2018 FIFA World Cup – Outright Betting Preview

Brazil head the market, as they did four years ago, but the bookmakers are struggling to split the leading contenders, with six teams at 11/1 or shorter. Below we’ve examined several key factors that could play a part in deciding who triumphs and who falls short.

Experience

The average age of the squads of the last six champions has been just 27.1 with three of the last four averaging younger than 27. Meanwhile, the last six runners-up had an average age of 28.3 with the last four all averaging older than 28. Interestingly, the younger squad has won all six finals since 1994 as the older teams appeared to run out of steam.

However, an element of experience is undoubtedly helpful as none of the seven teams in this time to reach the quarter-finals with an average age of 26 or younger went on to make the final.

Looking at the last two champions, Germany and Spain had the fifth and sixth youngest squads in 2014 and 2010 respectively, but there was no lack of experience as they ranked 4th and 5th in terms of most caps in those years. Germany averaged more than 42 caps per person in their squad while Spain had more than 38.

This year’s tournament sees most of the leading contenders selecting relatively old and experienced squads but there have to be question marks over whether Argentina, with an average age of 29.2, are too old. Brazil, meanwhile, have an average age of 28.6 but are relatively inexperienced with just 28.4 caps per person. At the other end of the spectrum are France, who average just 26.0 years old and with only 23.8 caps per person.


Travelling Distance

The travelling between matches was widely talked about four years ago in Brazil, but it should be at least as significant in Russia. Many people might have put Egypt down as dark horses given Mo Salah’s phenomenal season. However, they are set to rack up more than 9000 kms in travelling to and from their base, and that’s only for their group matches.

However, it’s Brazil who may really struggle in this respect. If they are to reach the final they will rack up more than 18,000 kms in getting to and from their base for each match. Their 18,559 kms to reach the final as a group winner (it’s almost the same if they take the route as a group runner-up) compares to an average for all team of just 11,243 while none of the other main favourites would rack up more than 13,000 kms.


Tournament Form

Only one of the last six champions had not appeared in the previous World Cup and that was France in 1998, who failed to make it to USA ’94 after losing their final two qualifiers. However, they’d reached the semis at Euro ’96, were playing on home soil, and had a world class defence featuring Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram plus one of the greatest players of the last 25 years in Zinedine Zidane.

In fact, 10 of the 12 finalists since 1994 reached the knockout stage four years earlier while nine of 12 had reached the quarter-finals or better at their most recent major continental tournament (Copa America or Euros).

Therefore, we’re largely going to focus on the European and South American nations, and the quarter-finalists at EURO 2016/Copa America Centenario 2016 that have qualified for Russia and that also reached the knockout stages four years ago in Brazil are: Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, France, Germany and Uruguay. The big absentees from this list are Brazil and Spain.


Qualifying Form

In theory qualifying should give an excellent indicator of how a team might perform in the Finals but in reality the difficulty of some qualifying groups can vary significantly and leads to a rather mixed picture. Furthermore, five of the 20 semi-finalists since 1998 didn’t need to qualify due to being either the hosts or the defending champions and were successful despite being restricted to playing friendlies.

Since 1998 there have been 13 UEFA teams that lost at least twice in qualifying with 10 falling in the group stages at the Finals, two losing in the first knockout round and one at the quarter-final stage. Meanwhile, nine of 23 who lost just once in qualifying reached the quarter-finals with five making the semis or better. That record is very similar to the 31 that went unbeaten, of which 11 made the quarter-finals and seven went on to the semis or better.

So that suggests that only those that particularly struggled should be negatively judged as a result of UEFA qualifying, and those that lost at least twice are: Sweden, Denmark, Croatia and Iceland.

Looking at the South American qualifiers, Brazil did a phenomenal job as they lost only once in 18 games. Of the 10 CONMEBOL teams to earn a PPG of at least 1.80 in qualifying for the previous five World Cups, nine reached the knockout stages with seven advancing to the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, just three of the 13 qualifiers with a PPG of less than 1.8 have reached the quarter-finals. This time around only Brazil have broken that barrier, with second place Uruguay averaging 1.72 PPG but with a goal difference of +12, which at least compares favourably to Argentina, Colombia and Peru who had goal differences of just +3, +2 and +1 respectively.


Form Labs Gradings

Our unique Form Labs gradings system provided a major guide in picking both finalist four years ago, when we ranked Germany 3rd and Argentina 5th heading into the tournament. Only one of the past six World Champions was not one of the highest six graded teams at that tournament and that was Italy in 2006 when there was a shortage of top quality teams and our grading had a lot of teams closely ranked. Our top six this year are (highest ranked first): Germany, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France and Argentina, with Belgium just behind in seventh.


The Draw

In 2014, Brazil went into the Finals as our highest graded team but a very tough draw meant we had to take them on so it’s important to assess how the teams came out of the hat.

Germany and Brazil should have no problems winning their groups, therefore moving into opposite halves, and with the other teams in both groups looking relatively weak they should then ease into the quarter-finals as these groups are matched up in the Last 16. That creates the potential for a couple of blockbuster quarter-finals, with Belgium versus Brazil looking likely and if England can make it they’ll most likely find the old enemy, Germany, waiting.

France are rated by the bookmakers as the other team that should win their group (C) with relative ease. However, we’re certainly not convinced that Argentina will win theirs, and if either they or France advances as a runner-up with the other as a group winner then they’d meet in the Last 16. In particular, Argentina’s poor qualifying form and a squad that lacks balance means we can’t see them reaching the final four and we’ll be looking to take them on.

From groups A and B, only Spain really stand out as contenders with Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph masking the fact they required a lot of luck with their only win in 90 minutes in that tournament coming against Wales. That should see Spain into the bottom-half as group winners and with a straightforward Last 16 tie, probably followed by a quarter-final against the winner of the Argentina/Croatia group. That looks a great draw, while also in the bottom-half Germany should prove far too strong if up against the Three Lions, and those two routes to the semis look the easiest in the draw.


Knockout Conclusions

From the top half of the draw, a Brazil v Belgium quarter-final would be a 50-50 affair, but while question marks surround Belgium’s lack of success at international level the same can be said about this Brazil squad. Given the disparity of odds, coupled with Brazil’s arduous traveling requirements we have to fancy Roberto Martinez’s side to come through.

The very top quarter is where a bigger surprise could come, with Uruguay offering the most obvious competition to Portugal and France. It should be a clean sweep for the UEFA nations in the semis though, with the three leading South American sides – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – all having more significant question marks, with travelling distances, age and qualifying form against them. Instead, Belgium look the best value to reach the final from the top half and are our preference ahead of the French.

France’s problem is a lack of experience and a tough draw and Didier Deschamps still looks unsure how to get the best out of so many gifted young players so it may take a couple more years before we see the best from them. In contrast, the Belgian squad look to be mostly entering their prime and the majority of this squad have been playing together for a number of years, reflected by an average squad age of 27.7 and more than 40 caps per person. They came through qualifying impressively and look a stronger outfit than when heavily fancied at the last two major tournaments, where they lost in the quarter-finals both times so are worth backing to go a couple of steps further.

Who progresses in the event of a Spain v Germany semi-final is almost too close to call, with Spain’s slightly larger odds more of a reflection of facing Portugal in the group stage, and when these teams met in a friendly in March they played out a 1-1 draw. The competition form stats would suggest Germany are the likelier, but, like France in 1998, this Spain squad is indisputably world class and we’re just edging towards the 2010 champions. Diego Costa’s goal against Argentina on his return to their starting XI showcased the extra dimension he can bring and that was the fourth international start in a row he’d scored in.

Furthermore, only one of the last six defending champions has made it past the quarter-finals and while this Germany squad, with the additions of Kimmich, Sane, Werner and Reus, looks every bit as strong as four years ago they will have to deal with the extra pressure of being champions.


Betting Strategy

 BACK – 1pt Spain to Win at $7.40

 BACK – 1pt Belgium to Win at $12.50

 BACK – 0.5pt Spain/Belgium Final at $42

 BACK – 4pts Germany to reach semi-final at $2.10

 BACK – 2pts Spain to reach semi-final at $2.32


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