World Cup fever has swept across the footballing community. The tournament begins in less than a month’s time in Russia. One of the great sporting festivals has been the centre of controversy, but that will, rightly or wrongly, all be forgotten come kick-off in the opening match.
Every manager has already faced waves of criticism for his squad selection. Whether it’s about leaving a guy out or picking a player people don’t think warrants a spot, it doesn’t really matter much now as preparation cranks up.
The first set of warm-up matches take place over the coming days. Here are a few thoughts and tips on the most interesting encounters…
Mexico vs Wales
Mexico will be eyeing up a qualifying spot from their group at the World Cup. Drawing Germany isn’t exactly ideal, but the Mexicans will see their clashes with Sweden and South Korea as very winnable.
Wales, of course, didn’t quite make it to the World Cup. They are also without Gareth Bale, who will still be recovering from the Champions League final in one way or another. The creative burden on Aaron Ramsey becomes even greater. The Arsenal man will need one of his best performances if Wales are to get a positive result.
I fancy this experienced Mexico side to win this one quite comfortably. It’s as much a learning experience for Wales as anything else.
TIP: Mexico to win @ 8/15
Austria vs Russia
Austria missed out on a World Cup spot, while their opponents for this one received an automatic slot in Group A as hosts. It’s a slightly strange meeting as a result, with Austria the favourites thanks simply to a more talented group of players.
The World Cup hosts have had a schedule packed with challenging friendlies lately. It has not gone well. A run of defeats against teams expecting deep runs into the knockout stages might be helping them plan for the tournament, but the players would probably like to win a match at some point.
Russia’s less than inspiring squad has them as underdogs. I don’t see the visitors upsetting the odds against this Austria side.
TIP: Austria to win or draw @ 33/100
France vs Republic of Ireland
France are one of the pre-tournament favourites for the World Cup this summer. Didier Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches across his squad, which sets social media into a frenzy, naming line-ups of players not picked.
Ireland are not blessed with such options. A frustrating qualifying campaign leaves Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane sat in a studio rather than on a touchline this summer. These matches are just a dress rehearsal for their next qualification campaign.
Goals for the home side are in order, I think. It could get ugly, even if Deschamps uses this as an opportunity to take a look at some of the squad’s fringe players.
TIP: France to score over 2.5 goals @ 6/5
England vs Nigeria
England welcome Nigeria to Wembley off the back of decent performances during the last international break. Gareth Southgate will probably use this match to hone his starting line-up, though the Liverpool players may not be back with the squad in time to start.
Nigeria are unfortunate to be in the toughest group at the World Cup. The Super Eagles are definite contenders for the knockout stages, however, and have at least a fighting chance against Iceland and Croatia. How they perform at Wembley will be a good indicator of how good that chance is.
Results are hardly irrelevant for either team here. It’s all about performance, and Southgate may still give minutes to players like Danny Welbeck, who are very unlikely to start in Russia. I fancy England to scrape a win, but it might not be a good watch.
TIP: England to win @ 3/5
Ukraine vs Morocco
Ukraine fell short of World Cup qualification due to a very deep, competitive group. Their form was okay, and they’re still a decent side, but not quite the same force that they have been for much of this century.
Morocco, meanwhile, made it into the World Cup, only to be met with an unenviable group featuring Spain and Portugal. They have a balanced, if not particularly exciting, squad, and are definitely capable of causing an upset in Russia. Some have already tipped them as a dark horse to squeak out the group.
This match obviously means plenty more to Morocco than Ukraine. I like the 8/5 on the visitors to win, particularly as players make those desperate last claims for a starting place this summer.
TIP: Morocco to win @ 8/5
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*