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The start of the World Cup with the first group stage matches

Thurs 14th
4pm Russia v Saudi Arabia
Group A looks the weakest group in the tournament thanks to Russia, hosts who have failed to win in 8 out of their last 11 friendlies in the run up to this competition over the last year, automatically placed as top seeds. That said, this looks to be the softest opener they could have. Three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia finished second to Japan in qualifying and ahead of Australia, and are in their first World Cup finals since 2006. Since qualifying the side has made two managerial changes. Their current head-coach is Juan Antonio Pizzi ex of the Argentina national team. They are the lowest ranked team in the tournament
Outright prices for this game are Russia 4/9 Draw 4/1 Saudi Arabia 12/1. In what could be a cagey game, where Saudi Arabia are likely to be happy to get a point and Russia don’t look to be prolific a small bet on Russia to win to Nil at Evens with Betfred (1-0 or 2-0 possibly) looks the order of the day

Fri 15th
1pm Egypt v Uruguay
It is of course touch and go whether Salah will be fit for this game. Egypt are known for their defensive record. Only once (in 30 games) have they conceded more than one goal under Hector Cúper. Uruguay are favourites to qualify from Group A under very experienced manager Tabarez. Fourth in 2010, last sixteen last time and the striking combination of Cavani and Suárez is still amongst the best in world football. Cavani scored 10 goals in 15 qualifying matches and was the top scorer in the South American section. The Atletico Madrid defensive partnership of Godín and Giménez has always meant they are solid defensively but the biggest change compared to teams of the recent past is more flair in midfield. Federico Valverde (Real Madrid, on loan at Deportivo La Coruña), Matías Vecino (Inter), Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors) and Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus) are young and attack-minded players who have earned a place in the team, leading to this increased focus on attack
Odds for this game are Egypt 13/2 the draw 3/1 and Uruguay 8/11. Uruguay is a confident suggestion with Ladbrokes
4pm Morocco v Iran
Morocco won a qualifying group that contained Ivory Coast without conceding a goal. Juve’s Benatia, Real Madrid’s Hakimi and Fenerbache’s Dirar form a dependable unit at the back and the core of the side have considerable experience in European leagues. Despite their defensive ability Morocco have often lacked options up front and that’s the area that they will hope does better in this competition.
In 2014 Iran picked up just one point (though it took a late Messi goal for Argentina to beat them) on the way to finishing bottom of their group. What they lacked was a goal threat, with one goal scored in three games. Carlos Queiroz has guided Iran to their second World Cup under his tenure, the first time they have qualified for successive World Cups. They are still known for sitting back, defending in numbers and trying to hurt teams on the counter-attack. They had 12 successive clean sheets in Asian qualifying
Odds for this game are Morocco 6/4 the draw 2/1 and Iran 11/4. Morocco at 6/4 by the odd goal with Ladbrokes will do me
7pm Portugal v Spain
The big one, with a winner here likely to win the group
Portugal were eliminated in the group stages in Brazil and then went on to win Euro 2016 after they just got out of their group as a best third-place team. Their 2016 success was built on a solid defence and the ability to nick a game in extra time plus the key contributions from Ronaldo. With this possibly going to be his last World Cup (although who would be against him playing another 4 years?), Ronaldo is now complemented by greater strength in depth with younger players such as Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva now in the team but lack of playing time and form concerns could be an issue for them. The one area which is perhaps weaker is the defence, where it has been hard to find replacements for Pepe (35), José Fonte (34) and Bruno Alves (36).
2010 Champions Spain had a disappointing group stage elimination in Brazil. This time the promoted U21 coach Loportegui has included several of the best players from successful youth teams such as Thiago Alcantara, Asensio and especially Isco, who has begun to excel in the false nine role and help minimise the issues around the striker berth. In Diego Costa they have a striker who can cause lots of problems with his physicality and comes into the tournament fresher than most having only played the second half of the season. With David De Gea replacing Iker Casillas in goal and the back four with the Barcelona-Real Madrid mix (Carvajal, Pique, Ramos and Alba) Spain’s defence is very strong with one often overlooked aspect being how hard it is for the opposition to have the ball to attack with in the first place. They have multiple options in midfield with Busquets behind Iniesta and David Silva being first choice but their strength in depth in this area is amazing with Atletico’s duo of Koke and Saul struggling to even get on the pitch.
Odds are Portugal 7/2 the Draw 5/2 and Spain 10/11
This may be one where it is more important not to lose than to win. The Draw at 5/2 appeals as does no goal-scorer at 13/2 with Coral

Sat 16th
11am France v Australia
France look a very warm order to win this group, and have their easiest looking game first
France possess one of the most talented squads at the World Cup and should not encounter many problems in this group. There are though question marks over France’s tactical approach. They struggled at times in qualifying (goal-less draws against Belarus and Luxembourg for example) and were defeated by Portugal after a lacklustre display in the final of the Euros. These issues may be exposed as the tournament progresses, but a weak Group C is unlikely to put the French under much pressure. Whatever approach Deschamps decides on, a line up including Griezmann, Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele with Kante behind should be winning this group.
In 2006 Australia’s squad consisted of many players from the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. This time round they aren’t as strong, finished qualifying behind Saudi Arabia and Japan and crept past Syria in the play offs 3-2 on aggregate. They have a new manager in Dutchman Bert van Marwijk and it is not clear if he will stick with the usual 5-4-1 formation. They have strength in midfield in Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic but most of their players are drawn from outside the top leagues.
France here are a prohibitively short 2/7 and Australia 16/1. Kylian Mbappe each way (1/3 the odds) 5 places appeals as first goal-scorer at 9/2
1pm Argentina v Iceland
Argentina finished only third in South American qualifying. Subsequently 6-1 and 4-2 friendly defeats to Spain (in the absence of Messi) and Nigeria respectively have raised concerns, the main one is the reliance on Messi (notwithstanding Aguero, DiMaria, Dybala etc) and in particular the inability to get the ball into him from deep areas. This is probably the last chance for this group of players. Di María, Agüero, Higuaín, Biglia and Banega among others, are almost certainly about to play in their final tournament. This is a tough group and whilst of course Argentina are favourite to win it, it is not out of the question that one of the other sides will, and that’s not the case with every group favourite
This is Iceland’s first appearance at the World Cup finals and only their second at a major tournament after their run at Euro 2016. Iceland and Croatia shared the same group in qualifying, and Iceland topped the group with two more points than the Croatians. Nine different players scored for Iceland during qualification. In style they are well known for a solid defence and excellent set-piece expertise, usually from Gylfi Sigurdsson who has been out since March with a knee injury
Argentina are 1/2 here, Iceland 14/1 Argentina HT/FT at evens with Coral is the angle here.
4pm Denmark v Peru
Denmark finished behind Poland in qualification before comfortably beating The Republic of Ireland in the play-offs. Christian Eriksen is their key player, he scored 11 goals in the qualification campaign in 12 games and is more prolific for country (with Delaney and Kvist holding in behind him) than club where he plays a bit deeper and his contributions are more often than not assists.
Peru were surprise qualifiers from South America. They drew twice with Argentina in qualifying and then beat New Zealand in a play-off. Peru are 11th in the world rankings and have made the quarter finals of every Copa America since 1997. In the qualifiers, they scored 27 and conceded 26 in 18 matches so it doesn’t look like they are going to die wondering. In attack they will rely on Edison Flores, who was tied with Paolo Guerrero for top scorer for his team in the qualifiers. This team is a side with excellent team spirit and one that fights hard.
Denmark are 6/4 favourites here The draw 5/2 and Peru 13/5. At the prices with Ladbrokes the draw at 5/2 appeals
7pm Croatia v Nigeria
Croatia beat Spain in Euro 2016 on their way to an unlucky defeat to Portugal in the second round. Croatia finished second in their qualifying group behind Iceland and then beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate in the play-offs. Croatia are another mature team whose main strength is their midfield which contains Modric, Kovacic, Rakitic, Perisic and Brozovic. Their attacking line will be led by Mandzukic, with Kalinic and Kramaric in support. Defensively, Croatia conceded six goals in three matches in Brazil 2014, with a vulnerability at set-pieces
Nigeria qualified from a group containing Cameroon and Algeria in very impressive style. Alex Iwobi scoring a winner against Zambia to send them through where they were placed in Pot 4 and probably represent the toughest draw from that Pot. One of the doubts here is that amongst their regular starters Iwobi, Ihenacho and Musa haven’t had much club game time this year. Their key midfield player Ndidi is touch and go for the finals with a hamstring and he and Mikel are important ball winners between both an inexperienced defence and front line. Against Argentina they showed a lot of counter-attacking potential with the young players to the fore
Prices here are Croatia 4/5, the draw 3/1 and Nigeria 5/1. The draw at 3/1 is too big a price

Sun 17th
1pm Costa Rica v Serbia
Costa Rica won seven points in the Uruguay/Italy/England group in 2014 and then reached the quarter-finals. Once again they are underdogs this time, and look to be in a slightly easier group. However, Real’s Navas apart, this squad doesn’t look as strong either. Star players from 2014 such as Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz haven’t had much playing time for their clubs this season.
Serbia topped a qualifying group containing Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria. It is the central midfield area where are especially strong. Nemanja Matic is joined in the squad by Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic and the creative midfielder Andrija Zivkovic. The “x factor” is Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who was reintroduced to the side for post-qualifying friendlies after a fall out had seen him excluded for earlier games. Serbia typically play a 4-2-3-1 formation with the likes of Dusan Tadic and Adem Ljajic in advanced areas supplying the single striker
Serbia are even money here, one of the stand out attractive prices of the round with Ladbrokes
4pm Germany v Mexico
Germany enter this World Cup arguably stronger than the side that won in 2014. Strength in depth was apparent in last year’s Confederations Cup where Germany lifted the trophy with a completely reserve line-up. 21 different players scored for Germany during the qualifying campaign and they have scored 43 goals in ten matches. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has been Neuer’s understudy in goal with a familiar defensive line up in front led by Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, while Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos will be alongside Khedira/Ozil/Gundogan/Goretzka in midfield. Up front, Germany have the likes of Thomas Muller (who has scored five goals in each of last two editions of the tournament), Timo Werner (has been fantastic at RB Leipzig in the last couple of seasons) and Sandro Wagner, with Sane on the flanks.
Mexico have been knocked out in the last sixteen round at every World Cup since 1994. With Brazil highly likely to win their group Mexico, if they get out of the group, face a last sixteen tie against them so the chances of exceeding their usual performance this time around look slim. Guillermo Ochoa, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Moreno, Héctor Herrera and Javier Hernández now have at least five years of experience in Europe and provided an experienced core of the team.
Germany, 8/15 outright, could win to nil 27/20 with Ladbrokes
7pm Brazil v Switzerland
The Brazilians won the South American qualifying tournament by ten points scoring 41 goals. Tite has released the team which barring injuries will start the opening match against Switzerland. Philippe Coutinho and Neymar (if fit) are behind Gabriel Jesus. Compared to some World Cups Brazil are strong defensively too even with Dani Alves out injured. Centre-backs Miranda and Marquinhos are solid whilst Roma’s Alisson is first choice in goal ahead of Ederson after a fabulous season for Roma. Marcelo is potentially the best attacking full back in the tournament and brings the skill of a winger to that position in true Brazilian style. The weakest area of the side is central midfield where the triumvirate of Casemiro, Renato Augusto and Paulinho are not as comfortable on the ball as some major sides but Paulinho has added goals to his game and brings additional threat from midfield. It could well be that this is overcome easily enough by the creative talents in front of them and is unlikely to be an issue in the Group.
Switzerland have qualified for the past three tournaments and finished behind Portugal in one of the weaker European groups (Switzerland won nine out of ten games then lost in Lisbon in the group decider) before beating Northern Ireland in the play-offs with a controversial penalty over an attritional two legs. We all know about Shaqiri and Xhaka and Steven Zuber is a creative player but they look a short price as second favourites to qualify.
Brazil at 4/9 should win, comfortably