World Cup

World Cup - Last 16 Stage Thoughts

Added by Puskas - 27th June on 10:00pm

Review of Group Stages

We have been treated to a feast of football with 48 games over the past two weeks and rarely a dull moment. The total of 136 goals is the most we have seen since the 32 team format was introduced in 1998 and is just one short of the total number of goals scored in the entire 2010 tournament. The Group stages have been the most exciting we have seen since 1986 and a continuation of the same attacking spirit might see this tournament rank alongside the greatest tournament of them all, 1970. We have reviewed the tournament and the status of our advised bets to date:

The Good

Latin American Performance

The teams from the Americas (CONCACAF and CONMEBOL) have performed extremely well with 8 of the 10 teams advancing to the knockout stage - the only two to miss out were Honduras and Ecuador who can consider themselves slightly unlucky given they lost out to Switzerland with a last minute goal. We advised a four point win on a South American victory at the outset and nothing we have seen to date would change that recommendation. Indeed it is a surprise that 17-20 is still available with Bet365.

Chile and Colombia have excited many neutrals and given that the top quarter of the draw comprises four South American teams, we are guaranteed at least one semi-finalist. Uruguay showed their famed battling qualities in recovering from a disastorous opening round defeat to Costa Rica, to overcome both England and Italy. They will of course miss Suarez, but Colombia look a little short at Even money to dispose of a team which knows how to progress through tournaments.

Costa Rica, Mexico and the US have all surprised to reach the last 16. It is the Costa Ricans who perhaps have the scope to progress furthest given their tie against Greece will be held in sweltering Recife - they are currently 5-4 with Skybet to be leading North American team.

It is arguable that the two South American participants with most questions to answer at this point are Brazil and Argentina. Brazil look a shadow of the team that impressed so much at the Confederations Cup last Summer and have been grateful for the electric and timely contributions from Neymar. Their back four looks extremely vulnerable with an element of panic every time the ball enters their own box. David Luiz has the air of a player who is simply too hyped up to function effectively and could prove a liability in due course.

Scolari may just be a lucky general who will stumble across his best team at some point and he would be a brave man to omit Fernandinho over Paulinho after the formers' excellent performance in the second half of their final Group game against Cameroon. Brazil looked a far better balanced outfit after the Manchester City mans' introduction and I expect them to raise their game to dispose of neighbouring opposition in the next two rounds.

One worry would be Brazil's mental state if they were to go behind in a game for any extended period of time. The pressure to attack from the home crowd would be intolerable and there are some excellent counter-attacking sides in wait for them in the shape of Chile, Colombia and possibly further down the line, Holland.

Argentina appear to have a simpler task to reach the semi-finals with Switzerland and most likely Belgium lying in wait.  However, they currently look a dreadfully unbalanced team with two central midfielders, in Gago and Mascherano, who are completely unable to impact the game and to transistion the ball from defence to attack. Argentina, of course, have the best player in the world eager to create his international legacy, but Messi is much easier to shackle in this current formation.

It is interesting to note that Guardiola spent most of his early time at Barcelona trying to get Messi closer to goal and his team-mates out of his way - the likes of Henry, Eto and Villa all found themselves on the wing rather than as number nines because of Peps desire to get Messi in front of goal.  Alejandro Sabella has Messi playing behind two central strikers which means very little space although the injury to Sergio Ageuro might mean a more balanced side with the introduction of Lavezzi.

At this stage, neither Brazil or Argentina convince enough to avail of the 7-2 and 4-1 available respectively. Our advised bet that the two will clash in the final remains a very realistic possibility.

African Teams

It is arguable that African teams could feature in either the good, the bad or the ugly of this review. Cameroon and Ghana were a disgrace off the pitch, with the former continuing that trend for most of their time on the pitch.

Ghana were clearly the second best side in Group G, but dreadful individual defensive errors saw them concede two goals in each of their matches. However, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that two African teams have qualified for the knock-out stages for the first time.

Nigeria were aided with fortunate decisions in their clash against Bosnia, but Algeria were a breath of fresh air and fully merited their progression. They have grown from the strong defensive side we saw in 2010 by blending pace and youth in attack. Their performances should be used as a template for other African sides in future tournaments.

France

Looked an awesome outfit in their first two outings against Honduras and Switzerland and with some luck, Karim Benzema could have the Golden Boot wrapped up already. Their likely QF clash with Germany will be the tie of the round but may come too soon for this developing Les Bleus side.

They now have lots of options in attack and they look a side to follow over the next 2-4 years.

Holland

Written off in many quarters, including this one, pre-tournament as being too inexperienced, they tore Spain apart in a frighteningly effective display of counter-attacking. They stuttered slightly against Australia but it is arguable that their 2-0 defeat of Chile was their most impressive display. It was a tactical masterclass from Van Gaal with a deep five at the back soaking up Chilean pressure and hitting on the break.

Given their quarter of the draw features Mexico, Costa Rica and Greece, they will strongly fancy their chances of reaching the last four. At that point, the confidence of their young players will be flowing and their ability to counter-attack at speed through the likes of Robben and Depay will make them a very dangerous side in knock-out football.

James Rodriguez

Simply wonderful to watch.

Free-kick Referee Spray

So much joy from something so simple.

The Game of Football

The big winner in the tournament to date. Anyone backing under 2.5 goals per game, which was such a successful system in 2010, would now be operating with a greatly reduced betting bank.

The Bad

Spain

The obvious place to begin. As we outlined in our Outright Preview, there was a risk that Vicente Del Bosque would rely on the old war-horses such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Casillas et al in the hope that they could find the hunger and legs to win a fourth successive international tournament.

Their departure has been analysed to death but such is the depth of talent in Spanish football, their success at youth level (something England could learn a great deal from) and their commitment to possession football, they will not be away from the top tier of international football for long.

European Teams

Only 6 of the 13 European teams qualified for the knock-out stages which is the lowest number of teams under the current format and makes a mockery of UEFA demands for an additional qualifying spot based on FIFA rankings.

Italy, Spain, England, Portugal and Russia all have strong domestic leagues but the influx of foreigners into the latter three leagues is creating serious problems in developing domestic talent. How Portugal can be left relying on a centre forward of the quality of Eder, with 3 domestic league goals for Braga last season, is beyond comprehension.

Similarly England (ranked #26 of the 32 teams by FIFA) have a paucity of talent across their back four, which is hard to see improving in the near future, and was exposed by Roy Hodgson's decision to play only two central midfielders.

Croatia and Bosnia were disappointing when the pressure came on although the latter can consider themselves extremely unfortunate not to progress from a weak Group given the officials performance in their clash with Nigeria. Even the likes of Switzerland and Greece did little to impress during the tournament although it is hard not to be impressed by the latters' ability to grind our results from a limited pool of players.

Ugly

Asian Teams

No qualifier for the knock-out stages as in 2006 and 1998, but their four participants all actually finished bottom of their Groups, without a single win, and were ranked 27-30th on FIFA rankings for the tournament.

Big questions have to be asked how the AFC (Asia) can have four qualifying spots with South America granted six. Indeed, the sixth qualifier has to play-off against the leading Oceanic representative. It may be time to review the AFCs allocation if they cannot provide teams that are competitive.

Luis Suarez

Does the internet need really more written about this unfortunate saga?!

Betting Highlights

Calling Group H correctly with Algeria to qualify and Russias to miss out.

Betting Lowlights

Bosnia - let down by referring decisions but ultimately disappointing and should have had enough to qualify from a weak Group.
Positivity on Chile to qualify let down by Spain.

Outright Market

We previewed five teams in detail pre-tournament and four remain. Nothing we have seen from Brazil, Argentina and Germany to date has altered my view that each team has significant flaws which make them vulnerable. The winner is still most likely to come from amongst this trio and I see little scope for adding to our current advised positions.

These are as follows (advised 7th June)

4 points win                                     Winning Continent:  South America at 10/11 with Ladbrokes and Coral
1.5 points win                                 Name the Finalists: Brazil v Argentina  at 9/1 with CoralPaddy Power and Boylesports



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World Cup - Other Markets:

Added by Puskas - 10th June on 10:00pm

Top Scorer Market

Since 1970 only two players (Gary Lineker in 1986 and Oleg Salenko in 1994) have managed to win the Golden Boot without appearing in a semi-final. If we follow that statistic through, we can narrow the likely winner down to players from 5-6 nations at most.

A noticeable feature of many fancied sides in this tournament is the lack of a traditional centre-forward. Obviously this is something reigning champions Spain have lacked over the past 2-3 years due to loss of form from Torres and injuries to Villa - their successful adoption of a false number 9 tactic at Euro2012 may see other countries attempt to imitate them.

Argentina are a side that seem well equipped to reach the semi-final at the very least given their favourable Group draw. Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi heads the overall top scorer market at 8-1. His teammate Kun Aguero is also likely to be popular at 14-1. However, it is a true centre-forward in Gonzalo Higuain that appeals most at 22-1 given he scored nine goals in qualifying (just one less than Messi and four more than Kun). With 20 goals in 36 international appearances and 24 goals in his debut season in Serie A, he seems set to out-perform his current odds.

There is some doubt as to how Germany are likely to line-up from midfield up from the start of the tournament. Despite an indifferent first season in English football and some recent criticism from Joachim Low, Mesut Ozil seems likely to have a key role, with him likely to be deployed in the number 10 position behind Mario Gotze. Ozil was top scorer for the Germans in qualifying with 8 goals and given he is their regular penalty taker, he looks over-priced at 100-1. Thomas Muller is likely to popular for the Germans at 33-1 and it also worth considering Lukas Podolski at 80-1, as an each-way alternative, given he has 47 international goals and has scored 5 in the last two World Cups. However, it is a surprise that Ozil is a substantially bigger price than both team-mates.

Top Scorer Advised Bet

  • 0.75 points each way                          Gonzalo Higuain at 22/1 with Coral
  • 0.5 points each way                             Mesut Ozil at 100/1 with Stan James

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Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)

Given Brazil have won 21 of their 24 group games since 1982, it would be highly surprising if they did not top this Group with a minimum of 7 points.

The battle will be between Croatia and Mexico for second spot as Cameroon have a squad in disarray over bonus payments and petty personal disputes between some of their leading players. The Mexicans, perennial World Cup qualifiers, have reached the second round in each of the last five World Cups. They put together a dreadful qualifying campaign (just two wins in 10 games) and finished a distant fourth behind the US, Costa Rica and Honduras. They were reliant on two late goals from the US to deny Panama the fourth spot on goal difference. Mexico easily saw off New Zealand in the play-off game (9-3 on aggregate). Ranked 20th in the FIFA rankings, they triumphed at the London Olympics in 2012 and one can expect them to improve considerably on their qualifying efforts.

Croatia have been unlucky with the game schedule as they will be forced to travel between the North, East and South of the country and play in both Recife and Manaus. Their squad is littered with high quality players such as Modric and Rakitic, although their defence is vulnerable, particularly the ageing Vedlan Corluka at centre-half. I expect them to just about shade the battle for second place.

Brazil and Mexico have played each other 18 times since 1997 with an average of 3.25 goals per game. Mexico have a surprisingly good record having triumphed in 7 of the 18 games. Expect their game against the hosts to be a high-scoring affair and it looks an attractive bet to be the game with most goals in the Group. It is of benefit that the games falls in the second phase of games - Brazil are understandably likely to be a little nervous in their opening encounter and may well rest a number of star players for the Cameroon game if guaranteed qualification.

Group A Advised Bets

2 points win                                         Cameroon under 2.5 points at 5/6 with Paddy Power
1 point win                                           Brazil v Mexico: Game with most goals at 16/5 with Paddy Power

 

Group B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)

The battle to top this Group will be particularly intense given the dubious prize of Brazil is likely to await the runner-up in the Last 16. As we outlined in our preview, we expect Chile to provide plenty of excitement in the tournament and rate a good bet to score most goals in this group – they are also likely to allow a few in at the other end.

We have provided our rationale outlining why the Dutch might struggle to replicate their performance in 2010 and there is some value in the Spain/Chile straight forecast. Given the weakness of their squad, Australia are likely to struggle very badly in this Group. 

Group B Advised Bets

1.5 points win                               Chile to score most goals in Group at 11/4 with William Hill
1.5 points win                               Spain/Chile straight forecast at 3/1 with Ladbrokes



 

Group C (Colombia, Greece, Japan, Ivory Coast)

This looks a very intriguing Group with competitors from four different continents lining up in opposition.

Colombia have suffered from the loss of star man Falcao, although the impressive Jackson Martinez is a useful replacement, and look too short in the outright market and to top the Group here despite an impressive South American qualifying campaign (finished second, 2 points behind Argentina). It is also worth watching out for exciting widemen James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado of Fiorentina.

The Ivory Coast, have similar to the past two World Cups, produced a very strong squad on paper. Having suffered two very difficult draws in 2006 and 2010, this looks their best chance to date of progressing to the Last 16 .

Japan and Greece both struggle to score enough goals at this level. The Greeks are very stubborn opponents who put together a fine qualifying campaign in finishing level on points with Bosnia in their qualifying group (25 points from 10 games with 5 of their 9 wins coming on a 1-0 scoreline). They easily accounted for Romania in a play-off (4-2 on aggregate) and are an experienced tournament team. They will not score many goals but in a Group likely to be decided on small margins, they look over-priced as outsiders at 15-2 to win the Group.

Group C Advised Bets

1 point win                                        Greece to win Group C at 15/2 with Boylesports


 

Group D (Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica)

Similar to Group B, this looks a straight-forward two from three. At the prices, it is hard to find much value in the To Qualify or To Win Group market.

Uruguay are probably best treated by conditions and match schedule with an opener against Costa Rica whilst Italy and England flog themselves in the humidity of Manaus. Luis Suarez was impressive in qualifying for Uruguay with 11 goals in total. Edison Cavani chipped in with six goals and given Suarez may miss the Costa Rica game, there is a chance that Cavani can steal a march on the Liverpool star.

England are coming into this tournament with reduced expectations, but one can imagine Roy Hodgson sticking to his default conservative strategy. England will spend most of evening chasing the ball against Italy as they did in Euro2012. A failure to score in their opening game means they are unlikely to score more than 3.5 goals in the remaining two games particularly against an ultra defensive Costa Rica side who typically line up in a 5-4-1 formation – it must also be remembered that England only scored 2 goals in their Group games against USA, Slovenia and Algeria in 2010.

Cesare Prandelli still has to settle on a side and formation but should Italy avoid their usual slow start, their traditional strengths can see them go deep in the tournament.

Group D Advised Bets

1 point win                                      Edison Cavani to be Uruguay's top scorer at 2/1 with BetVictor

1.5 points win                                England under 3.5 goals at 6/5 with Coral
 

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Group E (Switzerland, France, Ecuador, Honduras)

As outlined in our Outright Preview, we feel Switzerland have the ideal set-up to progress from this Group under the superb management of Ottmar Hitzfeld, although lack of an experienced goal-scorer is somewhat of a worry.

Ecuador put together a solid qualifying campaign but it is no surprise that 22 of their 24 points came at home in Quito, which is 10,000 feet above sea level. They are a much less fearful proposition at sea level although their last appearance at a World Cup in 2006 saw them progress from their Group.

Honduras are a physical defensive outfit as witnessed in their 0-0 draw last weekend against England. They only conceded 3 goals in the Group stages in 2010 (against Spain, Chile and Switzerland), although they failed to score themselves, so their ability to cause problems should not be underestimated.

France should have enough quality to take the second qualifying spot over Ecuador.

Group E Advised Bets

1 point win                                      Switzerland to win Group at 11/4 with Betway

1.5 points win                                Honduras under 1.5 total goals at 39/29 with Betbright

 

Sports Betting - Betway

 

Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, Iran)

Probably the most straight-forward Group to predict to my eyes, with Argentina clear favourites to progress alongside Bosnia. We previously outlined why we think Bosnia are a good bet to progress to the Last 16 and possibly even beyond.

Iran are unlikely to cause too many problems for anyone in the Group but will be very well organised defensively which is a speciality of manager Carlos Queiroz.  Odds about them failing to score a goal at 6-1 look of interest as does under 2.5 goals in each of their individual matches.

Nigeria competed in last Summer’s Confederation Cup as reigning African Cup of Nations champions. However, they scored only 11 goals in 8 qualifying games and their lack of class from midfield up is likely to tell against the top two in this Group.

Group F Advised Bets

2.5 points win                                       Argentina/Bosnia straight forecast at 6/4 with BetVictor


 

Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA)

This looks a very difficult Group both to qualify from and to find a strong betting angle.

Ghana were a penalty kick away from reaching the semi-final in 2010 and retain much of the same side which excelled at defending deep and counter-attacking. We can expect them to fight out second place in the group with Portugal.

The US have decided to base themselves in Sao Paulo, despite all three games being played in the hot and humid North. Their all-action style is like to suffer in such conditions and it is worth remembering they have been beaten by Ghana in both of the last two World Cups albeit in extra-time in 2010.

If Ghana can repeat the feat, the US looked booked for bottom of the pile.

Group G Advised Bets

2 points win                                         USA to finish bottom of Group at 6/5 with Betfair Sportsbook

 

 

Group H (Russia, Belgium, Algeria, South Korea)

Expect Belgium to progress from a weak Group, but significant flaws in the make up of their team, notably lack of full-backs and ability to score goals, will come back to haunt them at an early juncture of the knock-out stages.

The loss of captain Roman Shirkov is a big blow for Russia and they failed to convince under Fabio Capello. They are well organised, as one would expect, but lack a real goal scoring threat (likely starting striker Alexander Kerzakhov missed a comical amount of chances at Euro2012) and there is a feeling that Capello is building for the World Cup on home soil in 2018.

South Korea will be organised and disciplined - it is interesting that so many of their players are based in Germany - but do have attacking talent most notably on the wings in the shape of Bayer Leverkusen's Son-Heung-Min.

We discussed Algeria in some detail in our Outright Preview. They are a different team from the ultra defensive side of 2010 infused by younger blood. Given they are the highest ranked of any of the competing African nations, they look slightly over-priced to qualify.

Group H Advised Bets 

1 point win                                     Russia not to qualify at 15/8 with Youwin

0.5 points win                              Algeria to qualify at 9/2 with Stan James

stanjames.com

 

 

 

World Cup 2014 Outright Preview

Added by Puskas - 7th June at 6:00pm

The Greatest Show on Earth kicks off next Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Much of the build-up has been dominated by discussions on the sorry state of much of the home nations infrastructure and inequitable society, so it will be a refreshing antidote to see the "la joga bonito" finally get underway on the pitch on Thursday.We are previewing the main contenders in depth, with a brief discussion of a number of other high-profile countries and a number of over-priced teams who may outperform their odds.

The Contenders:

Brazil (4-1)It is little surprise to see the five times winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002) and host nation as short-priced favourites given their exceptional home record and impressive victory in last Summer's Confederations Cup. Phil Scolari took over as manager for a second time in November 2012 with Brazil ranked a lowly 22nd in the FIFA rankings, their lowest ever ranking. With just one win in his opening six matches, Scolari faced intense scrutiny as the Confederations Cup began.

Brazil looked a side re-born with their familiar solid 4-2-3-1 formation, as they posted easy victories over France (warm-up), Japan, Mexico, Italy (scoring four times), Uruguay and Spain (3-0). Given four of the aforementioned teams feature in the top 10 of the betting for this Summers main event, the scale of their performance should not be under-estimated. Since last Summer, Brazil have won 9 of their 10 friendly games (including their last WC warm-up against Serbia) often against limited opposition, with their sole reverse coming against an obdurate Swiss outfit in Basel last August.

One of the most noticeable aspects of last Summer's tournament was the incredible atmosphere generated at every home game which will prove both an advantage and a hindrance as the pressure builds in this Summers knock-out stages. All of Brazil craves a sixth Copa Del Mundo on home soil and the events of last World Cup staged on home soil in 1950 are seared on a nations psyche. Brazil required just a draw to claim a first World Cup but were shocked late goal scored by Uruguay's Ghiggia in front of a world record crowd of 210,000 at the Maracana - this still ranks as one of the greatest shocks the international game has ever seen. The goal came about due to a mistake from Brazilian keeper Barbosa who lived out the rest of his days in hiding and abject poverty - he was even refused access to the 1994 team training camp for fear he would bring bad luck. The defeat had a huge impact on Brazil as a footballing nation and society - they even decided to switched their jersey colour from white to yellow to avoid the jinx of what is known locally as the "Maracanazo".

Scolari is likely to choose arguably the tournament's best back four of Alves, Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo with the hard-working Luis Gustavo and Paulinho holding in front. The attacking trio of Hulk, Oscar and Neymar will alternate position behind Fred and it is worth noting that oft derided Fred scored five goals in the Confederations Cup to Neymar's four. Star man Neymar has an impressive 31 goals in 49 international games. Coming off the back of a rather disappointing first season in Europe, I expect him to be inspired by leading the hopes of a nation.

The one doubt with this current Brazilian team is that they look potentially more effective playing on the counter-attack. Given the majority of opponents are likely to sit deep and deny the speedy Brazilian forwards room, it will be interesting to find out can they remain patient and break teams down. The Sao Paulo crowd became noticeably more restless on Friday the longer it took for "La Selecao" to break down Serbia. It would not be the biggest surprise to see Brazil struggle against Croatia in their opening tie before progressing to emphatic wins against Group cannon-fodder in Mexico and Cameroon.

They are likely to face a difficult last 16 tie against an over-rated Dutch outfit or more likely an exciting Chilean side. Brazil have an outstanding all-time home record (27-6-0) against the latter, so it would rank as a major surprise should they fail to progress. Attempting to predict the knock-out rounds of the tournament is fraught with difficulty but it would be no surprise if Brazil were to face Germany (all time record of 13-5-4) in Belo Horizonte in the semi-final on 8 July.

Those looking for a trade on the tournament could do worse than taking the 4-1 Brazil with a view to laying off at c.6-4 come semi-final time.

Argentina (4-1)

Argentina finished top of the South American qualifying group with a 9-5-2 record (losses away to Venezuela and Uruguay) in their 16 games. They only managed to keep four clean sheets but scored for fun with Lionel Messi bagging 10 goals, Higuain (9) and Sergio Aguero (5). These trio along with Angel Di Maria make up the most formidable and exciting attacking outfit in the tournament ("los cuatro fantásticos" as they are known at home).

Much has been made of Messi's perceived failure to produce his stunning club form in an Argentinian jersey, but the little genius has managed to score 20 goals in his past 21 internationals. It is no coincidence that Messi's improved form in the "La Albiceleste" jersey has come since the appointment of Alejandro Sabella in Summer 2011. Sabella has focussed on designing a team to get the best from Messi with a 4-3-3 formation morphing into 4-2-3-1 against more difficult opponents. The midfield will be anchored by Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano in front of a back four of Zabaleta, Garay, Federico Fernandez of Napoli, Marcos Rojo and Sergio Romero of Monaco in goal. It is the latter two who present most cause for concern with a number of mistakes in the qualifying games.

Argentina have been drawn in the easiest quartile of the draw with Group F containing Bosnia, whom they beat 2-0 late last year and extremely weak opponents in Iran and Nigeria. Topping the Group will see them potentially facing France/Switzerland/Ecuador in Sao Paulo. Probable quarter-final opponents include Belgium or Portugal in Brasilia so one could imagine Argentina facing into a semi-final without being significantly extended.

At this stage, any defensive frailties will be tested to the full. It is worth noting that favoured Argentina sides have not always produced their best in international tournaments. It is arguable that two World Cup wins (at home in 1978 and 1986) and two final defeats (1930 and 1990) is not an acceptable return for a country that has produced such outstanding talent.

Spain (13-2)

"La Furia Roja" come into this tournament looking for an unprecedented fourth consecutive major tournament win. They have only conceded 6 goals in their 19 games during the course of their three tournament victories and incredibly have not conceded a goal in a knock-out match since a disappointing 3-1 defeat to France in the 2006 WC Last 16. They of course managed to win each of their knock-out games on a scoreline of 1-0 in South Africa - punters looking for a correct score bet in a Spain game should continue to focus on this scoreline (5 of 6 wins in qualifying were to nil). This astonishing consistency coupled with a settled management team and playing squad must mean they will put up a bold show in their efforts to create history.

Spain have been drawn in a difficult group but I expect them to top Group B ahead of Chile. That should set up a last 16 tie against Croatia in Fortaleza against whom Spain needed a very late goal to qualify from their Euro 2012 Group. With the Croats boasting talent of the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic, this tie would be no simple task for the Spanish. The QF could see a tie against old rivals Italy whom Spain have tended to enjoy good fortune against (all-time record of 11-10-8) or Uruguay, before a potential mouth-watering semi-final against Lionel Messi and Argentina.

Spain's qualifying campaign stuttered at times, with draws in Helsinki and at home to France, meant they required a win in Paris to avoid the play-offs. They only conceded 3 goals in 8 games but again struggled to score goals with top scorer Pedro managing four goals (three coming in one game against Belarus). It is the lack of a reliable goalscorer which may prove the chink in Spain's armour. Fernando Torres and David Villa are mere shadows of their former selves, but one can understand why Vicente del Bosque selected them for potential impact off the bench and the paucity of other options available. Had Diego Costa had an injury free end to his excellent campaign and had time to integrate himself into the Spanish system, I would have been significantly more confident of Spain's chances of retaining their crown. Costa has a physical presence which keeps defenders occupied and allows a Plan B when death by passing does not work. His injury problems mean they will have to rely on tiki taka again which has clearly become a little easier to tactically out-manoeuvre.

This coupled with the likelihood of Del Bosque relying on old stagers such as Casillas and Xavi may see this as one step too far - we saw how tired Spanish legs looked last June in their comprehensive 3-0 Confederations Cup final defeat at the hands of Brazil and it is worth noting that three Spanish sides competed in European club finals. As one might expect, Spain have also relied on their fair share of good fortune in capturing three consecutive titles with penalty shoot-out wins against Italy in 2008 and Portugal in 2012. Given their consistent to failure to score more than one goal per game, there is the possibility of bad luck and fine margins ending their magical reign.

Germany (13-2)

Germany have been the most consistent post-war World Cup performer with three winners and four silver medals since 1954, but it is worth noting that they have not lifted a major trophy since Euro 96. Given their form in qualifying and the performances of club sides such as Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, one could make the case that Germany would be favourites for this tournament had it been held in Europe.

The current Joachim Low led side, back-boned by an exceptional crop of U21 players (2009 European u-21 champions), came to prominence with some breathtaking attacking displays in the 2010 World Cup putting four goals past Australia, England and a chaotic Argentina. They seemed to lack self-belief in a nervy 1-0 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Spain. This lack of self-belief and/or tactical inflexibility seemed to re-occur during their Euro2012 2-0 semi-final defeat to a patently inferior Italian side. Prior to that defeat Germany had constructed a winning run of 14 competitive games with 10 in qualifying and then in the tournament proper against European heavyweights such as Denmark, Holland, Portugal and Greece.

One could argue that Low's lack of managerial experience has shown at vital stages over the past four years and given their lack of true competition since, we have little information to assess whether lessons have been learnt. Their defence continues to look vulnerable to pace particular through the middle and given their incredible ability to score goals (36 in 10 qualifying games), it is surprising that they have only selected one orthodox striker in record chasing Miroslav Klose (69 international goals and requires two goals to over-take Ronaldo's all time finals record of 15 goals). It would be no surprise to see Germany imitate Spain and deploy either Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze or Thomas Muller in a false 9 role backed by a speedy three - unfortunately, Marco Reus will miss the tournament due to injury which is a significant blow.

I fully expect Germany to top Group G with maximum points which should lead to a winnable Last 16 tie against Russia/Belgium, setting up a quarter-final against France/Switzerland/Bosnia. I do not envisage any of the three providing much of a test for Germany, although it is notable that Switzerland defeated them 5-3 in 2012 when they last met - Germany have a habit of conceding big scores to moderate opposition as evidenced by them conceding three and four against Sweden in qualifying although they did not lose either game.

A semi-final against the host nation, against whom Germany have a poor record (4-5-13 since 1963) would be a mouth-watering prospect and potentially the game of the tournament.

Perhaps it will be a case of close but no cigar yet again for "Die Mannschaft".

Uruguay (33-1)

Perhaps a surprise selection under the title of genuine contenders, but given their recent tournament record - World Cup semi-finalists in 2010 and Copa America winners in Argentina in 2011 for a record 15th time - it would be foolish to write off Uruguay in their own backyard.

Much of the same team remains intact and indeed many of them are showing signs of being slightly past their best, particularly the lack of pace in defence with Lugano and Godin paired at centre-half. However, a front pairing of Suarez (assuming fitness) and Cavani, with Forlan in reserve, will mean no team will press up the pitch against Uruguay. The fitness of Suarez (all-time record scorer with 38 goals) is clearly crucial given his talismanic impact on the side.

Uruguay's qualifying campaign began brightly on the back of their Copa America win, before a dreadful slump in late 2012/early 2013 (1 point from 6 games) saw them in danger of missing out on qualification. A late improvement in form (3 wins from 4) saw them qualify for a play-off where they dismissed Jordan with ease (aggregate 5-0 victory).

Group D is possibly the toughest  quartet of sides, but with their opening game against the lowest-ranked side, Costa Rica, it is hard to see big-game specialists like this Uruguayan side being kept out of the top two in the Group. Given such a feat would result in a Last 16 tie against Colombia, Greece or Ivory Coast, Uruguay would fancy their chances of reaching a quarter-final where their likely opponent would be Brazil or Spain.

"La Celeste" would be no forlorn hope and they were notably unlucky in losing to Brazil in last years Confederations Cup semi-final, thanks to an 88th minute Fred goal, which came somewhat against the run of play.

At 33-1, there is still some scope in this price for trading players.

Bismarcks

Without resorting to xenophobic stereotypes, I think we can safely draw a line through all African and Asian participants as potential winners, with the best the former group can hope being a quarter-final appearance from either Ivory Coast or the experienced Ghana outfit who qualified from their group in 2006 and 2010.

My preference would be for the Ivorians as they may be the only African side to qualify from their group. Although Iran and Japan are ranked above South Korea in the FIFA ranking, the Koreans are well organised and experienced and may fare best of the Asians.

The chances of a number of the European entrants are discussed below:

Belgium (22-1): simply a ludicrous price at outright fifth favourites for a group of players known as Belgium's Golden Generation.

They were impressive in an unbeaten qualifying campaign (8-2-0) but recent form has been less so, with home friendly defeats to Colombia and Japan. The Red Devils recent success has been built on a strong defence with just four goals conceded in qualifying and surprisingly for a team with such attacking talents - Hazard, Lukaku, Mirallas, Dembele, DeBruyne et al - they often struggle in front of goal.

I expect them to qualify from Group H, but not as easily as many expect and their lack of experience is likely to tell early in the knock-out stages. 50-1 would be a truer reflection of their chances of outright victory.

France (25-1): scoring goals remains the big problem for Les Bleus with just 46 international goals in their entire squad (19 of them from Karim Benzema who has not always convinced at international level). The absence of Frank Ribery through injury and Samir Nasri through non-selection deprives them of significant creative talent.

They faced elimination when losing the first leg of their play-off game in the Ukraine, but rallied admirably to progress 3-0 at home. Didier Deschamps has been a rallying force after the farcical scenes of the 2010 World Cup and he can expect Group progression but little post that.

Paul Pogba may well become a household name post this tournament.

Italy (28-1): probably the most interesting of the mid-ranking European sides at the price if they can overcome their notoriously slow start and difficult Group.

Recent friendly form has been typically abysmal with no win in seven friendlies since September 2013. Cesare Prandelli's men recovered to reach the final of Euro 2012 after exiting at the Group stages in South Africa in 2010. I can envisage a quarter final against Spain or Brazil and to expect a typically tight encounter with either opponent that could go either way. Much of the goal burden is likely to fall on the flawed Mario Balotelli.

England (28-1): look more realistically priced than previous recent tournaments but it is hard to envisage anything beyond quarter-final stage at best given lack of true quality.

Their back four is alarmingly poor for this level and clever forwards will relish taking them on. Have a battle on just to qualify out of group with Italy and Uruguay given the game schedule.

Portugal (28-1): excellent tournament form over the past decade with a final and semi-final of the Euros and a semi-final at the 2006 World Cup. A curates egg of a qualifying campaign was marked by a serious of poor starts - they were behind or level at half time in their first six games - and required an inspired Ronaldo display to see off Sweden in the play-offs.

Clearly the fitness of the great Madeiran is crucial to their chances and it looks likely that he will not be 100% fit at the outset of the tournament. I expect them to qualify from Group G at the expense of Ghana, but quarter-final (perhaps a Ronaldo head to head against Messi) is probably the summit of their ambition.

Netherlands (33-1): given the Dutch eased through qualifying, as per usual, with 28 points from 30 (2-2 with Estonia the only blip) and scoring 34 goals, it might be a surprise to many to see them at 33-1. However, the squad has a bifurcated look to it with experienced star names such as Robben, Van Persie, Sneijder, Kuyt and Huntelaar all perhaps facing into their tournament swansong, alongside relative newcomers such as Jordy Clasie and Daryl Janmaat of Feyenoord.

The presence of the error-prone Ron Vlaar as their most experienced defender with 24 caps (no other defensive member of squad has more than 16 caps) indicates the lack of squad depth.

The Dutch look vulnerable to Chile and the 21-10 (Ladbrokes) on them finishing third in Group B looks tempting

Lively Outsiders/Trading Opportunities

Chile (50-1): as outlined above, I expect Chile to qualify from Group B (19-20 with Betbright) particularly with their opening game against Group whipping boys Australia.

Chile are possibly the most spectacularly attacking side in the tournament and are likely to start with a front triumvirate of Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas of Valencia and Arturo Vidal of Juventus, who scored 14 goals between them in qualifying.

Scoring 29 goals and keeping five clean sheets in 16 qualifying games gives a strong indication of this Chilean teams set-up. Given they beat England 2-0 at Wembley in November which followed a 2-2 with Spain in Geneva where they conceded an unfortunate last minute equaliser, it is a surprise to see them trading at 50-1 (twice the price of England). The prospect of meeting Brazil in the Last 16 (never beaten them in 33 attempts) dampens enthusiasm for an outright bet, but Chile will provide plenty of fun moments for any punter on at fancy prices.

Switzerland (150-1): it was a surprise to many football fans to see the Swiss as top seeds for the tournament but given their FIFA ranking of 6 and recently friendly results including wins over Brazil and Germany, it was no anomaly. Unbeaten in qualifying (7-3-0), Ottmar Hitzfeld's team have been renowned for their defensive prowess over the past decade but over the past two years have attempted to develop more of an attacking flavour with a switch to 4-2-3-1 from 4-4-2. Goals, however, remain a problem since the retirement of Alex Frei. No player in the squad has scored more than 10 goals and the attack is likely to be led by Haris Seferovic of Real Sociedad with just one goal in his 11 caps to date.

However, the midfield contains fine talent of the likes of Barnetta, Shaqiri and Inler, Behrami and Dzemaili (all of Napoli) and this group should be able to lead them through a finely balanced Group E.

Given their defensive strength, once we reach the knock-out stages, anything is possible particularly if they manage to top their Group.

Bosnia (200-1): it could well be that the Swiss meet first time participants Bosnia in the Last 16.

The 13-10 (Stan James) available on Bosnia finishing second in Group F looks one of the best bets of the tournament. This is a very well balanced team with the impressive Asmir Begovic keeping six clean sheets in 10 games in qualifying. At the other end, the goals have flowed (30 in 10 qualifying games) from Edin Dzeko (35 goals in 62 games) and Vedad Ibisevic of Stuttgart (20 in 55).

However, star man in this tournament may be Roma's young attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic who came of age in Serie A this year and looks set to attract the attention of Europe's very best in the coming years. Recent friendly results have been mixed, but we can expect this patriotic nation to be fired up for their debut World Cup appearance and to at least ensure Group progression.

Algeria (2,500-1): clearly, we would not encourage punters to place their hard-earned on Algeria in the outright market. However, their performances at the 2010 World Cup where they conceded just two goals in their Group (albeit without scoring themselves) are evidence that they will be no pushovers in a weak Group.

They had a disastrous African Cup of Nations in 2013 before a hard-fought World Cup play-off win on away goals against Burkina Faso. Recent friendly performances have been encouraging with wins against European opposition in the shape of Armenia, Slovenia and Romania.

The 4-6 about under 5.5 goals conceded in the Group looks attractive as does the 5-6 on Algeria to score less than 2.5 goals given their likely defensive formation.

Recommended Bets

At this stage, the mature outright market presents little betting opportunity so we will eschew an outright selection and sit firmly on the fence. It has been well documented that of the six WC tournaments held in South and Central America, all have been won by South American sides (two victories each for Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil). Given the outstanding record of the host nation, the strength of the Argentinian starting XI and the potential for outperformance from outsiders such as Uruguay, Colombia (sadly now without Radamel Falcao) and Chile, it is with some confidence that we select South America as Winning Continent at 10-11.

This is despite that the fact that South America have not provided a finalist since Brazil in 2002 and at least one European team has  failed reached every final since Brazil, 1950.

Notwithstanding, it may also be worth having an interest in a Brazil - Argentina final at 9-1 given both should have little trouble in topping their rather benign Groups and hence avoid each other before the Final.

4 points win                                     Winning Continent:  South America at 10/11 with Ladbrokes and Coral
1.5 points win                                 Name the Finalists: Brazil v Argentina  at 9/1 with Coral, Paddy Power and Boylesports



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In the coming days we will preview each of the Groups and outline a number of attractive bets together with the Top Scorer and Specials markets.

 

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