World Cup Predictions
June 6, 2014
By Toby Maxtone-Smith
Golden Boot Predictions
Argentina to rule in Rio
The World Cup is only days away. Punters and soccer fanatics all over the world have done their research. Everyone has their favourites, but in the end there will only be one team left to rule supreme over the others, and I think that team will be Argentina.
The well-documented major strength of Argentina is their incredible forward line. Their front four of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, is comfortably the most formidable in the world. All of them are coming off the back of excellent seasons. Having been handed a fairly straightforward route to the final (Nigeria, Bosnia and Iran in the group, and a likely clash with either Switzerland or Ecuador in the last 16), I'm happy to take the 4/1 offered by Sportsbook.ag on the Argentines to win their first World Cup since 1986.
The man to watch is Angel Di Maria, of Real Madrid. He has moved into a narrower, deeper role this year, and it has resulted in the season of his life. Di Maria was the star man in the Champions League final and, in contrast to many players who play in Europe, Di Maria got better and better as the season went on. By May he was virtually unplayable. 50/1 on him to win the Player of the Tournament award looks a fantastic bet.
So what lies behind that front four? The deeper lying midfield duo of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago are just as good at their jobs as the Messi and co. While Mascherano is often deployed as a centre-back for Barcelona, at international level he is very much the battling midfield terrier he was before moving to Catalonia. Gago, the playmaker, is someone who seems to play better for country than for club. His excellent understanding with Messi is one the main reasons coach Alejandro Sabella is so keen on him.
There is a myth that Lionel Messi can't perform for Argentina. Let's just bust that one right now. Under the frankly incompetent Diego Maradona, he was shunted out wide and not given the key role a man of his quality deserves. However, once Sabella made the shrewd decision to hand Messi the captaincy - a sign that he was to be the focal point of the team, he flourished. Since the first World Cup qualifier in September 2011, Messi has scored 20 in 22 games for Argentina.
The main weakness is the defence. This has as much to do with Argentina's cavalier approach that can leave the defence exposed, as the quality of the defenders themselves. The extent to which this is a weakness has been overstated. Pablo Zabaleta is the right-back - he has been a regular with a top European club in Manchester City for several years. Ezequiel Garay, who had a superb season with Benfica, partners Federico Fernandez, who was part of a mean defence at Napoli. The weak link is Marcos Rojo at left-back, who is naturally a centre-back, while Sergio Romero does not inspire great confidence in goal.
The 3/1 favourites are Brazil. They are the rightful favourites after a fantastic year where Luis Felipe Scolari has really got his team in shape. They play the same first XI every game (4-2-3-1 Julio Cesar; Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo; Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho; Hulk, Oscar, Neymar; Fred). It is not a stellar team, but Scolari has fostered a club-like team spirit that is very hard to replicate at international level, with such limited time available.
Their strengths are the great understanding between star man Neymar and unfairly-maligned forward Fred, and the attacking menace of their full-backs. However there is a slight lack of game-changing attacking quality off the bench, with young Bernard the only real option. 3/1 is just a shade too short to get involved.
Bookies have a clear 'big four' with two South Americans and two Europeans. The most appealing of the Europeans are the 13/2 holders Spain. This is a team that knows how to win. This alone means they cannot be discounted. However the last two years has seen several high-profile matches where teams have beaten teams playing the Spanish passing style. Think of Bayern Munich's 7-0 aggregate defeat against Barcelona, and then this season Real Madrid's 4-0 win at a Bayern Munich side who, under Pep Guardiola, played the 'Spanish way'.
People have worked out how to beat this style of football. A refusal to compromise their principles will, I think, cost Spain.
The most opposable team in the 'big four' are Germany, who seem far too short at 5/1. They play all three games in the daytime, in cities near the Equator, which will inevitably curb their fast attacking style and leave them drained for the later stages. Their group is difficult, they are likely to face Argentina in the quarter-finals, and their best recognised striker is 36 year-old Miroslav Klose. After coming so close in every tournament since Euro 2004, I feel the Germans may have missed their chance.
So what of the outsiders? Belgium can be immediately dismissed at 13/1, while I am not as keen on 20/1 shots Colombia as I would have been a year ago. The injury to Falcao, along with a creaking defence, mean I cannot see them getting beyond the quarters.
France are an interesting option. Since an almighty scare in their play-off against Ukraine, they have put in some excellent performances. Even with doubts over Franck Ribery's fitness, the French have some superb attacking options in Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena, while young centre-midfielder Paul Pogba is tipped by many to be a future Best Player in the World. At 22/1 they are appealingly priced.
However, the best bet outside the big four comes in the shape of 30/1 shots Portugal. Of all the Europeans they will feel most at home in Brazil, and in Cristiano Ronaldo, they have the Ballon d'Or winner. Much will depend on Ronaldo's fitness, but if 100% fit he wins matches on his own. They are 3/1 to beat Germany in their opening game, which is hugely attractive.
Argentina to win the World Cup at 4/1
France to win the World Cup at 22/1
Portugal to win the World Cup at 30/1
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