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Saturday, 30 June 2018

World Cup 2018 Second Round Picks (June 30-July 3)

World Cup 2018 Last 16

The World Cup Second Round line up was set up on Thursday and the eight matches are played from Saturday through to Tuesday.

There is no doubt that England's 0-1 defeat to Belgium has had a big impact on the Knock Out Stages and I have to feel that Roberto Martinez is regretting his second team finding a way to win that game. I would have made Belgium a strong favourite to reach the Semi Final if they swapped places with England, but recent major tournaments doesn't encourage me in the same manner for England.

On paper it looks a great chance for England to reach the World Cup Semi Final for the first time in twenty-eight years, but football has never been played on paper and underestimating a talented Colombia side would be a big mistake. Win that game and England will be decent favourites to see off either Switzerland or Sweden in the Quarter Final, but make no mistake that all of those nations mentioned will be thinking exactly the same when it comes to potentially facing England.

The top half is loaded with four of the eight teams being former World Cup Winners, while the bottom half can only send Spain and England forward with that title. We also have the current European Champions in the top half of the Knock Out Rounds and picking a team to come through that section isn't easy.

Brazil were my pick at the start of the tournament to win it all, but I am looking forward to the potential Quarter Final with Belgium and the winner of that is going have a very tough looking Semi Final to contend with which makes it very difficult to predict.

The bottom half looks like it could be settled by a potential Quarter Final between Spain and Croatia... Barring those two teams dragging the other through hell and high water, I would make them a decent favourite to win the Semi Final against whoever they play, but there is a lot of football to play before we get to there.

The Last 16 will begin on Saturday afternoon with a huge game between France and Argentina and played through until Tuesday evening when Colombia face England. There is plenty of intrigue between those games and I am looking forward to seeing if the general attacking fervour of this tournament is going to continue into the Knock Out Rounds when the tension naturally ramps up three or four levels.

So far it has been a decent tournament for the Picks but the challenge is to build upon that. This looks a tough Round to determine with some close looking matches, but I am hoping to find the winners to keep the tournament moving in a positive direction from a personal point of view too.

Saturday 30th June
France v Argentina Pick: If you're a football fan and you have plans on Saturday I would cancel them.

The World Cup Second Round begins with a bang with France playing Argentina followed by Uruguay against Portugal and all four of those nations will feel they can have a serious impact at the World Cup Finals in the next two weeks.

First up is France versus Argentina and this is the kind of match the World Cup is all about. Two former World Cup Champions facing off in Knock Out Football will have the fans salivating, but it is hard to ignore how poor Argentina have been at the World Cup so far.

Argentina barely scraped through to the Second Round when scoring in the last five minutes against Nigeria a few days ago and that came when it looked like they had just run out of ideas. Better composure from the Nigerians would have seen that game beyond Argentina prior to the Marcos Rojo winner, but now the South Americans have to feel the pressure is off with their team not considered a favourite to progress past the French.

That may help produce a big performance from Argentina, but France are the rightful favourites.

While they have yet to really impress in the World Cup, France have made comfortable progress through to the Last 16 and defensively they are going to be set up to prevent giving Lionel Messi the space he desires. A midfield consisting of N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba have the power and ability to really shut down Argentina and I think that will give France every chance to dictate the tempo of this match.

My one real concern for France is Didier Deschamps.

The manager cannot help but be cautious and that may give Argentina a little more of an opportunity to upset France in this one. However it would be a big surprise for me if France were not able to win this game with the quality and pace they have in forward areas especially when you think of how Argentina have defended in all three games they have played.

I think Argentina are also a little predictable when they go forward and France will concentrate on stifling Lionel Messi which would effectively strangle the Argentina attack.

I've always had a soft spot for Argentina so would love to see them get through this tie. Ultimately I think France are the better team and they have a little more about them all over the pitch for Argentina. Defensively they can shut down an Argentina attack which has struggled for goals over the last couple of years and France should be able to finish off Argentina on the counter attack in this one unlike what Nigeria were able to do.

However I can't be fully convinced that Deschamps' tactics won't perhaps contribute to giving Argentina chances to get plenty of balls into the box, like they did for Peru in France's 1-0 win over them in the Group. Argentina have better players than Peru who can create something from nothing, so while backing France is the play I also think backing them on the Asian Handicap at odds against is the best way to get behind the European team.

Uruguay v Portugal Pick: The Knock Out Rounds of the World Cup come with some much tension that it isn't a big surprise that teams tend to drift backwards and make sure they cut out all of the mistakes they are making.

The Uruguay vs Portugal Last 16 tie looks an intriguing one but this is not a match in which I am expecting to see a host of goals. That may surprise when you think of the Portugal draw with Spain, but I don't think Uruguay are as good as Spain going forward and they are better defensively so I would be massively surprised if the game goes in that direction.

Instead I am looking at the low scoring games Portugal had with Morocco and Iran and Uruguay's low scoring wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the blueprint for how this match will go. The Uruguay crushing of Russia might change some opinions, but Portugal have shown two years ago that they are happy to sit deep and patiently wait for the opportunities to come up as teams tire.

During the run to the Euro 2016 Final Portugal won two of their four Knock Out ties in extra time and another on penalties and I expect Fernando Santos to look to make his team as hard to beat as possible. I am not sure this Portugal team defends as well as the one two years ago as the whole back five are a couple of years older and the chances created by Morocco and Iran have to be a concern for the manager.

Uruguay are not as dynamic as Morocco though and I think they are going to play more like Iran with a functional midfield looking to keep things simple. The defensive unit have shown they are going to be very tough to break down, but Uruguay do have two star strikers that could mean the difference in this game.

Of course Cristiano Ronaldo is always dangerous, but I expect Diego Godin and Jose Giminez will know all about him from their time with Atletico Madrid and they have shown they can get the better of the Real Madrid star. Portugal perhaps have a little more magic in the midfield than Uruguay, but everything is pointing to a tight encounter.

From the 2006 World Cup over a third of the Second Round ties have gone to Extra Time including five of the eight four years ago in Brazil. Picking a winner in this one is very difficult and there is every chance we are going to see an Extra Time period or even a penalty shoot out to decide the Quarter Finalist.

One goal could easily be enough to decide this one I think with neither team looking like one that will blow out the other. The one score that would concern me the most would be 1-1 and the teams playing it out through to Extra Time but realistically I think the defences will be on top and it will mean moments of magic from some of the quality players on show to separate these teams.

Where that moment comes from is anyone's guess and I am going to back less than two goals being scored in normal time. It wouldn't have been a great play in the last two World Cup Last 16's that have been played in 2010 and 2014 with 11/16 ties finishing with at least two goals in normal time. If it is 1-0 to either team you can see a situation where a team chasing the game overcommits and his punished on the counter attack, but Uruguay and Portugal strike me as safety first teams and I imagine it will be about keep ball and wasting time and making sure they remain defensively watertight if holding onto a lead.

VAR means penalties have been a little more forthcoming in this tournament which also could have an impact on the goals scored in the Knock Out ties compared with previous years and I have to factor that in. Even then I think a low scoring game in this one is the most likely outcome with these teams both likely to employ a defence first mentality to the fixture.

An early goal changes everything, but I will back less than two goals to be scored.

Sunday 1st July
Spain v Russia Pick: Is everything too good to be true about the Russia National Team after two very strong results in the Group? Some doubts about what has been going on behind the scenes were raised, but some of those would have been eased after seeing Russia lose 3-0 to Uruguay in their final Group game.

That means they have been put together with Spain in the Last 16 and this is a team who remain one of the favourites to win the World Cup despite a mixed performance in their own Group. I don't think Spain know how they have won Group B to be perfectly honest, but it does mean they go into the weaker half of the Knock Out Rounds and so have maintained their place as favourites to reach the World Cup Final.

I am not convinced that should be the case with some potentially difficult dark horses to face later down the line, but Spain should be happy with this Second Round tie.

They won't underestimate Russia after producing some ridiculous defensive errors in the Group, but I imagine Spain will dominate the ball and I am not sure the older Russian defenders will be able to stay with them throughout the ninety minutes. Spain have goals in the side, but they have will have to beware of the Russian counter attack which has proved to be so effective in their wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Russia also didn't play badly in the Uruguay game after being reduced to ten men, but this is going to take another big effort to see them past Spain. They were chasing the ball for a long time in hot weather on Monday, but Russia will be able to bring in some fresh legs to help in this one.

These teams played out a 3-3 draw in an international friendly at the end of 2017 as Russia came back from being 0-2 down and 2-3 down. It should give them some belief they can beat the Spanish, but it was a slightly weaker team than the one they will face on Sunday and I think it is a big ask of the hosts who have overachieved already at this tournament.

Beating them in front of the passionate home support won't be easy for Spain but I expect the additional quality of the 2010 World Cup Winners to show up here. At some point they can also catch Russia chasing this one and I am backing Spain to win a game which features two or more goals.

Croatia v Denmark Pick: The World Cup has been pretty exciting for the most part during the Group Stage, but I am expecting teams to perhaps be a little more cautious with their play in the Knock Out Rounds.

Denmark have already shown they can sit in and frustrate teams by holding France to a goalless draw in the Group Stage which is the only goalless draw in the World Cup at the time of writing. However they were playing a team who were happy to take the point and I am not sure Croatia will be lacking the intensity that France clearly left in their hotel room.

This is a Croatia team who look capable of fulfilling the long held 'dark horse' tag at major international tournaments. As one of two teams who have won every game at the World Cup, at the time of writing again, Croatia come into the Knock Out Rounds with some confidence and it does feel like the nation is actually behind them this time unlike two years ago at Euro 2016.

They have already achieved their best result at the World Cup since reaching the Semi Final back in 1998, but there is another test for Croatia to pass. While they have gotten out of the Group Stage at the World Cup for the first time in four attempts since 1998, Croatia have not won a Knock Out tie in a major international tournament in the twenty years since their high point in international football.

Don't for a second think this group of players is unaware of that- in England we hear all the time how the national team haven't won a Knock Out tie since 2006 so it is not unrealistic to think the media in Croatia have made the point about their own national team too.

That does create a pressure on the players in a match where they are big favourites to progress to the Quarter Final in Russia. It won't be helped by facing a Denmark team who are going to look to make life as difficult as possible by setting up a strong defensive shape which will be boosted by the players feeling they can't lose at the moment behind an 18 game unbeaten run.

If Croatia get frustrated and start giving up cheap free kicks to the Danes then they could be in a for a really tough evening. Christian Eriksen has the quality to create from set pieces and that is where Denmark are definitely a threat in this match, although they don't look a team blessed with a lot of goals if you can keep tabs on Eriksen.

The Croatia midfield should be able to dictate the play in this one and I think much will come down to how they handle the pressure of Knock Out Football. Experienced heads like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic play for top Spanish teams and have to lead by example and by doing that I do think Croatia will edge out Denmark.

This match is far from a 'gimme' for Croatia because of how well Denmark can defend. Any team that has 6 clean sheets in 7 games and only conceded a single penalty in that time will believe they can frustrate a Croatia team who are not exactly going to blow you away.

Defensively Croatia can make mistakes which could cost them later in the tournament, but I think they will grind their way past Denmark in this one. The long run without a Knock Out win is a surprise considering the talent Croatia have, but they look more settled and together than any time in the last twenty years and I will back them to edge out Denmark.

Monday 2nd July
Brazil v Mexico Pick: If ever you want to know the danger of making assumptions just take a look at the Monday schedule of Last 16 ties at the World Cup Finals.

Before Wednesday most would have assumed this would be the day that Brazil face Germany and England face Colombia, but only one of those four nations are actually scheduled to be playing.

Brazil have been looking like a team who are ready to grow into the tournament and I don't think any of their fans will be crying that they don't have to play Germany in the Second Round. The wounds from four years ago have yet to heal so avoiding the team who humiliated them 1-7 at home in the Semi Final is something that will be cheered on by Brazil fans everywhere.

They should be too good for a Mexico team that may have peaked with their performance in the 0-1 win over Germany, although that result doesn't look half as good as it once did. The 0-3 hammering at the hands of Sweden means Mexico somehow finished second in Group F despite winning the first two games they played and makes them a big favourite to exit the World Cup at the Last 16 stage for a seventh time in succession.

Getting through the Group was cheered on, but Mexico will be under pressure to deliver and I think their style of play make work very much in Brazil's favour in this one. Defensively there is some big effort put in by Mexico, but they never look completely at ease and this Brazil team have enough attacking threats to break them down.

It wouldn't be a big surprise if Mexico scored though considering the chances Costa Rica and Serbia have created against Brazil, while they may also be in a position where they are chasing and leaving gaps at the back as the game wears on. It all points to me looking to back Brazil in a game which features at least two goals in this one as I do think they are going to need to score at least twice to win this game in normal time.

The Mexicans have shown they can create chances and the pace is going to be an issue for Brazil to deal with. However I think the players will realise they missed a huge opportunity for a favourable Last 16 tie and that is going to make Mexico perhaps make one or two mistakes which are capitalised on by the Brazilian forwards and leading to an entertaining match ending with the World Cup favourites moving through to yet another Quarter Final on the big stage.

Belgium v Japan Pick: You can't begin without acknowledging the absolutely baffling scenes at the end of the Poland-Japan game.

I honestly don't think I've ever seen a situation where a team knows one goal in a game they are playing in or one being played elsewhere could change the whole direction of the tournament and that team decides we will just hope nothing happens in the other game!

Japan and Senegal were both trailing in their final Group games and Japan had the edge when it came to the disciplinary stats which looked to be the deciding factor. A Japan goal would have almost guaranteed their place in the Last 16, but the decision was made to shut up shop, not play a forward pass and just hope Senegal would not score an equaliser in the other game.

I almost wish they had been punished for that.

Instead I can wait until Monday when Japan, who did win the gamble, have been set up to play Belgium and I think the European team will show why they are one of the best teams in international football. The majority of the Belgium starters were rested in the 1-0 win over England on Thursday although Roberto Martinez may regret his team winning that game and being placed in the tougher half of the Knock Out Stages.

For now Martinez will put a positive spin on things and I expect the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku to be chomping at the bit for this one.

As much as I would love to see Belgium hammer Japan, I don't think they will have things all their way as there have been some defensive issues that need to be cleared up. Panama had a couple of half chances, Tunisia scored twice and England had a gilt edged chance through Marcus Rashford which would have worried Martinez.

The Spaniard is not renowned for his defensive work so that is an issue for Belgium going forward and Japan have shown enough going forward in their first two Group games which should be taken into consideration.

Even then it is hard to know how good this Japan team is considering they trailed Senegal twice and looked in real trouble and also were beaten by Poland. A win over a Colombia team playing with ten men for almost the full ninety minutes is not that impressive as the South Americans looked better for the first sixty minutes anyway and Japan had some very poor friendly defeats prior to the World Cup beginning.

Japan have already overachieved and I think they could have some real problems if they fall behind in this one. I am assuming they won't shut up shop and settle for a narrow defeat, but at least try and stay in the World Cup by committing men if chasing the game and I think that is where Belgium could have tremendous joy in finishing the job.

The Belgium counter attack has looked good against Panama and Tunisia and while Japan are better than both, I don't think they are much better than Tunisia. This team will do well to stay with Belgium and I can only see the Group G Winners coming through with a very comfortable win as they cover the Asian Handicap on their way to another major tournament Quarter Final for the 'golden generation' of players.

Tuesday 3rd July
Sweden v Switzerland Pick: When I take a look at the Last 16 of the World Cup Finals there is no doubt the one fixture that stands out a mile is the one between Sweden and Switzerland.

That has much to do with the fact that it is easily the most surprising pairing of the World Cup Last 16 and I think there is going to be plenty of the tension on the line with the fight for a World Cup Quarter Final spot set to go. Both Sweden and Switzerland will feel this is an unexpected opportunity and so it is key for the players to try and avoid thinking too far ahead in this match.

It is a really difficult game to call with both teams lacking a bit of stardust, but both also far better than the sum of their parts. Only a late Toni Kroos goal beat Sweden who have looked good in the tournament, while Switzerland have yet to taste defeat and shown character to come from behind against Brazil and Serbia.

Is it any wonder the layers can't really separate these teams in ninety minutes too?

There really isn't a lot between them and no recent history to point to, although I think Switzerland are rightly being given the edge thanks to more experience of these major tournament Knock Out ties in recent years. They haven't won those matches though which will knocked some of the confidence, and I do lean towards the Swedish team coming through.

It is a very minor lean though because I am not convinced Sweden will continue to attack with the same verve they have so far in this tournament. However, Sweden have created huge chances in all three matches they have played and I think they are going to continue that against a Switzerland team that have yet to earn a clean sheet.

Maybe Knock Out Football curbs some of the attacking enthusiasm Sweden have been playing with, but it would be a surprise if they completely go back into their shell. This is a huge opportunity for them and it would be a mistake to try and be tough to beat without the attacking intent which has brought goals in every Group game against teams like Mexico and Germany to boot.

This Switzerland side should cause problems too with their attacking players showing some decent ideas in the World Cup so far. They have scored in every game, but Switzerland have looked a little more unsure at the back and Sweden will test that with plenty of crosses into the box. Costa Rica and Serbia both scored from crossed balls and Sweden are a big team who will cause problems from set pieces and deliveries into the box even without the injured Sebastian Larsson.

I do think this game is going to be better than the majority may think. Both teams will feel this is a big chance for them and I think that will mean taking a few chances and looking to expose the other.

Sweden look to be a little stronger in this one so I am surprised they are the narrow underdog in ninety minutes, while I also can make a strong case for both teams to score at odds against. The latter option may be the better play with a 1-1 scoreline a real player in this Last 16 tie and I will look for some entertainment before the big one for those in England.

Colombia v England Pick: This might be the section of the Knock Out Rounds that the fans wanted to be involved in, but I think it would be foolish for anyone in the England camp to mention that or agree with it.

You don't want to give Colombia more motivation to prove people wrong but I do make England the favourites to get past this opponent in a big Last 16 tie for both nations.

Colombia will be feeling just the same as England- if they win this they will believe they can surpass their achievements of four years ago and reach the Semi Final of the World Cup Finals for the first time. Technically there are some quality players in the Colombia team from front to back and a number the English players will be familiar with as they either playing or have played in the Premier League.

However Colombia are a hard team to read.

They were fantastic against Poland, but were really average against Senegal and very fortunate to win that game. A threat from set pieces, Colombia also have some quality play from the midfield into the front four although James Rodriguez' fitness is a big concern which was admitted to by manager Jose Pekerman.

The key for England is going to be to use their pace in the forward positions like Senegal did as the latter had Colombia stretching at times. Poor final balls cost Senegal and they also had some very promising free kick situations and that is an area where England have been strong.

England have to make sure they get enough shots off against David Ospina who has somehow managed two clean sheets in a row despite the positions Senegal found themselves on Thursday. With a fresh eleven back in and facing a Colombia team who had to put in some serious hard work, I do think England can get this done on Tuesday.

There is some serious pressure on England which is going to be the key to this game in my opinion. The players have to show they can deal with the expectation back home, which will only have increased even after the defeat to Belgium, and also to erase history from their minds.

Since 1996 and the Semi Final of the European Championship which was hosted by England, the national team have won just TWO Knock Out ties in twenty-two years. One of those was against a South American team in Ecuador in 2006 which was the last time England won a Knock Out tie in any major international tournament and there is no doubt the players will hear about that between now and kick off on Tuesday.

I have to admit the odds are a little sickening- Colombia at 4.00 to win this game is a huge price considering they have a bit of momentum and have shown toughness to get through some difficult moments. It is a tempting price out of principle, but I can't back it because I think it is a value call but not one I think will be a winner.

Ultimately I do think England are physical enough and have enough pace to knock Colombia out of their stride and that will be the key to this Last 16 tie. Harry Kane could be the difference maker as Radamel Falcao has just lost a step in his forward play for Colombia, but England will have to defend better than they have in this tournament to make sure they progress.

The English players should know enough about their opponents like Juan Cuadrado, Falcao and Davinson Sanchez to get the better of them on the day and I think England will win this Last 16 tie. England have to take their chances better than they did against Tunisia and Belgium if they have serious ambitions of a deep run in Russia, but my head is saying they can win this tie.

Rarely do England make life easy though and I can see some tense moments to ride through in this fixture, but I am going to back England at odds against to beat Colombia in normal time. England winning a game which features at least two goals is a very big price too, but I will keep it simple and just look for an England win here.

MY PICKS: France - 0.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.05 Bet365 (2 Units)
Uruguay-Portugal Under 1.5 Goals @ 2.37 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Spain to Win & Over 1.5 Goals @ 2.10 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Croatia @ 1.90 Sporting Bet (2 Units)
Brazil to Win & Over 1.5 Goals @ 1.85 Boyle Sports (2 Units)
Belgium - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Sweden-Switzerland Both Teams to Score @ 2.20 Bet Fred (2 Units)
England @ 2.10 Bet Fred (2 Units)

Last 16 Update: 2-6, - 7.20 Units (16 Units Staked, - 45% Yield)

Group Stage Round Robin Three Final8-8, + 3.53 Units (27.50 Units Staked, + 12.84% Yield)
Group Stage Round Robin Two Final8-7-1, + 1.09 Units (31 Units Staked, + 3.52% Yield)

Group Stage Round Robin One Final8-8, + 5.24 Units (28 Units Staked, + 18.71% Yield)

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