Another round of international football is upon us, with a busy Friday of fixtures. The vast inequalities between countries at the qualification stage means there’s a lot of odds-on favourites – here are five who might find things trickier than expected.
Israel v Portugal
Portugal haven’t missed a major tournament since World Cup 1998, but their recent qualification record has been underwhelming. For both World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 they were forced into a play-off against Bosnia after finishing runners-up in their group, and it’s not impossible that something similar with happen again. “Coming first place in qualifying is now complicated,” midfielder Joao Mourinho admitted this week. “But second place is open.”
Moutinho is doubtful for the game in Israel, which is the primary reason to think Portugal could struggle – the Porto midfielder has become the heartbeat of this side, dictating play from the centre of the pitch, but also storming forward to connect midfield and attack, and providing Cristiano Ronaldo with forward passes from his left-of-centre position. But having departed at half-time of Porto’s disappointing 2-0 defeat to Malaga last weekend, he might not play.
Portugal have other options in the centre of the pitch – Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso would be joined by Carlos Martins or Paulo Machado, but these two lack Moutinho’s ability to dominate matches. Moutinho has been training with the side this week, but his inclusion is far from certain – if he misses out, laying Portugal at 1.58 becomes tempting.
Croatia v Serbia
This will be an extremely intense contest between the two former Yugoslav countries. Heavy security is expected around the stadium – despite the fact that Serbia will not (officially) take any fans, with the Croatian FA agreeing to replicate this approach for the return fixture in Belgrade in September.
That might favour Croatia, as the home side, but they’ll have a tough task breaking down an impressive Serbian defence featuring Branislav Ivanovic, Milan Bisevac, Matija Nastastic and Aleksandar Kolarov . Dortmund’s Neven Subotic can’t even get into the side, despite Nemanja Vidic’s international retirement. Meanwhile, Sinisa Mihajlovic protects the defence with two holding midfielders, Aleksandar Ignjovski and Ljubomir Fejsa, creating a solid defensive base of six. “The players are bound to be emotionally and physically drained after the game with Serbia,” predicts Croatia coach Igor Stimac.
Croatia will depend heavily upon Luka Modric for creativity, although Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic has been a more impressive performer this season, and offers guile from a more advanced starting position. It might take a while to break Serbia down, however, and Croatia’s starting price of 1.74 will probably rise in-play.
Czech Republic v Denmark
Despite both participating at Euro 2012, neither of these sides have impressed in qualification for World Cup 2014. Denmark have taken only two points from their three fixtures, and while the Czechs have a more impressive five, they’ve had the benefit of a home tie against Malta, the easiest fixture of their campaign, whereas Denmark have already travelled to Italy.
When the sides met in Copenhagen in September last year, it was a dull 0-0 draw – and don’t be surprised to see a similarly low-scoring game here. Both sides are lacking goals – for different reasons. Denmark’s situation is unusual – their FA took the brave decision to ban Nicklas Bendtner for six months after his drink-driving charge. The striker is frequently mocked at club level, but 22 goals from 55 international games is a fine record, and Martin Olsen has a lack of serious options elsewhere – amazingly, none of his other strikers have scored at international level.
Czech coach Michel Bilek has a similar problem. The international retirement of Milan Baros (again, often derided in English football, but 41 goals in 93 appearances for his national side) means Tomas Pekhart (one goal in 18 caps) and David Lafata (no competitive goals for over six years) are his centre-forward options. In summary? Few goals here, and the Czechs underpriced at 2.2.
Macedonia v Belgium
On paper, Belgium have one of the best starting XIs in the European qualification process. Thibaut Courtois has been one of the outstanding goalkeepers this season, and is protected by the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany. In midfield, Mousa Dembele, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini offer great power, while Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas can support either Christian Benteke or Romelu Lukaku. But Belgium aren’t yet as good as the sum of their parts. There’s been a big improvement from the disappointing Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, and 10 points from four matches is a fine achievement.
But a couple of those victories have come after underwhelming performances, and Macedonia have performed reasonably well in qualifying. They’ve lost twice – both times to a good Croatian side – but have recorded an impressive home win over Serbia, and a point away in Scotland. Going forward they have a couple of big names in Napoli’s Goran Pandev and Ivan Trickowski – who impressed in the Champions League with APOEL last season, and is now based in Belgium with Club Brugge.
But it’s their defensive organisation under Cedomir Janevski that has been more impressive. He’s spent most of his career in Belgium with Club Brugge, Charleroi, Lokeren and Gent, and still lives in the country, so might have the appropriate knowledge to frustrate Marc Wilmots’ side. That makes 1.72 a good price to lay Belgium, especially with Kompany unavailable, and the absence of Guillaume Gillet leaving Wilmots without any true full-backs.
Scotland v Wales
Neither side are in great shape – Scotland have two points from four games, while Wales’ only points have come in the reverse fixture. Qualification is already beyond both.
But it’s surprising to see Scotland available at around 1.87 – this is their first competitive game under Gordon Strachan, who might be seeking to build for Euro 2016 qualifying – when 24 rather than 16 teams will make it to France, a significant boost to Scotland’s chances. The absence of James Morrison is a blow, as he’s been impressive in the central attacking midfield slot.
Besides, Gareth Bale looks set to be fit for this game – and with 11 goals in his last 11 games, he’ll be giving his former Spurs teammate Alan Hutton nightmares this week. If Bale turns on the style, Wales have a good chance of a result – laying Scotland at [1.87] looks good.
Scotland, Belgium and the Czech Republic are all too short. Portugal are also worth laying if Moutinho misses out, while Croatia might be worth following in-play.
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