Matt Brocklebank and George Pitts preview Saturday's World Cup fixtures as well-fancied France and Argentina kick off their group campaigns.
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- France 3-1 Australia
- Argentina 3-0 Iceland
- Peru 2-1 Denmark
- Croatia 2-1 Nigeria
France v Australia (Group C) - Kazan Arena - 1100 BST (BBC)
Australia are massively outclassed here - compared to France's vast array of world-class performers, their star man is Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy. But they don't lose many games to nil and there's value to be had in them registering something in the 'for' column.
The Socceroos, now under Bert van Marwijk, have scored a single goal against the likes of Norway, Chile and Cameroon in the past year - they even found two against an admittedly second-string Germany 12 months ago. Prior to that they'd been beaten 2-1 by Greece and England in friendlies and France would be wise to keep an eye on the back door whilst no doubt bossing the majority of possession.
Didier Deschamps' men certainly dominate the goalscorer markets, with the three front men all around the even money mark any time, while likely substitutes Florian Thauvin and Thomas Lemar are no bigger than 5/2 to get in on the act.
Mooy is a general 12/1 to get one over on Hugo Lloris, who wasn't troubled when last they met in the Premier League back in September, while Mile Jedinak - a half-time sub in the final warm-up win over Hungary - is the designated penalty-taker and arguably offers a spot of value at 14s to score.
Preference is for the plucky Aussies to score exactly once, a standout 3/1 shot with Ladbrokes and as short as 7/4 at Sky Bet.
Not only are they clearly capable of ruffling a few feathers, but France - habitual slow starters at World Cups (see below) - are shorn of Laurent Koscielny who was a big presence during qualifying, so it could take a game or two for them to completely find their feet at the back.
Prediction: France 3-1 Australia (Sky Bet odds: 12/1) (Matt Brocklebank)
- The record between France and Australia on neutral ground is perfectly balanced with a 1-0 win each (for France in Japan in May 1994 and for Australia in South Korea in June 2001).
- France have qualified for their 15th World Cup. It’s their sixth appearance in a row, their longest ever run.
- France have topped their group only twice in their last nine World Cup appearances (1998, 2014). In fact, they’ve won only three of their last 12 group games (D5 L4), it came against Togo, Honduras and Switzerland.
- France have only won one of their last four opening World Cup games (D2 L1), beating Honduras in 2014 (3-0).
- France’s last 23 goals in the competition have been scored from inside the box, the last goal from distance coming from Lilian Thuram in the 1998 semi-final against Croatia.
Argentina v Iceland (Group D) - Spartak Stadium - 1400 BST (ITV)
A tough first ever World Cup finals match for Iceland and it is hard to look past a comfortable victory for Argentina.
With the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Angel Di Maria in their squad, we know about the capabilities of their front line, but - barring a drubbing to Spain in March - they also have a good defensive record having recorded five clean sheets in their last nine matches.
With a victory long odds-on, a win to nil can be backed at evens while Argentina defying the handicap (-1) can be backed at odds of 11/10.
As great as Iceland's recent fairy tale of Euro 2016 and then reaching the World Cup finals in Russia this summer has been, I expect the bubble to burst and Argentina, finalists in 2014, will be keen to make a statement of intent.
As the stats below indicate, Messi is central to the South Americans' play and will be dead set on leading the charge.
Backing the Barcelona forward in a score-and-win double at evens looks the best approach for those seeking a bet. With the threat he poses against an Iceland team who are not used to having to deal with an all-time great, you would expect him to get on the score sheet.
If you are looking for greater odds then Argentina to win and over 2.5 goals can be backed at 7/4 as a good alternative, while they are a shade over 2s to win both halves. Ultimately, we'll sit this one out with our expectations and those of the layers very much aligned.
Prediction: Argentina 3-0 Iceland (Sky Bet odds: 7/1) (George Pitts)
- This will be the first ever encounter between Argentina and Iceland.
- Argentina have qualified for their 17th World Cup – it’s their 12th participation in a row. In fact, since 1978, only Germany (5) have reached the World Cup final on more occasions than Argentina (4).
- Argentina have gone past the first round in 11 of their last 12 World Cup appearances, the only exception coming in 2002. In fact, they have won 12 of their last 15 group games at the World Cup (D2 L1), their only defeat in that run coming against England in 2002 (0-1).
- Argentina have also topped their group in each of the last three World Cups. They have also won their opening game in each of the last six editions.
- Only Bolivia (18) scored fewer goals than Argentina (19) in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
- Iceland have qualified for their first World Cup and their second major tournament after Euro 2016 where they reached the quarter-finals. Slovakia were the last World Cup debutants to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament (2010).
- At 334,000 inhabitants when they qualified, Iceland are the smallest ever nation to reach the World Cup finals.
- Only Edinson Cavani (10) scored more goals than Lionel Messi (7) in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. Messi has scored four and assisted one of Argentina’s last seven goals at the World Cup finals.
Peru v Denmark (Group C) - Mordovia Arena - 1700 BST (BBC)
If ever there was a 'hipster' choice at the 2018 World Cup, Peru was it.
Managed by Ricardo Gareca, who resembles a long-lost fifth Rolling Stone, the Incas got rocking and rolling in qualification a couple of summers ago with a 3-0 win over Bolivia and went on to beat Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as draw with Colombia and Argentina (twice).
Unbeaten in their final 15 qualifiers, they were a lot of fun to watch en route to finishing fifth in the hugely competitive South American standings, and eventually made it to the finals thanks to a 2-0 aggregate play-off win over New Zealand.
It's a first World Cup appearance since 1982 for Peru and it's hard to see them not grasping the opportunity with both hands, especially as the talismanic Paolo Guerrero is available for selection after having his drug ban overturned.
Denmark are in pretty good shape themselves and have enjoyed a relatively smooth preparation. They beat Mexico and drew with Chile in recent run-outs and that collateral form reads well compared to Peru's efforts against the same nations.
However, for all of his talent, there's a slight fear over the reliance on Christian Eriksen and if he's unsettled early on by a tub-thumping Peru midfield, then the slight underdogs could smell blood.
These sides have never met but they're not going to need long to size each other up and the instinct is to go for goals, with the South Americans fancied to more than hold their own.
Prediction: Peru 2-1 Denmark (Sky Bet odds: 11/1) (Matt Brocklebank)
Best Bet: Both teams to score at 21/20
- This will be the first ever encounter between Peru and Denmark.
- One of the original participants in 1930, Peru qualified for their fifth World Cup after beating New Zealand in the play-offs. It’s their first appearance since 1982, which is the biggest gap of years (36) between participations at the World Cup for any of the 32 teams qualified for the 2018 tournament.
- Peru’s only previous World Cup outside the Americas was in 1982 in Spain where they didn’t get past the first round (D2 L1). They are winless in their past six games at the World Cup (D2 L4), with their last win in the tournament coming nearly 40 years ago, on 11 June 1978 against Iran (4-1).
- Peru have faced the eventual World Cup winner in each of their four previous World Cup appearances (Uruguay in 1930, Brazil in 1970, Argentina in 1978, Italy in 1982).
- Denmark have reached the knockout stages in three of their four previous World Cup appearances but never progressed past the quarter-finals (1998).
- Only two of Denmark’s 16 games at the World Cup have ended in draws (W8 L6). Meanwhile, they have kept only one clean sheet in their last 11 World Cup games, against France in 2002 (2-0).
- All 27 of Denmark’s goals at the World Cup have come from inside the box.
- Top scorer (11) and assist provider (3) for Denmark during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Christian Eriksen was directly involved in 56% of his team’s goals. Six of his 11 goals came from outside the box.
Croatia v Nigeria (Group D) - Kaliningrad Stadium - 2000 BST (ITV)
One in which you would expect the Croatians to come out on top.
The favourites to finish second behind Argentina in Group D, Croatia have only lost twice in their last nine outings and both of those came against South American opposition.
They prepared for the opening match with a warm-up against Senegal earlier in June, winning 2-1, and a repeat scoreline here at around the 8/1 mark is worth considering.
Despite an abundance of attacking talent, they have an ageing Vedran Corluka who could be partnered by Dejan Lovren in the centre of defence and may be liable to the odd lapse at the back, which offers some hope for the sharply-dressed Nigerians.
Going forward, Ivan Perisic is the danger man and attacking force along with central striker Mario Mandzukic. The former can be backed to score anytime at 13/5 generally, which is fair for a man who has 18 international goals to his name and dazzled on occasion at Euro 2016.
Nigeria failed to impress early on against England at Wembley, despite Gernot Rohr saying he would field his World Cup XI, and it looks like they could be in for another tough start here.
Croatia to win and both teams to score enhances the price to 10/3 from the 8/11 about the favourites in the match market and Nigeria do have enough about them in attack, particularly with the familiar Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi, to contribute to what should be an entertaining end to the day's action.
Prediction: Croatia 2-1 Nigeria (Sky Bet odds: 8/1) (George Pitts)
Best Bet: Croatia to win and BTTS at 10/3
- This will be the first ever encounter between Croatia and Nigeria. Croatia’s only previous World Cup game against African opposition saw them beat Cameroon 4-0 in June 2014.
- Croatia have qualified for their fifth World Cup after beating Greece in the play-offs. They finished third in their first ever appearance (1998) but have since then failed to reach the knockout stages in their three subsequent appearances.
- Croatia have won only one of their last seven World Cup games (D2 L4), it was against Cameroon in the 2014 edition (4-0). They’ve also kept only two clean sheets in their last 11 games.
- Croatia have lost their opening group game in each of their last three World Cups, their last two openers coming against Brazil (2006, 2014).
- The last four World Cup games involving Croatia have produced five red cards (3 for Croatia, 2 for the opponents).
- Nigeria have qualified for their sixth World Cup – they have only missed one tournament since their first participation, it was in 2006. In fact, no African team has taken part in as many World Cups as Nigeria since the Super Eagles’ first appearance in 1994 (six, including 2018).
Posted at 0930 BST on 15/06/18
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