Sam Hendry sizes up the value bets for World Cup Glory
The head of the market was shaken up by Wednesday morning’s shock news that Spain manager Julen Lopetegui had been dismissed, a move which saw the Spaniards drift out to fourth favourites for the tournament behind Brazil, France and Germany, whose odds have all slightly shortened.
Fernando Hierro will now be the man to lead Spain in their opening game against Portugal on Friday and this will understandably worry those who have backed La Roja.
A positive, though, is that no team is as well-equipped to deal with such upheaval as this Spain one – a squad rammed with experienced and proven winners all playing at the top level of club football and with their odds lengthening, this could be the best time to back them.
Should they top their group, it would leave them on a semi-final collision course with Germany, providing the defending champions win their own group.
The Germans have reached at least the last four in each of their last six major tournaments and it seems a safe bet that they will do so again.
Both teams have question marks over who their main striker will be, but the overall strength and depth of their squads are the best in the tournament.
I think the winners of this potential semi-final would go on to lift the trophy and I’d give the slight edge to the Germans, who are a best price 5/1 to win a fifth World Cup.
The Germans likeliest opponent in the final is the pre-tournament favourites Brazil, who have been guided fantastically well by Tite since he took over as manager two years ago.
They waltzed through qualifying and have a steely midfield to complement their attacking flair, although right back is an issue after the injury to Dani Alves.
If football was governed by the over-used cliché of ‘the script’ then Brazil v Germany would certainly be the final written by Hollywood executives, with Brazil gaining revenge for the 7-1 humiliation four years ago.
But to quote Gary Lineker’s now famous tweet: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
A final of Brazil v Germany is available at best price odds of 11/1.
France are perhaps the greatest unpredictable outfit at the World Cup. Their squad is as talented as any, but they lack the experience and the settled tactical structure of Spain or Germany.
They should have won Euro 2016 but were stifled in the final by Portugal and have had several unconvincing moments in the two years since.
Didier Deschamps still seems unclear on what his best starting XI is and there are doubts over their first choice full-backs Djibril Sidibe – struggling with a knee injury – and Benjamin Mendy, who spent the majority of his first season at Manchester City on the treatment table.
In Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele they have two young talents that could take the tournament by storm, but will their inexperience cost them in the latter stages?
Of the other possible contenders, Uruguay may have the best chance of causing an upset at odds of 28/1.
They have arguably the strongest centre-back pairing in the tournament in the shape of Atletico Madrid teammates Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, and one of the fiercest strike partnerships in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
They are overwhelming favourites to top Group A ahead of Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and they can trouble anyone with that balance of solidity at the back and explosiveness going forward.
Winning outright may be just beyond them but matching their 2010 run to the semi-finals is achievable.
Argentina will attract backers who long to see Lionel Messi finally succeed on the international stage, but no one player can win the World Cup by himself and this Argentine side is not at the calibre of the other top nations.
They should have enough to qualify from what is not the easiest group, but I think their defence and midfield will be outclassed when they come up against one of the leading European nations.
I’d love to be proven wrong, but I think they are more likely to suffer a last-16 elimination rather than add to their two World Cups.
Belgium have gone into the last two major tournaments with realistic hopes of victory only to fall short at the quarter-final stage and that could be the case again in Russia.
Like France, they have a squad littered with fantastic players, but there are concerns over Roberto Martinez’s ability to fit them all into a working tactical system.
Their three-man defence and the fitness of two its main components, Vincent Kompany and Toby Alderweireld, is also a worry and I think Belgium might again struggle to breach the quarter-final stage.
A matching of that would be considered a success for an England squad who travel to Russia with optimism rather than expectancy.
Panama and Tunisia could easily cause them problems, but it would be a colossal surprise were England not to qualify from the group stage.
Avoid Colombia in the last-16 and they will be strong favourites to reach the quarter-finals which is probably the limit of their capabilities at present.