Key Friendlies This Weekend as Teams Ramp Up World Cup Preparation
On June 14, the 2018 World Cup will get underway in Russia with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia in the first game of the tournament. Over the following month a total of 64 games will be played to decide the winner with two teams from each of the eight groups of four, making it through into the knockout phase.
From then on, it is a straight one-game knockout with extra time and penalties if required to decide the winner.
Last time around in Brazil, Germany emerged as champions after they defeated both the host nation and then Argentina in the final.
With the final’s starting in around two-weeks time, the 32 teams competing are making their final preparations for the event. Some have already named their 23-man squad, while others have named larger interim squads, which they will then cut down to 23 ahead of the deadline for squad lists to be handed in to FIFA.
As such, managers now have a number of friendly games within which to make those decisions, make some tactical tweaks and experiment with new players and formations ahead of the big kick off in Russia and the good news for punters is that there are some cracking games to bet on taking place over the weekend.
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So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at the big games coming up across the weekend, starting with Friday night’s massive match in Nice, France between two of European football’s giants, although only one of the teams will be taking their place in Russia this summer.
Friday 1st June
France v Italy
Friday night’s game between these two former World Cup winners will be bittersweet for the new Italian manager Roberto Mancini as his team failed to make it to Russia after losing in the European Playoffs to Sweden. Didier Deschamps France however will be going to Russia as one of the favourites for the tournament having been blessed with a squad with amazing depth of talent.
Both teams played friendly games earlier this week, France defeating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 in Paris thanks to late first-half strikes from Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud and Lyon’s Liverpool target Nabil Fekir. Italy took on Saudi Arabia in St.Gallen, Switzerland and emerged with a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from the recalled Mario Balotelli and Andrea Belotti.
For Mancini, this game is about testing his new-look squad against a very talented French team to enable him to prepare for Euro 2018 qualifying and the new UEFA Nations League which starts at the end of 2018. Deschamps will want to give his charges a test against a high quality opponent before they head of to Russia and Italy will certainly provide that.
Our Verdict – Mancini will certainly give Italy renewed focus and is a good appointment as manager, but I think the French squad is markedly stronger and the French have a better record against Italy over the last few games than their opponents. I expect this to be close and perhaps not too many goals, but I am backing France to win here which is a 4/6 shot with Coral Sport.
Saturday 2nd June
England v Nigeria
Gareth Southgate has already named his 23-man squad for the finals, while Nigeria boss Gernot Rohr still has to make his final cuts from 29 players down to 23. Nigeria are hoping that this game will prepare them for their World Cup clash with Iceland, while England feel Nigeria are good preparation for their opening game against Tunisia.
It’s fair to say that England under Southgate have looked a more difficult to beat team than under other managers, though I would add a caveat to that and say in friendlies and qualifiers, Southgate’s team are untested in top competition and given England’s poor display at Euro 2016, he will need a better performance from his team this time around.
Nigeria are not as talented a team as they once were but they have a number of players familiar to English fans from their efforts in the Premier League, notably Iheanacho and Ndidi (both of Leicester City), Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi and Chelsea’s winger Victor Moses. Ex-Chelsea midfielder John Obi-Mikel is the captain of the team.
The teams have met just twice in the past and just one goal has been scored in those two games (a 1-0 win for England back in 1994 and a 0-0 draw in the World Cup Finals of 2002) and with Southgate in charge, it seems unlikely England are going to start banging in plenty of goals any time soon. As such, I feel this has the look of a game that will either peter out into a draw, or will see England nick the win.
Our Verdict – England have a good record at home and have come through some tough games of late unbeaten including games with Italy, Germany and Brazil ending in draws and a win over the Netherlands. Nigeria aren’t as strong here and as such, I think a 1-0 England win is a solid option here which is a 17/4 shot with Coral at present.
Sunday 3rd June
Brazil v Croatia
On Sunday, Brazil’s world tour continues at Anfield in Liverpool as the World Cup favourites take on Croatia in what promises to be an intriguing clash between the two teams. Brazil qualified very comfortably from the South American qualifying section, losing just one game and finishing well clear at the top of the table.
Croatia however had to come through a tricky playoff after finishing second in their group to Iceland and the Croats won’t be too enamoured of having drawn Iceland along with Nigeria and Argentina in what looks a very tough Group D in the World Cup Finals this summer.
Brazil star Roberto Firmino will feel at home at Anfield, but it will be interesting to see the welcome Philippe Coutinho gets on his return to the club. Brazil will be keen to get off to a good start against Croatia in the build up to the World Cup especially after their last Finals game on home soil ended in a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in 2014.
Our Verdict – Croatia are not a bad side at all and have some very talented players playing at some of Europe’s top club sides, but Brazil’s form at the moment is excellent and the players won’t be fazed playing in Europe as that is where most of them play for their club sides anyway. I’m backing Brazil to win this one relatively comfortably at odds of 4/9 with Coral.