World Cup 2018 is a week old, and already we have seen plenty of the things we expect from one of sport’s greatest spectacles: outstanding goals, brilliant play, vociferous pan-continental support and the occasional turgid clash between teams who, perhaps, shouldn’t really be playing amongst football’s elite.
A week is a decent sample size to draw some conclusions about the tournament as a whole, although with many of the big boys still having only played one game it is arguably too early to say who has their hands on the trophy and who can expect to be on the next plane home.
That said, here are some early observations that may help punters to draw up their World Cup 2018 bets.
The Form Horses
The early days of the tournament have been bizarre in that, almost without exception, the most fancied teams have struggled.
Instead, it’s been left to some lesser lights to provide the World Cup’s brightest spots so far.
Of course, hosts Russia have taken most of the plaudits, and with two wins from two and -eight goals scored – why not. In reality, they have played an awful Saudi Arabia side and an Egypt outfit featuring Mo Salah operating at about 50%, but you can only beat what is put in front of you and the Russians have done that supremely well thus far.
We should spare a word for Iran in Group B, too. Despite showing limited ambition in their two matches so far, they have beaten Morocco courtesy of a 95th minute own goal and lost by a single goal to Spain. The Iranians will qualify for the knockout phase if they beat Portugal, and stranger things have happened than that in the beautiful game.
The performance of World Cup 2018 so far has to go to Mexico, who deservedly downed the reigning champions Germany 1-0. The Mexicans counter-attacked brilliantly, and rendered the Germans almost chance-less; there’s not been many times we’ve been able to say that over the past three decades.
Take your pick: Brazil, Germany and Argentina are all win-less at the time of writing.
That trio will be looking to bounce back in their second outings, but realistically if they don’t claim all three points against Costa Rica, Sweden and Croatia respectively then they are bang in trouble.
Others that have disappointed include France and the European champions Portugal. Both are in excellent positions in their groups, admittedly, but neither have shown anything like the form required to win a World Cup.
The Portuguese owe a huge debt of gratitude to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored all four of their goals so far. If he was to eat a dodgy batch of stroganoff in the coming days, Portugal would have practically zero chance of lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.
Champions of the World
Making predictions at this early stage is very difficult, as we still expect Brazil, Germany and Argentina to find their form to differing extents.
You could certainly make a case for Spain, who are in as short as 9/2 with bet365 after a decent start. They deserved all three points against Portugal in their opener, and did their best to break down an Iran side who decided to stand in two lines in front of their own penalty area and do very little else for the best part of an hour-and-a-half.
The Spaniards only need a point against Morocco to secure a last 16 place, and by that reckoning they, at this moment in time, are arguably the best bet.
A case can be made for Belgium too, who have crept into 9/1 with Betfred and on the exchanges with Matchbook. Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku all hit the ground running against Panama, and defensively they barely got out of first gear.
Remember, whether the Belgians win Group G or not they will face one of Poland, Senegal, Japan or Colombia in the last 16, and you can’t really ask for an easier task than that at this stage of the tournament.
With so many ‘known unknowns’, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, Spain and Belgium at this moment appear to be the smart bets.
Hot Streaks and Golden Boots
Cristiano Ronaldo has leapt to the top of the goalscoring charts in Russia with four, but we wouldn’t be too hasty in piling in event at encouraging odds of 7/4 with Sun Bets.
Portugal simply aren’t very good, and it’s unlikely they will progress beyond the last 16 – assuming they get past Iran next up, of course.
And here’s some food for thought. Most sportsbooks are still paying out four places for each way Golden Boot wagers. At the World Cup 2014, you only needed to score four times to secure one of those places, so how about a flutter on Denis Cheryshev at a generous 25/1 with William Hill?
Russia are guaranteed a last 16 place, which means that the winger has at least two matches to net that fourth goal. This is a nation that has a habit of producing shock goalscorers – as anyone who remembers World Cup ’94 Golden Boot winner, Oleg Salenko, will testify – and so there are certainly worse bets out there.
Notes for Punters
With tens of millions of people watching all around the globe, ideally the World Cup would be the perfect advert for the beautiful game, with flowing, end-to-end matches propped up by lots of goals.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case so far in 2018 in a tournament that has lacked exciting matches; Spain and Portugal’s thrilling 3-3 stalemate aside.
It doesn’t help that there is a whole bunch of fixtures that most of us wouldn’t walk down to our local park to watch, let alone skive off work for.
That general malaise has been reflected in a lack of goals. Although we still await the first 0-0 draw, the average goal per game count is down at 2.25 and skewed significantly by that 3-3 draw mentioned and Russia’s 5-0 tonking of Saudi Arabia.
Just 8 out of 20 matches played at the time of writing had witnessed both teams scoring, and to make matters worse nearly a third of all goals scored (29%) have been penalties or own goals.
It’s no surprise to learn that the Europeans have dominated on home soil. Nations from the continent average 2.18 points per game thus far, with South Americans at 1.33, Central America at 1.00, Asia at 0.86 and African countries at a lowly 0.43.
Hopefully things will improve as the games that follow have far more resting on them but there are certainly some smart bets out there after week one of Russia 2018.
Written by Craig Simpkin
A sports journalist with a smorgasbord of experience writing for a variety of publications, Craig is a Leicester fan hoping that England can also achieve the impossible this summer.