It’s fair to say the opening round of matches at the 2018 World Cup didn’t go to plan for many of the big names and hopes of a shock winner are high for those that have invested money on an outsider.
Millions of accas all over the world quickly bit the dust as Spain, Brazil, and Argentina all drew, whilst World Cup holders Germany lost to Mexico. Indeed, France were the only one of the top five teams in the betting to win their opening game and they made hard work of it. Some of the top teams could now struggle to even qualify for the knockout stages, and trying to predict who will be where in the draw for the knockout stages is anyone’s guess.
It was great to see Russia delight their home fans with two wins that means they’ve already qualified from their group, and their attacking style of play has endeared them to football fans around the world. Spain are another exciting team that have already qualified, and Portugal just need to avoid losing to Iran to join them. France and Croatia are also assured of knockout stage football too after securing two wins each.
However, there are plenty of important games this weekend in the remaining groups. Belgium take on Tunisia in Group G before England take on Panama. Meanwhile, Germany will need to breakdown Sweden to get their tournament back on track, whilst Mexico will be looking to further their chances of topping the group with a win over South Korea. Senegal and Japan can also stake a claim for a place in the knockout stages by beating each other, whilst Colombia and Poland will be hoping to claim the win that gives them a chance of qualifying from Group H.
Belgium vs Tunisia (Saturday 1.00, BBC)
Belgium head into this game as short-priced favourites, though the two teams drew 1-1 in their only other World Cup match back in 2002. Tunisia, as they did against England, may look to frustrate the Belgians. However, whilst England’s players (bar Harry Kane) failed to take several first-half chances, it’s hard to see the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin Dy Bruyne missing the type of chances that fell to Raheem Sterling and Jessie Lingard.
Belgium also know that the group could easily be decided on goal difference and will be keen to maximize their chances of topping the group by bettering England’s 2-1 score-line. However, Tunisia also know they are likely to have to win to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages and they may be forced to attack more than they did against England. That may open the floodgates for Belgium to score three of four.
South Korea vs Mexico (Saturday 4.00, ITV)
Mexico made a dream start against Mexico and, with South Korea needing a win, that could ideally suit the Mexicans fast-breaking style. The two teams have actually met six times in the last 20 years, resulting in two wins for each team and two draws. However, it’s Mexico who won their only previous World Cup Finals match, a 3-1 win in France in 1998. They also won the last meeting in 2014, winning 4-0. With a win under their belt, the Mexicans will probably adopt a patient strategy, and a shade of odds-on for a Mexico win looks fair enough.
Germany vs Sweden (Saturday 7.00, ITV)
Germany have that knack of peaking for the latter stages of a big tournament but they’ll need to find their form quicker this year after losing their opening game to Mexico. The good news for Germans is they haven’t lost to Sweden since 1942, winning five of the seven games since. They last clashed in Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when they produced two thrilling games that finished 5-3 and 4-4.
However, it’s hard to see this game producing eight goals. Sweden’s post-Ibrahimović team is one that prides itself on being difficult to beat and Germany will have to be at their best to break Sweden down. However, Germany are surely too good a side to go out in the group stages and may have too much for Sweden.
England vs Panama (Sunday 1.00, BBC)
It’s hard to believe that England are the shortest-priced team to win a match at the World Cup this weekend, though they should be capable of beating Panama. The Central American qualifiers are unlikely to make it easy for England though and it took Belgium until the second-half to score the first of their three goals. Hopefully, the Panama defenders won’t get away with wrestling Harry Kane to the ground, but it will be interesting to see if they double-team him with the rest of the England players looking decidedly dodgy. If that does happen, it would be great for the likes of Rashford, Sterling or Lingard to get on the scoresheet, as they could all do with some confidence if England make it to the knockout stages.
Panama do need a win so, in the hope that England get some room to play, my jingoistic tenner will be on England to win 3-0 – if the Panama hat fits and all that!
Japan vs Senegal (Sunday 4.00, BBC)
The opening two Group H matches went against the odds with wins for Japan and Senegal, and the two winners meet here. Japan were shock winners against Colombia having arrived at the World Cup Finals on the back of three straight defeats against The Ukraine, Ghana, and Switzerland. They no doubt benefitted hugely from an early sending-off of a Colombian defender but were still outplayed at times by the ten-men South Americans.
By contrast, Senegal beat another Asian team in South Korea in their final warm-up match and they’re fancied to have too much pace and power for Japan.
Poland vs Colombia (Sunday 7.00, ITV)
Both Poland and Colombia were fancied to progress to the knockout stages from Group H and, whilst it’s still mathematically possible, it will require a fortunate series of results for it to happen. Colombia will be hoping that James Rodriguez is fit to continue where he left off at the 2014 World Cup, whilst Poland will be hoping that Robert Lewandowski can hit the net. Defeat for either team spells the end of the road, so it will be interesting to see if they go all out for the win or try and nick it on the counter attack. Tactics may well depend on the result of the Japan vs Senegal match.