The wait is almost over and after four years of preparation, 32 international sides will soon be taking to the field at Russia 2018. We now have over a month of world class action to look forward but in one week’s time, some of those sides will already be staring at an early exit.
All countries involved will want to get their campaign off to a strong start but, the first task is to avoid defeat and as we’ve seen in countless tournaments, one bad result in the groups can lead directly to an early departure. Here, then are four of the most crucial matches ahead of the Round of 16.
Group B: Portugal v Spain: Sochi, June 15
Spain travelled to the 2014 World Cup on the back of three straight wins in major tournaments but they were about to learn a harsh lesson. Making a positive start can be key to progressing but the side never recovered from a 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Dutch and were eliminated at the group stage.
The 2018 Spanish squad are favourites to win Group B at best industry odds of 5/9 with 10Bet but supporters would have endured some horrific flashbacks after their side was drawn to play Portugal in the opener.
Spain are odds on favourites to win this game at 10/11 with Sun Bets but we are a little surprised that the market isn’t tighter. Portugal will attract some interest at 7/2 with Matchbook but we are keen on the draw at 23/10 with EnergyBet. That market has barely reacted to the stunning news regarding the sacking of Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui but that’s another factor that makes this such a fascinating opening game.
The timing of this match is most crucial as it’s the opening game in the group for both sides. As Spain found to their cost in 2014, losing means you are playing ‘catch up’ and no-one wants to go into a final tie when they are desperate for the points. The same theory applies to Portugal and despite the attacking potency on both sides, the first priority is not to lose.
Group E: Switzerland v Serbia: Kaliningrad, June 22
Group E is all about tournament favourites Brazil who should coast through this section without any alarms so the battle is on between Switzerland and Serbia for second place. Costa Rica complete this group and will be hoping to have a say after impressing in the 2014 tournament but in terms of progressing to the round of 16, it should all come down to this showdown in Kaliningrad on June 22.
The sides are joint favourites to win the group at 8/1 but in terms of qualification and in winning this vital game, the Swiss are just ahead. Switzerland are at 31/20 with Fun88 to beat the Serbs who are at 39/20 with the same outlet and those figures underline how tense this could be.
The Swiss are widely tipped to come through it but much could depend on Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic. The striker underwhelmed at Newcastle United but has a healthy scoring record at international level and he could take the late season scoring form he enjoyed with Fulham over to Russia.
Group F: Mexico v Sweden: Yekaterinburg, June 27
Here we have a similar scenario to Group E with one team, in this case Germany at 1/3 with Sun Bets, down as hot favourites to win the section. Once again, that gives us one outsider – South Korea – leaving us with what should be a straight battle for second place when Mexico take on Sweden.
The betting is less tight in this section with the Mexicans listed as a clear second favourite at a general 5/1 as opposed to Sweden’s typical 7/1, but once again the timing of the key fixture in the group is critical.
The two sides will head to Yekaterinburg for their final game in Group F and, if all goes to plan, they will have been despatched by the Germans, taken points of what looks to be a poor South Korean side, leaving what is effectively a straight knockout.
The result market is relatively tight with Mexico leading the way at odds of 7/5 with 18Bet while Sweden follow at 21/10 with Fun88. Key players here include West Ham United’s Javier Hernandez who is the country’s all-time leading goal scorer while PSV’s Hirving Lozano is widely tipped for a breakthrough tournament that will earn him a big money move later in the summer.
For Sweden, there is no Zlatan Ibrahimovic and this looks to be a side light on goals with strikers such as John Guidetti and Ola Toivonen who have modest international records. It’s a crunch game and there will be no room for passengers in what should be a qualification decider.
Group G: Tunisia v England: Volgograd, June 18
In most countries across the world this would be seen as an easy 90 minutes for favourites England but those of us who have endured up to 52 years of hurt know what might transpire. Even when Alf Ramsey and Bobby Moore led England to World Cup glory in 1966, the team started slowly, drawing their first match 0-0 with Uruguay and that’s a pattern that has been continued for most tournaments since.
Italia 90 and Euro 96 are examples of competitions where England sides have overcome poor starts to progress deep into the tournament but in the majority of cases a bad opening result can lead to an early exit. Brazil 2014 is the perfect example where, in an admittedly tough group, Roy Hodgson’s side lost to Italy and Uruguay before scraping a draw against the Costa Ricans.
Other England sides have lost or drawn to much weaker opposition and with a strong Belgium unit waiting in the final game, Gareth Southgate’s men will not relish the prospect of going into that match needing at least a draw. Natural pessimism may be affecting my judgement – after all England are hot favourites to beat the Tunisians at 4/9 with Matchbook – but we’ve all been here before…