After a thrilling start to the World Cup group stage matches continue daily next week
1pm Sweden v South Korea
Sweden came second in a very tough qualifying Group which featured France and the Netherlands before beating Italy in the play-offs (in which they were dominated and won from a deflected shot, their only chance on target over two legs). Of course they now without their world class player (at his peak) Zlatan Ibrahimovic and whilst hard working and disciplined they appear very limited going forward albeit very organised defensively. In their heyday under Lagerback Swedish players played for teams such as Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona and today they represent clubs in Denmark, Greece, Russia, Scotland and the UAE (apart from Forsberg at RB Leipzig and Lindelof at Manchester United). Low scoring draws could be the order of the day.
South Korea finished second behind Iran in qualification and with two games to go they sacked head coach Uli Stielike. He was replaced by former U-20 and U-23 coach Shin Tae-Yong who led them to two goalless draws, ensuring qualification for their ninth straight World Cup. With a team lacking world-class talent, the manager has to depend on two key players Son from Tottenham and Ki from Swansea.
The Koreans produced strong performances in the November friendlies, defeating Colombia and drawing with Serbia. In March though they were defeated by Northern Ireland and Poland
Odds here are Sweden 11/10, the draw 9/4 and S Korea 17/5. I see the draw here in a match between two uninspiring teams
4pm Belgium v Panama
Belgium’s expectations are high with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard supplying Lukaku.
Last time round Belgium reached the quarter finals but were criticised for defensive tactics. They managed only 4 goals in the competition which considering they were grouped with Algeria, Russia and South Korea was a surprise. Manager Wilmots was derided and ultimately replaced by Martinez and under him they scored 43 goals in qualifying.
Martinez usually opts for an attacking 3-4-3 formation with familiar names such as Courtois, Vertonghen, Kompany and Alderweireld in defence behind Dembele and Witsel in holding midfield areas.
The group favourites are likely to be dominant in their opening two matches against the minnows. It all looks good on paper, but as mentioned in the outright section, look out for “Martinez fatigue” and tactical issues in the knockout stages.
Panama earned automatic qualification for the World Cup finals for the first time in their history under dramatic circumstances ahead of the traditional heavyweights USA and Honduras. The team managed only 3 wins during their 10 matches in the final qualifying round and only scored nine goals in those ten games
Of course Belgium should win against one of the weakest teams in the tournament and are 1/7 to do so, no bet
7pm England v Tunisia
Tunisia qualified for their first World Cup since 2006 finishing narrowly ahead of DR Congo and are of course huge under-dogs to progress out of the group. They play 4-2-3-1 but Tunisia have been unfortunate both with their group draw and the loss of their best player Youssef Msakni with a knee injury.
England of course exited the 2014 tournament at the group stages. Harry Kane is a genuinely World Class forward and the attacking players behind him such as Sterling, Alli and Lingard will ensure that England will trouble their opponents.
Southgate has switched the team to a 3-4-3 formation in the past couple of rounds of friendlies with wing backs and a spare centre back. Despite the improvements made since Brazil, England are still lacking in some areas such as goalkeeper (experience) and central midfield. In the new system the two holding midfielders are important and Henderson has much to prove.
England look too short to me to back at 1-2.
1pm Colombia v Japan
After a superb tournament in 2014 Colombia are back with an arguably stronger team. A strong start to South American qualifying was followed by a winless final five games
James Rodriguez was one of the stars of Brazil 2014, and then struggled for form though that has picked up with this season’s loan to Bayern Munich The Colombians once again have a strong squad featuring the likes of Radamel Falcao (Monaco’s top scorer in Ligue 1) and Juan Cuadrado. The centre-back pairing of Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez of Spurs is one of the tournament’s least experienced at international level with 19 caps combined.
Japan sacked manager Vahid Halilhodzic with just two months to go before the tournament. Halilhodzic dropped their “marquee” players (Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda) instead favouring a more physical style with a target man. The new coach is Japanese, he used to manage Gamba Osaka, and it is felt he is likely to bring his star players back into the side at the expense of those who performed well in qualifying.
Colombia should be backed at 4/5
4pm Poland v Senegal
Poland had a strong qualifying campaign which saw them win 8 of 10 games to finish five points clear off the runners-up Denmark. This followed a very solid Euro2016 where Portugal knocked them out on penalties in the quarter finals. Of course there is a huge dependence on Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich who scored 16 goals in 10 qualification matches but had a quiet end to the season.
Senegal qualified undefeated with four wins and two draws from CAF Group D for their first appearance in the finals since 2002 and could be the strongest of the African teams, though that has a “boom/bust” feel to it. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly are the big names. They will go off favourites against Japan and should be capable of taking points from one of Colombia and Poland, if not both and even winning this even group shouldn’t be out of the question.
At Poland 11/8 the draw 23/10 and Senegal 5/2 I will take the draw at 23/10
7pm Russia v Egypt
Russia were outstanding, admittedly against extremely poor opponents in their 5-0 win in the opening game of the tournament. There were encouraging signs of home advantage in fervent home support. Egypt open against Uruguay on Friday with Salah fit
Russia are best priced evens and the draw 9/4. Egypt are well organised and I like them to get something out of this game
1pm Portugal v Morocco
Morocco open against Iran on Friday afternoon and with a very experienced defensive core won’t be pushovers for a Portugal side who Ronaldo aside have struggled to break sides down. Portugal look very short at 4/6 but Morocco lack attacking threat. Again the draw appeals, here at 3/1
4pm Uruguay v Saudi Arabia
On the evidence of the first Saudi Arabia match this should be straightforward for a powerful Uruguay side who of course are a short price, 1-4 to win here
7pm Spain v Iran
Spain open against Portugal on Friday night in the aftermath of their manager’s appointment at Real and his replacement by coach Hierro in the 48 hours before the tournament started. It remains to be seen what effect that has on Spain as we progress through the tournament but this should be a straightforward assignment against the weakest team in the group
Spain are 2/9 outright, no bet