After some superb performances by a number of the World Cup’s less fancied teams, the semi-finals feature four bona fide giants of the modern game. Hosts Brazil have somehow managed to find their way to the last four and face Germany in Belo Horizonte before new tournament favourites Argentina play the Netherlands in Sao Paolo.
Here’s our preview of the 2014 World Cup semi finals.
South America v Europe for a place in the World Cup final
They have been far from convincing in most of their matches so far but somehow Brazil have managed to make it to their first World Cup semi-final since 2002. The hosts scraped past Chile on penalties before a mighty scare against Colombia and needed a wonder strike from David Luiz to send them on their way to a 2-1 victory.
Brazil’s key player so far has been Neymar but the forward will miss the rest of the tournament after suffering an injury in the win over Colombia. The hosts will also miss the suspended Thiago Silva for the match in Belo Horizonte and coach Phil Scolari has one or two tactical and personnel decisions to make. Do Brazil stick with misfiring striker Fred? Who will partner David Luiz in central defence? And who will come in to replace the talismanic number ten?
Apart from an hour or so in their opening match against Portugal we haven’t really yet seen what Germany are capable of. They were functional more than exhilarating in their wins over Algeria and France and Joachim Low’s side have yet to burst into life in the knockout stages.
I actually still believe that if the true Germany turns up that they can easily win this tournament. It will be tough in front of a partisan home crowd but I think Brazil have been lucky so far and I can see their run coming to an end at the semi-final stage. Back Germany to nick it 1-0 at 13/2.
Argentina and Brazil have never both reached the semi-final stage of the same World Cup and now the pair are just one match away from a dream all-South American final. Standing in Argentina’s way are the Netherlands and this promises to be an intriguing clash in Sao Paolo.
While they may be a team packed with attacking talent – and in Lionel Messi they have one of the best players of the tournament – Argentina haven’t set the tournament alight. They have won three of their matches 1-0 and the other two by a solitary goal and so they have yet to really take another side apart.
It’s been 24 years since Argentina’s last World Cup semi-final and their only injury concern is over Angel di Maria who will miss the match. Sergio Aguero has trained and should play alongside Messi and Gonzalo Higuain who scored the winner in the quarter final.
Despite their heritage, it could be argued that the Netherlands have been this tournament’s surprise package. Arriving in Brazil with their weakest squad in decades – at least on paper – most observers expected the Dutch to either go out in the group stage or in the last 16. However, they have defied the odds to reach their second consecutive semi-final and have ridden their luck along the way.
Louis van Gaal’s side needed two late goals to overcome Mexico in the last 16 and Costa Rica gave them a mighty fright in Salvador before they finally prevailed after winning a penalty shootout in which Tim Krul – the substitute goalkeeper – was the hero.
There are plenty of neutrals who would love Holland to finally win a World Cup and I sincerely hope they play to the best of their ability on Wednesday night. Arjen Robben can cause Argentina’s defence lots of problems but I think the South Americans may have just enough to scrape through.
Don’t expect lots of goals, though. 0-0 after 90 minutes is available at 11/2 while you can back under 2.5 goals at 1/2.
There are now just eight teams left in a brilliant World Cup and there are some intriguing fixtures to look forward to. There’s a curious combination of big guns and dark horses left in the tournament and picking a potential winner remains as hard as it’s been for a couple of weeks.
Here’s our preview of the 2014 World Cup quarter finals.
South Americans bid to make last four
Before last week’s round of 16 match we predicted that Brazil might find the going tough against talented South American opponents. On that occasion they managed to squeeze past Chile on penalties but they face another difficult match in the quarter finals as they take on Colombia.
The hosts have yet to convince in any of their matches and have had to rely on the brilliance of Neymar more than once. Fred has become the focus of much of the criticism but Phil Scolari is unlikely to make major changes despite his team’s mediocre form.
Colombia have been brilliant so far and it’s frightening to think quite how good they may have been if star striker Radamel Falcao had been fit. In his absence it has been James Rodriguez that has been their inspiration and the Monaco midfielder scored a magnificent goal in their 2-0 win over Uruguay.
On current form, the 7/2 available on a Colombia win looks superb value.
Argentina have been reliant on the brilliance of Lionel Messi this summer and the tournament second favourites will need to improve if they are to win their third World Cup. Their opponents in the quarter final are Belgium who made it four wins out of four with a 2-1 victory against the USA in a terrific last 16 match.
I have yet to be entirely convinced by either of these sides and so this is a tough match to call. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the distance and the draw is available at 12/5.
European heavyweights continue bid to become first UEFA winner in South America
Three of Europe’s heavyweights have made it through to the quarter finals and there will be a clash of styles as the Netherlands face Costa Rica and France play Germany.
Having seen all the first round matches it is the Dutch that my money is on to win the tournament. Admittedly they were lucky to overcome Mexico but they are unlikely to face that heat and humidity again before the final. Costa Rica have been the story of this tournament, eliminating three previous World Cup winners and a European champion on the way to the quarter-final and they are likely to make life tough for Holland.
I fancy the Netherlands to progress but there’s not much value in the win at 1/2.
If Germany play to the best of their ability then they will win the tournament but, apart from an hour or so against Portugal, this is yet to happen. Their defence was all over the place in their draw with Ghana and narrow win over Algeria and when they face better strikers they could well be punished.
France have scored plenty of goals and look to be one of the best team units left in the competition. If they can be patient and hit Germany on the break then they can cause them real trouble and the 2/1 on Les Bleus looks like good value.
The 2014 World Cup reaches the knockout stages this week and it’s a combination of the pre-tournament favourites and some surprise packages that make up the last 16. Will the big guns make it to the quarter finals or will there be yet more upsets in an unpredictable tournament?
Here’s our preview of some of the second round matches at the 2014 World Cup.
South Americans bid to make quarter finals
The first two last 16 matches feature four teams from the host continent.
Hosts and favourites Brazil kick off the knockout stages as they face dark horses Chile. It’s been a mixed tournament so far for Phil Scolari’s side who have dazzled in patches but have failed to set the tournament alight. Neymar has been their key player so far but to win the competition Brazil will need more from the likes of Fred and Hulk.
Chile are one of the most exciting teams to watch in Brazil and their win over Spain was one of the highlights of the tournament so far. They boast a potent combination of talent and athleticism and their brand of high energy football has served them well so far.
Brazil are naturally the favourites in Belo Horizonte but I can see Chile pushing them every inch of the way. Back the draw after 90 minutes at 3/1.
The second all-CONMEBOL clash of the round is Uruguay v Colombia. Colombia have put the disappointment of losing talisman Radamel Falcao behind them and, in James Rodriguez, have one of the players of the tournament so far. They qualified with ease scoring nine goals in the process and head to Rio de Janeiro in great form.
Uruguay scraped through Group D at the expense of Italy and England but the actions of their star striker have overshadowed their progression to the last 16. On the pitch they have been less than impressive – don’t forget that they lost to Costa Rica – and so I expect Colombia to progress at 23/20.
Big names looking to progress
The Netherlands avoided a tricky knockout fixture with hosts Brazil by winning the group and are rewarded with a last 16 match against Mexico. Mexico have performed better than I expected but their record at the Finals is pretty poor and I expect Holland to keep up their good run here at 11/10.
Argentina are the second favourites for the tournament and Lionel Messi has lit up their tournament so far. The diminutive striker scored twice against Nigeria and the winners against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina and his side face Switzerland in the last 6.
I’ve been reasonably impressed by the Swiss despite their thumping by France and this might be a closer match than many expect. Xherdan Shaqiri scored an excellent hat-trick against Honduras and is 12/1 to score first and I’m also tempted by the huge 13/2 available on the Europeans.
Germany have been one of the more impressive sides in the tournament so far and face surprise package Algeria in Porto Alegre.
Algeria have reached the last 16 for the first time and have a score to settle with the Germans after the events of 1982. Then, having beaten West Germany 2-1, they were eliminated on goal difference after the Germans and Austrians played keep ball for 80 minutes knowing both would progress.
Algeria are 10/1 to repeat their upset of 32 years ago but I fancy the Germans to go through here.
Outsiders look to continue their good form
You’d have got long odds on a Greece v Costa Rica tie in the last 16 and both teams have defied expectations by qualifying from their group. A win for the Central American team would continue their fairytale although Greece’s tactics do work well in knockout football. The 11/2 on a goalless draw looks good value.
Nigeria are one of just two representatives from Africa in the knockout stages and I don’t fancy their chances of progressing any further against an impressive looking France side. The Super Eagles gave Argentina a scare but were largely hopeless against Iran and so I expect France to ease into the quarter-finals at 8/15.
Despite their ‘dark horse’ status, Belgium have done nothing to convince me that they will win their first World Cup in Brazil. They face the USA for a place in the quarter finals after Jurgen Klinsmann’s side unexpectedly eliminated both Ghana and Portugal.
The USA have been much better than I expected and I actually fancy them to cause an upset here. Their organisation can frustrate Belgium and it could well be the case that the team will beat the collection of individuals – although it may take extra time to do it. The draw is available at 5/2.
With 13 representatives in Brazil, can a UEFA team become the first to win a World Cup on South American soil? Eight of the top twelve teams in the betting are from Europe, but who will be the continent’s most successful team this summer?
Germany are the 23/10 favourites to the Europe’s top team in Brazil. It’s been 18 years since they last won an international tournament and Joachim Low’s team look to be in the easier half of the draw. I also think Spain will do a solid job of defending their title and the reigning champions are 3/1 to once again be Europe’s best team.
Author Simon Kupar made a very convincing argument on the Paddy Power blog recently for backing Italy and France to go far in the tournament and with an easy looking route to the quarter final France look good value in this market at 7/1.
I’ve been saying for months that Brazil are the team to beat this summer. Functional more than exciting, the hosts have a settled side with no shortage of talent or international experience and benefit from a passionate home support. The 6/5 on them to be South America’s best team this summer looks good value.
The only CONMEBOL team I can genuinely see outperforming them is Argentina. With a formation that finally suits Messi, Huguain, di Maria et al there should be plenty of attacking flair but I’d be concerned about their defence. I’m not sure the 17/10 on Argentina in this market represents value.
Ivory Coast are the 6/4 favourites to end up as Africa’s best team in Brazil and they have a great chance of qualifying from a group containing Colombia, Japan and Greece. They are likely to face Italy, England or Uruguay in the first knockout round, however, and so the last 16 looks as good as they can hope for.
2010 quarter finalists Ghana are 11/4 to progress the furthest of the African teams but I would be surprised if the Black Stars qualify from Group G. I actually prefer the chances of Nigeria at 11/4. The current African champions arrive in Brazil with a mixture of home and foreign based players under popular coach Stephen Keshi and could well eliminate Iran and Bosnia-Herzogovina on the way to the last 16.
Despite the popularity of the beautiful game on the Asian continent it would actually be something of a surprise were any of the four AFC teams to qualify for the knockout stages in Brazil.
Japan often flatter to deceive at the World Cup although they have the best chance of reaching the last 16 this time. Group C is wide open and with the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda in the line-up there’s enough attacking talent to see of Greece and the Ivory Coast. Japan are10/11 to be Asia’s best side. South Korea are likely to be great to watch and if they don’t ship a hatful of goals could also offer value in this market at 17/10.
This is a tough market to call considering Mexico have failed to get past the first knockout round in eleven World Cup attempts away from home soil while the USA squad in 2014 is the weakest in some years. I actually don’t fancy either side to make the last 16 but while the USA could easily lose their three group matches Mexico should get some points on the board.
Back Mexico to be the top CONCACAF team at 10/11.
It is 5/6 that a representative from UEFA will lift the World Cup in 2014. Considering several of the leading nations in the betting are from Europe this is no surprise, but it is worth remembering that no European team has ever won the World Cup in South America and only Spain have won the tournament outside Europe.
Eight of the top twelve teams in the betting are European. Spain, Germany, Italy, France and Holland are frontrunners and Europe can also boast dark horses such as Belgium, England, Portugal, Russia, Croatia and Switzerland. UEFA representatives also include Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece.
With the strength of the various UEFA teams it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a European team win the tournament. However, with eight previous failures to win a World Cup outside their home continent, a European team will have to make history by winning in Brazil.
South America (10/11)
Six representatives from the CONMEBOL federation will compete on their home continent this summer including tournament favourites Brazil.
Phil Scolari’s team are more functional than great Brazilian sides of old but boast plenty of attacking talent in the form of Neymar, Oscar, Willian, Fred and Hulk. As hosts, they are certainly the team to beat this summer.
Beyond Brazil there are several other South American sides which could also do well. Argentina finally seem to have a system which can get the best out of Lionel Messi although their defence could be vulnerable. If Radamel Falcao is fit for the tournament than dark horses Colombia could go well while Uruguay will be hoping to replicate their World Cup victory in Brazil in 1950.
Ecuador and Chile also harbour genuine hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
Two of the South American teams have strong chances of winning the tournament and the 10/11 on a CONMEBOL team ending up with the trophy looks good value.
Considering that even on their ‘home’ continent just one African team reached the last eight in 2010 then it doesn’t look promising this summer.
The leading contenders are the Ivory Coast, although are a distant 125/1 to win the tournament. The Elephants have some talented players in Yaya Toure, Drogba and Kalou and while they could well reach the knockout stages they aren’t likely to win the competition.
Ghana will do well to progress from a group featuring both Germany and Portugal while Algeria will have to defeat Russia, Belgium or South Korea to progress.
That leaves Cameroon and Nigeria. Nigeria have arguably the easier draw and could make the knockout stages while Cameroon may well progress to the last sixteen at the expense of Croatia and Mexico. Can one of the sides go all the way to the final, though? That looks a tall order.
North and Central America (66/1)
It would be a major shock if Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica or the USA won the World Cup in 2014. Mexico have a surprisingly poor record in World Cup Finals, failing to get past the first knockout round in eleven attempts away from home soil while the USA squad in 2014 is the weakest in some years.
Honduras have done well to qualify for a second consecutive tournament but with France, Switzerland and Ecuador in Group E I can’t see them making the knockout stages. Costa Rica have an even tougher job as they face England, Uruguay and Italy.
Despite the huge popularity of football on the Asian continent, the AFC sides have regularly failed to progress to the latter stages of a World Cup. South Korea’s run to the semi-finals in 2002 on home soil was by far the best effort of an Asian side and despite four qualifiers in 2014 they have once again been given little hope.
South Korea play an attacking brand of football that sees goals at both ends and should be good to watch, as should Japan who are perennial qualifiers but often disappoint in the Finals themselves. Australia find themselves in the Group of Death with Spain, Holland and Chile and have precious little hope while Carlos Queiroz’s Iran side are organised and better than you might expect although are stll likely to fall at the group stages.
Over the last 84 years, some of the best footballers in history have graced the World Cup. Some players have become synonymous with certain tournaments, not least Pele in 1970, Cruyff in 1974 and our own Bobby Charlton in 1966.
So, as we head to Brazil this summer, which player will join the greats and be awarded FIFA’s Golden Ball award for the player of the tournament? Keep reading for our preview.
All the trends and facts you need to know
If you’re looking to back a potential Player of the Tournament at a World Cup there are two key trends that you should consider.
Firstly, the leading player generally comes from a side that reaches the final. There’s no point your chosen player being fantastic for a country that goes out in the group stages as they have to perform well throughout the entire tournament. While a player from a last four team can win (Diego Forlan did in 2010), the leading player tends to be from a finalist.
Saying that, they don’t have to be from the winning nation. While 15 World Cup Player of the Tournament winners have come from sides that reached the final, just nine have come from eventual World Cup Winners. And, you have to go back to 1994 for the last time a World Cup winner was awarded the Golden Ball (Romario of Brazil).
Secondly, the winner of the Player of the Tournament is almost always an attacking player. Eleven of the last twelve winners have been attacking players with only Oliver Kahn’s win in 2006 upsetting that record.
Attacking players often get increased exposure which elevates them over other positions. Was Zinedine Zidane really a better player at the 2006 tournament than Fabio Cannavaro? Ronaldo better than Thuram in France 98? Or Schillachi better than Matthaus in 1990? Probably not – but that didn’t stop the attackers winning the prize.
So, the winner is generally an attacking player from a World Cup finalist. So, who does that point to in 2014?
Neymar leads the way in 2014
For me, the four leading contenders for this season’s World Cup are Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina and so it makes sense to pick a Player of the Tournament from those nations.
Neymar is the 13/2 favourite and is likely to tick all the right boxes – an attacking talent from a likely winner and the host nation. The Barcelona striker is certainly a contender but I’d prefer to look elsewhere for value. Attacking midfielders have got plenty of goals at recent international tournaments and so team mates Oscar (33/1), Willian (40/1) and Hulk (50/1) may offer better value.
I fancy Spain to go well in the tournament and their star man could well be Diego Costa. The Atletico Madrid striker has been inspirational in his side’s La Liga triumph this season and could provide the goals that the holders need. He looks excellent value at 40/1 as do his colleagues Xavi (40/1) and Fabregas (50/1).
Germans have won the Golden Boot for top goalscorer at each of the last two World Cups and Thomas Muller hit five goals in 2010. He’s in the perfect position to be named Player of the Tournament and is available at 33/1.
Lionel Messi is the second favourite to win the Golden Ball at 8/1 and it is certainly about time we saw Messi perform at a World Cup. He has scored just one goal at the World Cup finals – and that in the 88th minute of a 6-0 win – although coach Alejandro Sabella has devised a system that finally seems to get the most out of the 26 year old. Messi would certainly be a popular winer.
We have to wait five days before we get our first glimpse of the countries drawn in Group G and H of the 2014 World Cup. Of the eight teams involved, only Germany look to be a nailed-on certainty for the knockout stages with plenty of upsets possible in matches between the other nations.
Keep reading for our betting preview of Groups G and H.
Germany feel silverware is long overdue
If England have suffered with 48 years of hurt, Germany failing to win a tournament since 1996 is a similar drought. Joachim Low’s side have fallen at the semi-final hurdle in recent competitions and are heading to Brazil with a weight of expectation on their shoulders. They face Ghana, the USA and Portugal in Group G.
On paper, Germany boast arguably the strongest squad in the competition. They have a dizzying choice of attacking midfielders including Kroos, Gotze, Muller, Reus, Draxler, Schurrle, Ozil and Podolski many of whom have vast European and international experience.
Their lack of a central striker could be their undoing with 35 year old Miroslav Klose one of just two strikers to make the squad – although 68 goals in 131 caps is an impressive record. They should easily qualify for the knockout phase.
Portugal needed a play-off to qualify and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that their chances are in the hands of one man. Cristiano Ronaldo will need to carry his side if they are to do well in the tournament considering their lack of central striker and the fact many of their key players (Nani, Fabio Coentrao) haven’t been regulars at their clubs this season.
Their recent form has been good, though, and so Paulo Bento’s side can expect to make the knockout stages.
Ghana made the knockout stages in 2006 and the quarter-final in 2010 although their aging side may struggle to repeat those successes in 2014. The Black Stars have lost to Mali, Burkina Faso, Montenegro and Zambia during coach Kwesi Appiah’s tenure and are reliant on the midfield experience of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari.
At the top of their form they could make the last 16 although it will be a tough ask this time.
The USA face a real uphill challenge this summer and could well end up with three defeats. While they may be energetic and technical, this is one of the weakest USA squads for some time and when Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore looks like a key player you have to fear for their chances. Back Germany and Portugal to qualify at 4/6.
Dark horses looking to justify punter’s faith
For a team that hasn’t qualified for the World Cup finals since 2002 and who have never won a major tournament, the odds on Belgium to triumph in Brazil look remarkably skinny. They are the 20/1 fifth favourites to win the tournament although first they will have to escape a tricky group. They face Russia, South Korea and Algeria in Group H.
While there are undoubtedly some good players in Marc Wilmots’ squad Belgium are nowhere near the tournament’s strongest team. Their form is also less than brilliant in that they haven’t won since last October and they recently lost to Japan in Brussels. I actually think they may struggle more than expected.
Russia have a mediocre record at major tournaments but have an old hand in charge this time. Fabio Capello’s side have lost just twice under the Italian’s tenure and he has a well-drilled and experienced group of players to call on.
The CSKA Moscow pair of Serggei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski prove stability at the back while young Alan Dzagoev is one to watch in midfield. I like their chances of qualifying for the last 16 at 2/5.
It is South Korea’s eighth successive appearance at the World Cup finals although this time they nearly failed to make it – ending the Asian qualification process one place ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference. Former player and legend Hong-Myung Bo took over in July and has selected a squad who ply their trade as far afield as Japan and Bolton.
Going forward, South Korea could be brilliant to watch but it’s at the other end that they could have real problems. Expect their games to contain plenty of chances and goals – indeed backing them to concede most goals in Group H at 9/5 could pay dividends.
Algeria may have a reputation for defensive play – they were only one of two sides at the World Cup in 2010 that didn’t score – but that underestimates their current squad. They were the fourth highest scorers in African World Cup qualification and coach Vahid Halilhodzic prefers an attacking 4-3-3 formation.
I think Algeria will fall short of qualifying for the last 16 but they won’t be pushovers.
Colombia – 25/1
For many people, Colombia are one of the leading contenders for this year’s World Cup. Ranked in the top ten teams in world football, the South Americans qualified for the tournament with ease and kept more clean sheets in qualifying than any of their South American rivals.
However, expecting them to win the World Cup looks like a tall order. Their main problem is the fitness of iconic striker Radamel Falcao. A massive influence both on and off the pitch, the striker is already his nation’s second highest goalscorer of all time and, despite the claims of Porto’s Jackson Martinez or River Plate’s Teo Gutierrez, is irreplaceable.
Falcao may be fit in time for the tournament, but he’d need to be on fire to carry Colombia to the title.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Colombia’s best ever World Cup performance was in 1990 when they reached the last sixteen. Even with their golden generation of players – Carlos Valderrama et al – they only managed to reach the first knockout round and this is the first tournament they have qualified for since 1998.
Their poor previous record, the fitness of Falcao and the fact that they will likely play Italy or Uruguay in the last 16 means I can’t see Los Cafeteros making the later stages.
Belgium – 16/1
If ever there was a team which arrives at the World Cup as a dark horse, it’s Belgium. They arrive in Brazil as fifth favourites – shorter in the betting than previous winners Italy, Uruguay, England and France.
Their place in the betting seems to be based on two factors: the squad at manager Marc Wilmots’ disposal and their qualifying record. They won eight of their ten qualifying matches – although it’s worth bearing in mind that the most difficult tie was away in Croatia and the likes of Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia were not the strongest of rivals.
There’s certainly plenty of young talent on display, many of whom grace the Premier League. Marouane Fellaini has a key role in the midfield while Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku lead the attack. With substitutes including Mousa Dembele, Nacer Chadli and Napoli’s Dries Mertens, coach Wilmots certainly has plenty of options.
While there are undoubtedly some good players here, for me Belgium are nowhere near the tournament’s strongest squad. Their form is also less than brilliant in that they haven’t won since last October and they recently lost to Japan in Brussels.
A good Belgium team can go well at the World Cup – they were fourth in 1986 – but they have little tournament experience and ought to be found out by one of the better sides.
Netherlands – 25/1
It’s not the quality of the squad that is likely to scupper Netherlands’ long quest to win their first World Cup this time. Neither is it the imminent departure of coach Louis van Gaal or injuries to key players.
Netherlands’ biggest problem this summer is the draw they have been given. In order to qualify for the last eight of the tournament they are almost certain to have to beat Spain or Brazil – or even both.
The tough draw is represented by the 25/1 on offer – a price that would surely be shorter with a more favourable route to the latter stages. However, despite the range of talent the Dutch have to call on, I simply can’t see them overcoming Spain or Brazil in two of their first four matches. If they do – and then go on to beat the likes of Germany and Argentina on the way to the title – there will have been few more deserving winners.
For the first time in European Cup history, this year’s final sees two teams from the same city face one another. Real Madrid take on neighbours Atlético in the Champions League final in one of the highest profile local derbies in football history.
Real are the favourites as they chase their tenth European Cup triumph while Atlético have never won the tournament. But, having secured the La Liga title with a draw at Barcelona, can Atlético win an unprecedented double? Keep reading for our preview.
The most unexpected story in European soccer this season
Back in August, the argument between pundits was whether Real Madrid or Barcelona would win the La Liga title. No-one gave perennial underachievers Atlético Madrid – or, indeed, any other side – a hope considering the nearest that a third place team in Spain had come to breaking the Real/Barca duopoly in the previous five years had been 17 points.
Atlético have stunned everyone. A win in last year’s Copa del Rey final ended a 25 match unbeaten run against their Madrid neighbours and a Diego Costa goal gave them a famous league win at the Bernebeu in September. Diego Simeone’s side held their nerve as the season drew to an end and a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp saw them take the title for the first time since 1996.
And, it’s not just domestically that Atlético have been brilliant. Their route to the Champions League final has seen them eliminate Porto, Zenit St Petersburg, AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea and so they certainly deserve to feature in the showpiece event – their first since a 4-0 defeat to Bayern in 1974. They are 13/8 to win their first Champions League.
Real Madrid’s European pedigree and their demolition of reigning champions Bayern Munich in the semi-final makes them 1/2 to win the Champions League. It would be ‘la decima’ – a tenth European Cup for Real – and their first since Zinedine Zidane’s wonderstrike helped them lift the Cup in 2002.
However, their form since the 5-0 win over Bayern has been patchy at best. Defender Sergio Ramos admitted after their recent 2-0 loss to Celta Vigo that ‘after a great season in this competition the team wasn’t up to scratch and we’ve let the Liga slip away from us in a very poor way. We can’t complain or let our heads go down.’
Real to lift their tenth European Cup
On paper this is one of the most intriguing finals in years. Atlético have the recent European final experience – they won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012 – and the recent better results over their Madrid rivals.
However, Real’s performance in the semi-final was one of the season’s best and they have a wealth of talent to call on. The crucial difference between the sides could be that Carlo Ancelotti’s injured players – Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Pepe – should be fit to return for the match while Atlético’s – Diego Costa and Turan – may not.
The loss of talismanic striker Costa could be a massive blow to Atlético and the key factor in what should be a tight contest. While a first Champions League triumph for Atlético would end a fairytale season, Real look set to finally win that elusive ‘decima’ in Lisbon and Gareth Bale could well be the man to watch.
Bale is 6/1 to net the first goal and you can back a Bale first goal and 2-0 win for Real at 30/1.
And, if the Welshman scores anytime in 90 minutes, we will refund all losing First Goalscorer, Last Goalscorer, Correct Score and Scorecast singles on this match as a free bet.
Groups E and F kick off on 15 June and are two of the more intriguing pools in the tournament. While each group boasts a clear favourite – in each case a former winner – predicting who might join Argentina and France in the knockout stages is much more difficult.
Keep reading for our betting preview of Groups E and F.
Switzerland struggling to justify World Cup seeding
Switzerland are the seeded team in Group E and romped through qualifying without losing a match. Managed by the experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Swiss have a strong defence and boast some good young talent.
Scoring enough goals could be Switzerland’s problem. The oldest of their four strikers is 24 year old Mario Gavranovic and the top international scorer in the squad is Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta with 10, more than the four strikers combined.
Solid, organised and talented, the Swiss will be looking to justify their seeding with some good performances. Remember that they beat eventual champions Spain in 2010.
France have rather flown under the radar as far as this tournament is concerned, having only just qualified after overturning a 2-0 first leg defeat to Ukraine in their play-off. Coach Didier Deschamps is not a man to shirk a difficult decision – the omission of Samir Nasri from his squad caused ructions – although he has built a solid team that could do better than many expect.
With a hugely impressive midfield three of Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba and Yohan Cabaye and the world class attacking talents of Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema the French should be solid and organised.
Ecuador’s qualification for the tournament was built on an impressive home record in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. They beat Colombia, Uruguay and Chile en route to securing fourth place in South American qualifying and will be led by Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
The issue with Ecuador is that they didn’t win any of their eight away fixtures in qualifying. If you’re considering backing them to qualify from the group, remember that they are nowhere near the same side when playing outside their own country.
Honduras have yet to win a match at the World Cup finals although recent wins over Mexico and the USA show that they are no pushovers. They play an organised 4-4-2 although perhaps don’t have the quality to trouble the top sides.
Considering Ecuador’s away form and Honduras’ limited talent I’d be backing France and Switzerland to qualify at 6/5.
Three differing styles bidding to join Argentina in the last 16
Argentina are the second favourites for the tournament and boast arguably the strongest attacking line-up. Coach Alejandro Sabella prefers a 4-3-3 system that appears finally to have got the best out of Lionel Messi, flanked by two of Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero or Gonzalo Higuain.
Argentina were unbeaten in 18 months prior to losing their final qualifying match – a dead rubber against Uruguay – and are certainly ones to watch this summer. Whether their defence is strong enough to carry them all the way remains to be seen – their regular choice goalkeepers have not been first choices this season – although they should easily qualify from Group F.
Bosnia and Herzegovina are the only debutants at this summer’s World Cup and in a wide open group could mark their first appearance by reaching the knockout stages.
With just two regular strikers – Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibsevic played every qualifying game – Bosnia’s is a simple midfield diamond featuring Roma’s masterful Miralem Pjanic. With squad members playing in top leagues across Europe, Bosnia will expect to do better than simply make up the numbers.
Iran were a shambles when ex-Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz took over as boss in 2011. Three years later they have qualified for the World Cup and have risen to 37 in thr FIFA world rankings.
Expect Iran to be organised and defensive but aim to hit opponents on the counter-attack through the pace of Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah.
The current African champions, Nigeria, arrive in Brazil with a mixture of home and foreign based players under coach Stephen Keshi – a cult figure in the country.
There is experience right through the side from 89 cap goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama through Joseph Yobo to Chelsea’s John-Obi Mikel. With Premiership stars Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie to call on, Nigeria could well be the leading African nation at this summer’s tournament.
Back Argentina and Nigeria to qualify at 6/4.
There’s plenty to play for this weekend when the Football League play-off finals arrive at Wembley. Six teams have the chance of promotion and there are no clear favourites in any of the three matches.
Derby County and QPR are battling it out for the big prize – promotion to the Premier League – while Rotherham United can secure back to back promotions with a win over Leyton Orient. And, either Burton Albion or Fleetwood Town will play third tier football for the first time next season.
Keep reading for our preview of the three play-off finals.
It’s been called the richest match in world football and Derby County will play QPR this weekend to see who will join Burnley and Leicester City in being promoted to the Premier League next season.
It’s a battle between two high profile English managers and between two clubs with wildly different financial approaches. Derby have spent barely any money in the last couple of seasons while Tony Fernandes continues to bankroll QPR who have a huge roster of players on Premier League wages.
On paper this should be no contest with QPR boasting a wealth of top level talent. Rob Green, Joey Barton, Richard Dunne, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Kevin Doyle, Jermaine Jenas, Nico Kranjcar, Yossi Benayoun and Bobby Zamora are all international players and they have a fit-again Charlie Austin up front.
Derby, however, are one of the form teams in the division. They have won seven of their last eight Championship games and scored more goals than anyone else in the division. Steve McLaren has done a terrific job since he arrived in September and the Rams can return to the top flight after a six year absence.
Derby are 7/5 to win in 90 minutes and player of the season Craig Bryson can get them on their way. The Scot is 9/1 to score the first goal.
After an impressive win over pre-season promotion favourites Preston in the semi-final, Rotherham United are bidding for back-to-back promotions. Steve Evans guided his side into League One last May and now has the chance of a second straight promotion as they face Leyton Orient.
After a strong start to the season Orient faded in the second half of the campaign but two wins in the last two matches secured third spot. Their defence has been solid – they conceded less than one goal per game and only let in more than one goal in a match on eight occasions – and they have scored plenty of goals in the process.
Rotherham, meanwhile, went on a brilliant sixteen match unbeaten run after Christmas and ended up finishing in fourth place. They looked terrific in their 3-1 win over Preston in the semi-final and their attacking style could cause Orient plenty of problems.
This could well be an open affair and backing both teams to score at 4/6 looks advisable. Orient’s better defensive record may pay dividends here and the Os are 15/8 to win in 90 minutes.
Whatever the outcome of the League Two play-off final, one thing is certain: whichever team wins will reach the third tier of English football for their first time in their history.
Fleetwood Town are one win away from a remarkable sixth promotion in 10 years after they booked a spot in the Wembley final at the expense of York while Burton Albion are seeking their first ever season in League One after seeing off Southend United.
Fleetwood won the most recent meeting between the sides 4-2 but Burton have had the measure of their rivals over the last eighteen months. Fleetwood are the favourites but I like the chances of Burton at 23/10 to get over their play-off disappointment last season and to go up.
Brazil – 3/1 favourites
Throwing your weight behind the five times champions and perennial ante-post favourites is hardly placing your reputation on the line. However, the South Americans have lost more World Cups than they have won and can boast only two World titles since 1974. Backing them in recent tournaments has not been as profitable as you might imagine.
This time, however, Brazil look well equipped to reclaim the trophy they last won in 2002. As well as the huge benefit of home advantage, their squad is also packed full of everything they need to succeed.
They have goals in the team in Barcelona’s Neymar and Zenit St Petersburg’s Hulk. They have great craft in the Chelsea pair of Oscar and Willian and great experience in Ramires and Hernanes. They also boast great defensive nous in Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Maicon.
Filipe Scolari has developed a balanced and talented side and their recent performances have been excellent, particularly the ease with which they beat Spain on the way to the 2013 Confederations Cup. They have an easy looking group stage and, as long as they negotiate a tricky last 16 match against Spain or the Netherlands, the hosts should go very well.
Germany – 11/2
Whether it was their hosting of the tournament in 2006 or their stylish team full of young attacking talent, cheering on the Germans seems to be much easier than it was a decade ago. Rather than producing cynical, efficient sides, Joachim Low has built a team with no shortage of flair.
It’s been 18 years since a German team won a major international tournament and there’s a feeling in the country that a triumph is long overdue. They certainly have the strongest looking squad in the competition with an embarrassment of riches in attack including Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and Marco Reus.
Germany are also in the kinder half of the draw and their most difficult match on the way to the final is likely to be against Argentina.
The concern might be the lack of a world class centre forward – 35 year old Miroslav Klose is still the first choice – but their vast experience and talent should see them go well. Anything less than a win would represent a disappointment for a nation that feels tournament success is well overdue.
Spain – 7/1
For years, backing Spain at a World Cup finals was a recipe for disaster. Every tournament, Spain would turn up with a squad packed with brilliant players only for them to suffer embarrassing defeats to the likes of Northern Ireland, Nigeria or South Korea.
All this changed in 2010, of course, and Spain are on an unprecedented winning run which has seen them take not only the World Cup but two European Championship titles as well.
A 3-0 defeat to Brazil in last summer’s Confederations Cup means that Spain are as long as 7/1 in the betting. However, having proved a European team can win a World Cup away from the continent and with a squad that is stronger than that which won in 2010, I believe they are being unwisely written off.
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Xavi, David Silva, Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas would still waltz into almost any team in the world and this time Vicente del Bosque can also call on the likes of Atletico Madrid pair Diego Costa and Koke, Real Madrid’s Isco and Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara.
With superb recent pedigree, a game that should suit the conditions and tons of talent I think Spain should once again go well at 7/1. That’s if they don’t revert to their old ways, of course.