winning the Golden Boot at 17.00

European champions Portugal (26.00) are also enigmatic, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s uncertainty at club level an unwanted distraction as they look to emerge from Group B against Spain.

So what of the hosts?

Hosts Russia could either fly or flop. The Sbornaya were tipped for a last four push when their country was awarded the tournament in 2010, with their exciting but inconsistent team featuring top players who were at their peak.

However, it is perhaps an indictment of their lack of progress that they are looking towards some of those same players heading into the tournament.

41.00 for them to win the tournament perhaps illustrates their task but the draw has been kind, with them 1.34 to open the tournament with a win against Saudi Arabia, before further tests against Egypt and Uruguay.

Dark horses

Funnily enough, those looking for dark horses may fancy a flutter on the Uruguayans.

Although unlikely to go all the way, the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera finished fourth under Oscar Tabarez in 2010 and with an uncertain Portugal expected to be their opponents in the last 16, La Celeste are 5.00 to be eliminated in the quarters.

Croatia, as ever, are also fancied to cause a few surprises. Group D looks wide open with Argentina and Nigeria also involved but the Croats are a talented bunch.

Any team with Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric pulling the strings has to be taken seriously, but things could get tricky against second-round opponents France and 2.75 for a last-16 elimination seems a good price.

The conditions could also suite Poland, who are 6.00 to go out in the last eight, while Group H rivals Colombia excelled in Brazil and are 4.30 to go out at the same stage.

New faces and returning heroes in Russia

Of the newcomers, neither Iceland nor Panama are likely to make too significant an impact, despite the northern Europeans shocking England at Euro 2016.

Another area for pessimism is the African teams are all in tough pools. No team from the continent has ever made it past the last eight and that is unlikely to change, although Egypt, regardless of the doubts over Mohamed Salah, have the potential to qualify from Group A at 2.60.