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Friday, 9 June 2017

World Cup Qualifier Picks 2017 (June 9-11)

The final game of the 2016/17 season for many football players in Europe will be played between Friday and Sunday this week as one last round of World Cup Qualifiers are scheduled.

For most it will then mean at least two months before any competitive football is played and a chance to go on their holidays before reporting back to their clubs in July.

I will have a number of picks from the Qualifiers which are to be played over the next three days which you can read below.

Andorra v Hungary Pick: When you see a match like this on the coupon most will immediately be wondering by how many goals will Hungary be able to beat Andorra. That is a reasonable way to begin when you think Andorra had lost 35 home Qualifiers in a row before the goalless draw with the Faroe Islands, but it may also be overestimating this current Hungary squad.

There is no doubt that Andorra do struggle to just match the better teams they face, but they have only suffered narrow losses to Latvia (0-1) and Switzerland (1-2) at home which suggests they can make life difficult for Hungary.

Add in the fact that Hungary have already failed to win in the Faroe Islands in this Group and had narrow wins against the likes of the Faroe Islands and Finland in the Euro 2016 Qualifiers as well as one over Latvia in this Group. Hungary haven't won an away Qualifier by more than two goals in any of their last 13 away Qualifiers since beating Andorra 0-5 here.

That might encourage some to back Hungary for a big win here, but they have not been in good form since being beaten in the Euro 2016 Finals and I think Hungary will be content with any kind of win. Andorra's improvement means backing Hungary to win by either a one goal or two goal margin here at odds against can be taken on.

Gibraltar v Cyprus Pick: There won't be many times that Cyprus are such a big favourite to win an away Qualifier, but you can understand where the oddsmakers are coming from this Friday.

They simply don't want to give a lot away with Gibraltar who have been losing plenty of games at this level and who have also conceded goals for fun at home. While Cyprus have lost their 2 away World Cup Qualifiers, this is a national team who have won at Bosnia-Herzegovina, Andorra and Israel during the Euro 2016 Qualifying Group.

Gibraltar have lost heavily to the likes of Georgia (0-3) and Latvia (0-5) at home, while they were also beaten by a couple of goals when hosting Estonia. The Faroe Islands have also won by a three goal margin here and so I am going to back Cyprus to cover the Asian Handicap.

The only Qualifier Gibraltar have lost by less than three goals was the 3-1 defeat in Cyprus, but I can see Cyprus at least matching that margin again. With Gibraltar likely to be more attack minded at home, I can see Cyprus winning by a slightly larger margin this time and I will back them on the Asian Handicap to do that.

Latvia v Portugal Pick: They might not always have been known for the clinical finishing in the final third, but Portugal have been hammering home the goals since their 2-0 loss in Switzerland in this World Cup Qualifying Group. Portugal have now scored 19 goals and conceded just 1 in their 4 World Cup Qualifier wins and that is a big reason they are favoured to win in Latvia by a comfortable margin.

That is an easy decision for the oddsmakers when you think Latvia have lost 5 straight home Qualifiers including both in this Group. However they have rarely been completely outclassed in front of their own fans and that factors into my pick for this fixture.

Latvia have only been beaten by more than three goals at home in 1 of their last 39 home Qualifiers and even that was in a game where they had a man sent off after just 11 minutes. On the other hand, Portugal's 0-6 win over Faroe Islands in this Group is the only 1 in 14 away Qualifiers that they have won by more than a two goal margin.

Now I have to respect the way Portugal have been playing and scoring goals in this Group and also the way Latvia have struggled. That still doesn't mean I am expecting Portugal to win this one by four or more and I think you can look to Dutch them winning by two or three goal margins to provide an odds against return.

Maybe Cristiano Ronaldo brings his Champions League form into this one and helps blow away Latvia, but I think the home team can remain competitive enough to avoid a real hammering.

Sweden v France Pick: I was a little surprised to see France at odds on to win this World Cup Qualifier, but that just indicates where Sweden are during their transition from the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.

Sweden have played well in recent games and they have played well during the World Cup Qualifier Group which makes them a danger to France. The side have been unbeaten in 5 home Qualifiers, but they haven't played too many teams with the quality the French will bring to Stockholm.

The respect the layers have given to France may have come from the fact they have won 0-1 in the Netherlands but you can't ignore the fact they have won 3 of their last 7 away Qualifiers. They also don't have to push for the win here as they will remain firmly in control of the Group as long as France don't lose this game.

France do have a good record in Sweden over the years with 3 wins from their last 6 visits here, but I think the home side can battle for a result here. I would be surprised if Sweden were able to beat a team with the kind of talent France have, especially when France know the importance of avoiding a loss.

A small interest is warranted on this Qualifier finishing in a draw which may just be a result that both Sweden and France will ultimately be happy with and I will back that to happen.

Azerbaijan v Northern Ireland Pick: There is much on the line for both Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland on Saturday in the last World Cup Qualifier until September with the winning team likely to feel they can do enough to finish behind Germany in the Group.

The onus is on Azerbaijan more than Northern Ireland as they have already lost in Northern Ireland earlier in the Group and trail by 3 points. For Northern Ireland even a point here would be considered a positive as they look to secure a Play Off spot in the section.

We know that is likely the way Michael O'Neill will approach the fixture hoping that Northern Ireland can steal the points. He will make them tough to beat and try to frustrate the home team into mistakes, and Northern Ireland did win 3 of their 5 away Qualifiers in the Euro 2016 Qualifying Group.

I can understand why Northern Ireland have been set as the favourite with that in mind, especially as Azerbaijan can be vulnerable at home. However Azerbaijan have also shown some toughness at times with decent results against nations like Russia and Croatia, while they have also beaten Norway here in the Group.

I think this match is going to be close, but I think Northern Ireland are good enough to avoid defeat. That could set them up nicely for the double header with San Marino and Czech Republic in September, but I think Northern Ireland will have to settle for a positive point here.

A small interest in the draw is where my money will be going in this one this weekend.

Scotland v England Pick: If you believe the bookmakers rarely get things wrong, you would probably understand why England are the favourites to win this match in Scotland. However they look plenty short to me despite the positive results in the Group and I think Scotland are going to give England plenty to think about.

Of course this is not a vintage Scotland squad with many of their players no longer competing for places at the very top clubs in the Premier League like we have seen over the last twenty years. The players at Celtic play for a big club, but not against competition of the level that England can send to the field.

In saying that, this is as close to a 'English style derby' you can get in international football and we have seen 'lesser' teams able to match up and compete with those teams that should be much stronger on paper. Scotland should most certainly be inspired from the fans in Hampden Park who would love nothing more than to beat England.

Scotland have played well in Qualifiers in front of their own fans and only Germany have recorded a win here, after an absolute battle, over the last 8 Qualifiers in Scotland. They have shown heart to earn a draw with a decent nation like Poland too and Scotland may be the first team to score against England in the Group.

England had won 6 away Qualifiers in a row before the goalless draw with Slovenia and they have shown defensive toughness in those games. They have kept clean sheets in 6 of their last 7 away Qualifiers and so the layers have placed some big prices for goals in this one.

I think the layers may have got that wrong though with Scotland and England recent games ending up being high-scoring ones. Scotland can certainly trouble England here, while the latter will believe their quality can tell at the end.

I did consider backing England to win by a couple of goals at least, but Scotland have raised their game at home against the better nations they have faced and I will look for at least three goals to be shared out.

Slovenia v Malta Pick: No one is going to be rushing out to back Malta to win this one considering their generally poor run of results, especially when playing away from home.

Slovenia winning the three points won't surprise anyone, but I do think Malta have shown they can be very competitive at that has meant wide losses have not been as frequent as you may believe.

Only 3 of their last 17 away Qualifiers have seen Malta lose by three or more goals. In this World Cup Qualifying Group, Malta have lost 2-0 in England and Lithuania, while in the last European Championship Qualifying Group Malta were beaten 2-0 in Croatia and 1-0 in Italy.

This Slovenia team are also not one who are going to blow opponents away and so I think it may pay out to back the home team to win by either a one or two goal margin. 6 of their last 8 home Qualifier wins have come by that margin and Malta might be able to make life difficult enough as they have for those nations I have mentioned.

It would be a big upset if Slovenia were not able to turn this Qualifier into three points and I will look to Dutch the two margins mentioned which pays out at odds against.

Poland v Romania Pick: This is a big match for Romania to try and peg back Poland who look to be running away with the Group and I am not sure they are going to be able to do that. Poland have been scoring goals for fun at home and they have become a really dangerous team to visit with 6 wins from their last 7 home Qualifiers.

That includes wins over the likes of Germany and Denmark and the Romania run of 7 away Qualifiers is under threat.

When you look at the teams Romania have played in that time, they don't really match up to what Poland are capable of doing. Greece, Finland, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Armenia and Kazakhstan make up that unbeaten run for Romania, but Poland would be considered stronger than all of those and I expect them to show that this weekend.

Romania have also failed to score in their last 3 World Cup Qualifiers and I do believe Poland are going to be capable of not only winning, but winning by more than the one goal margin to cover this Asian Handicap.

Finland v Ukraine PickIn a Group that contains four nations who all will truly believe they are good enough to Qualify for the World Cup Finals, the games against the bottom two nations cannot afford to be overlooked.

That is what Ukraine have to remind themselves as dropped points here in Finland would really ramp up the pressure in chasing down the nations above them.

Croatia have shown the way with a victory here, although Ukraine have not had the best away Qualifiers in recent seasons. They did beat the two bottom teams in their Euro 2016 Qualifying Group, but Ukraine are a hard working team who might not necessarily have the quality to break down a resilient team if they are not able to do the same as Croatia and break down the door early.

Finland have also simply not been that strong at home and only a late goal against Northern Ireland prevented them losing all 3 home games in the last set of Qualifiers against nations who made it to France for the Euro 2016 Finals. I think they will make life tough for Ukraine in this one, but ultimately I do think Ukraine will find a way to secure an important three points for themselves to just keep track on the top two in this Group.

The 0-1 friendly loss to Malta is a concern, but that was only a friendly and I expect Ukraine to do enough to secure the win on Sunday.

Republic of Ireland v Austria Pick: This is a really important game for the Republic of Ireland and Austria as both bid to end a long wait for an appearance in the World Cup Finals. The Republic of Ireland haven’t played in a World Cup Finals since the infamous 2002 tournament when current Assistant Manager Roy Keane walked out on the squad days before the Finals would begin.

For Austria the wait has been four years longer, but they have underachieved in this Group so far and will need to really pick up their play in the second half of the section. A 4 point gap at this point is far from insurmountable, but Austria have yet to beat any of the three nations ahead of them in the Group and have already lost a home game to Ireland.

There is no doubt that makes this a more important game for Austria and also allows Martin O’Neill to set up his home team to be hard to beat. A draw will certainly look a good result in relation to a potential Play Off spot, but Ireland will be expected to also try and win this game to give themselves a chance of an automatic place in the World Cup Finals next summer.

It can be argued that a win for the Republic of Ireland would make them favourites to win the Group, but this is going to be a tough game.

Austria are far better than they have shown in the Group so far, and they are a team that can scored goals having managed two in each game other than the 0-1 loss to Ireland.

Generally the Republic of Ireland don’t give much away as is highlighted by 5 consecutive clean sheets in home Qualifiers. However this Austria team have shown they can create enough chances to be a danger and the layers could have underestimated the chance of seeing at least three goals in this one.

Austria have scored at least twice in 7 of their last 8 away Qualifiers and will be looking to attack. That may leave spaces for Ireland to expose too on the counter attack and a rare high-scoring game could be on the cards. The layers don’t think so and have left a big price out there, but I can see these teams combining for a better spectacle than anticipated and will back goals as Austria’s need to win opens up more spaces than this fixture may have done if played earlier in the Group. 

Iceland v Croatia Pick: My immediate reaction to the prices of this game was that Croatia looked a vulnerable favourite to win this World Cup Qualifier in Iceland. While Croatia have won both away Qualifiers during this Qualifying Group, those have come at the two weakest nations in the section and Iceland are definitely not one of those these days.

There has been a slight drift in the Croatia price over the last week and I do have to say that I have been keen to back Iceland to avoid defeat. That is still a decent price when you put together how these teams tend to play and the fact that Croatia would likely accept a draw now to remain 3 points clear of Iceland in 2nd place.

Croatia might be a very good team, but they have not travelled well in their recent away Qualifiers. The 3 straight away Qualifiers have been won against Malta, Kosovo and Finland and none of those teams have been playing at the same level as Iceland.

In the last three Qualifying Groups, Croatia have failed to win in Azerbaijan, Italy, Norway, Serbia, Scotland and Iceland.

Compare that with Iceland who hold home wins over the Netherlands, Turkey (twice) and Czech Republic during a 10 game home Qualifier unbeaten run and I think you can understand why I like the home team here.

My one concern is that Iceland push for a winner to the point of leaving themselves open to the counter from Croatia who are certainly good enough to punish overexposed teams. However I think Iceland may even earn the upset here to really open up the Group and backing them to avoid defeat at a decent price is my call.

Israel v Albania Pick: Immediately I will say that this is a pick where only a small interest should be had because of some of the uncertainty around both teams.

Neither Israel nor Albania will be competing for a place at the World Cup Finals barring a shocking and unforeseen collapse from Spain or Italy. However finishing 3rd in the Group can be important for future draws and there should be motivation at play here.

Out of the two teams, Israel have at least shown more positive form of late compared with Albania who have lost 5 matches in a row. I wouldn’t read too much into the 0-3 loss to Israel as Albania were reduced to ten men at 0-0, but confidence does look sapped in the Albania squad having lost a friendly game in Luxembourg earlier this month.

In saying that, Israel have been a really inconsistent performer in home Qualifiers in recent years and they are just as likely to win this game by two or three goals as lose by the same margin. That has reduced my confidence in them which is reflected by the minimum unit being placed on them to win this Qualifier.

However Israel have shown they can beat teams like this when beating Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Euro 2016 Qualifiers. They just haven’t done it enough for full belief they will produce on Sunday although the odds against quote is worth backing.

Albania have played well in recent away Qualifiers before the loss in Italy, but losing some confidence and already being out of the running suggests they could have a really poor remaining Qualifying campaign.

Serbia v Wales Pick: The 6-1 defeat in Belgrade back in September 2012 was supposed to be the end of the Chris Coleman era as manager of Wales. He has rebuilt his reputation since then and Coleman’s peak may have been taking Wales to the Euro 2016 Semi Final last summer.

Coleman won’t want to think like that and he remained Wales manager in a bid to guide them to their first World Cup appearance since 1958, but this has been a troubling Group. They may not have lost any games, but 4 consecutive draws has allowed the Republic of Ireland and Serbia to move 4 points clear in the section.

A draw would ordinarily be a decent enough result from this Qualifier, but I think Wales have to push for more and we could see yet another entertaining game in Serbia. The two previous Qualifiers here have ended with at least four goals shared out in each as Serbia have coupled attacking intent with poor defensive shape in a transition period.

Wales can certainly attack those vulnerabilities as they are likely to have the counter attacking options, although not through Gareth Bale, to make an impact on this fixture. You have to anticipate that Serbia will be progressive and attacking as they are playing in front of what is a passionate home crowd and that should suit Wales.

On the other hand, I think the Wales defensive shape which has been lauded over the last couple of years has not looked as strong in this Qualifying Group. That should mean an opportunity for Serbia to create chances too and it does feel like a big price to see at least three goals shared out in another fixture in this Group.

MY PICKS: Hungary to Win by One or Two Goals @ 2.02 Sporting Bet (2 Units) [Dutch Win by One Goal and Win by Two Goals for this price]
Cyprus - 2 Asian Handicap @ 1.87 @bet365 (2 Units)
Portugal to Win by Two or Three Goals @ 2.08 Bet Fred (2 Units) [Dutch Win by Two Goals and Win by Three Goals for this price]
Sweden-France Draw @ 3.80 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Azerbaijan-Northern Ireland Draw @ 3.10 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Scotland-England Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.45 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Slovenia to Win by One Goal or Two Goals @ 2.32 Bet Fred (2 Units) [Dutch Win by One Goal and Win by Two Goals for this price]
Poland - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.92 Bet365 (2 Units)
Ukraine @ 1.83 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Republic of Ireland-Austria Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.55 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Iceland + 0.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.87 Bet365 (2 Units)
Israel @ 2.20 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
Serbia-Wales Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.45 Bet Victor (2 Units)

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