WC Group Best Bets (A-D)
June 8, 2018
By Toby Maxtone-Smith
World Cup 2018 - Group Preview (A-D)
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
The World Cup hosts could hardly have been happier with their group draw, but this Russia team is rightly being called one of the weakest hosts of all time.
There is no one thing badly wrong with Stanislav Cherchesov’s side - it is simply that they have a dud generation right at the time they needed a good one. Injury problems have been so bad that 37 year-old Sergei Ignashevich has earned a recall.
Russia’s strong point is the form of talented young midfielder Alexander Golovin - he will have to play out of his skin for Russia to go far. Egypt, then, would have looked well placed to finish above Russia. But that was before the injury to Mohamed Salah. This is a good defensive side but they are incredibly reliant on Salah for attacking spark. Egypt’s hopes rest on Salah’s fitness.
Saudi Arabia look one of the weakest teams at the World Cup. They will play as defensively as possible, but their defence is old and slow. They have a few tidy midfielders, but no real recognised goalscorer. Do not expect a thriller from the opening game of the World Cup, when they play Russia.
And so Uruguay should walk the group. They look one of the most underrated teams at this World Cup. Oscar Tabárez’s men have one of the best centre-back partnerships in the competition. And as well as the duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez up front, they have a talented cluster of midfielders that have recently been brought through. The 4/5 available on the Celeste winning Group A should be the cornerstone of any group stage accumulator.
Uruguay to win the group at 4/5
Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran
Group B looks fascinating, with two European heavyweights matching up against arguably the strongest teams from both Africa and Asia. Spain are the 1/2 favourites to win this group. They look good value to go on and win the tournament and should come through this section with ease. A more interesting prospect may be Portugal. A low-scoring group looks likely, with all four teams looking strong in defence, and there are doubts as to where Fernando Santos’s side’s goals will come from, with the obvious exception of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal face Spain in their first game, and should they fail to win they will face tough matches against Morocco and Iran. They look vulnerable. Morocco’s first game against Iran is a must-win. And while this is a talented team with a vastly experienced manager in Hervé Renard, this looks like a side more suited to playing against the big boys than breaking down a stubborn Iran side.
Mehdi Benatia is the captain and the leader - he is one of the best defenders at the tournament. A strong midfield is led by the experienced Mbark Boussoufa.
They look weak up front - striker Khalid Boutaïb can bang them in in Africa, but does not look to have the quality for the biggest stage. Iran will be cautious as ever under the wily Carlos Queiroz. Their spark comes from AZ winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the top scorer in the Eredivisie last year. Their defence is well-organised if untested against the best in the world, while the keeper Alireza Beiranvand looks dodgy.
It would not be a surprise if a stalemate between Morocco and Iran was enough to ensure Portugal sneak through a tricky section.
Portugal to get under 5.5 points at 1/1
France, Peru, Denmark, Australia
France are the 3/10 favourites to win the group and this looks plenty short enough. All three opponents pose interesting problems. They are one of the tournament favourites, but that was the case for the implosions in 2002 and 2010.
Peru are fascinating. This is their first World Cup since 1982. They got a huge stroke of fortune in qualification when a 2-0 defeat in Bolivia was turned into a 3-0 win by the stroke of an administrative pen.
After that, however, Ricardo Gareca’s side showed that their luck was deserved. They have since set the longest ever unbeaten run by a Peruvian national team.
The country is at fever pitch. The big question is whethe this side can handle huge pressure at home. The draw could be harder, but the match order looks awkward. The first game against Denmark is vital. Lose, and Peru face France next - they could be out before they have really caught their breath. Denmark are a pragmatic side with one genius in Christian Eriksen. The Danes are ideally set up to play on the counter-attack and are flexible tactically. However they may find themselves bogged down against two other counter-attacking teams in Australia and Peru.
At the prices, Peru look the much better value of the two sides.
Australia probably do not have enough talent to qualify, but this is a typically competitive, aggressive team.
Aaron Mooy is key, while Tom Rogic has come off a fantastic season for Celtic. The defence is weak, however, and was even exposed in Asian qualifying. Do not write Bert van Marwijk’s side off. Even if they do not qualify, they could have a big impact on deciding who does.
Peru to qualify at 15/8
Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland
Argentina look so vulnerable.
Qualification was only secured by a win away to Ecuador in the last match. Quite simply, without Lionel Messi Argentina would not have got near qualifying for Russia. Their reliance on him has become absurd.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli is under huge pressure at home after some disastrous results.
The defence looks terrible. They are slow, old and do not fit into Sampaoli’s pressing, aggressive style. Their array of superstar strikers all underperform for the national team.
But they have Messi.
Croatia, as always, come into a tournament with fans salivating at the talent in their midfield. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pull the strings for Spain’s big two. Mario Mandzukic presents a fascinating challenge for defenders out wide, while Nikola Kalinic is an effective goalscorer through the middle. The problem comes off the field. Their fans are engaged in a huge conflict with the FA. Players have been dragged in and it still has not been resolved.
Nonetheless, they look value to finish ahead of Argentina.
Nigeria may lack the individual quality of their past teams, but they are better organised and more unified than before.
Jon Obi Mikel thrives in a more creative roll for the Super Eagles, while Wilfred Ndidi is effective at breaking up the play in midfield.
One big problem is in goal. Vincent Enyeama has had disagreements with the FA and is no more, and there simply is no adequate replacement. Iceland will be very similar to what we saw at Euro 2016. Their strengths are their work ethic, their organisation and their comradeship. They qualified impressively.
But this is now an ageing team, and the are questions over the fitness of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is to Iceland as Christian Eriksen is to Denmark. They will be competitive but a group exit looks likely.
Croatia to win the group at 3/1
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