Wales To Go Back To Gareth Bale Dependency
It probably isn’t a popular viewpoint to have, but Wales didn’t quite rely on Gareth Bale as much as you might think during their last two excellent results in what has become a memorable campaign – a goalless draw in Belgium and a 3-0 win in Israel.
Granted, Bale scored twice in the latter, but it was the displays of the spine of the team, Wayne Hennessey, Ashley Williams, James Chester (who missed the Israel game), Joe Allen and Joe Ledley which really stood out, with Aaron Ramsey probably the man of the match in the win in Haifa.
Against Group B heavyweights Belgium in Cardiff, though, the focus is likely to shift back to Bale, who was superb in the last home game - a 2-1 win over Cyprus in which he didn't score but led the line as the Welsh played with 10 men for the entire second half.
Win against a team they’ll start level on points with at the top of the group, and Wales will be almost within touching distance of a first major tournament since 1958. Bale will be inspired by that prospect, and he’s got the ability to deliver three vital points too.
Wales are 5.05 to win
Iceland And The Czech Republic Seek Dutch Courage
The feeling in Group A is that the Netherlands are always going to get their act together eventually, with the five point gap to second placed Iceland and six to top of the group Czech Republic potentially able to be cut down in the blinking of an eye.
That’s what makes the top two’s meeting in Reykjavik all the more important. A repeat of the Czechs’ somewhat fortunate 2-1 win from last November would create some clear daylight at the top, and make it all the more difficult for the Dutch to catch them.
The Draw is 3.15
Whilst The Dutch Seek A Response
At 3-1 up with 20 minutes to play and then 3-2 ahead as they entered the 89th minute, the Netherlands somehow contrived to lose 4-3 to the United States in a friendly in Amsterdam last Friday.
The result was the latest blow in Guus Hiddink’s tumultuous second period in charge, and anything other than a victory in Latvia on Friday night now surely won’t be tolerated as they continue to chase the Czechs and Iceland.
Luckily, this is a Latvia side who are winless so far and lost 6-0 in Amsterdam in November. As far as Hiddink and the Dutch are concerned, what can possibly go wrong?!
Netherlands -2 to win are 2.48
Ivan Rakitic In ‘The Italian Job: Part II’
After more than playing his part in Barcelona’s Champions League final victory last Saturday, Berlin goalscorer Ivan Rakitic faces up to Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio again as Italy come to Split for a meeting of Group H’s top two.
Malta, Azerbaijan and Norway have been beaten by an aggregate score of 13-1 in Croatia’s three home games so far, and although this clash will obviously be tougher, another victory could take them five points clear of an Italian side who continue to lack recognised goalscorers.
Rakitic is 5.50 to score at any time
Crashing Out Isn’t An Option For Martin O’Neill
Less than a week on from hosting possibly the dullest spectacle of international football it or anywhere else will ever have seen, Dublin’s much-discussed Aviva Stadium plays host to one of its more meaningful matches.
After Shaun Maloney’s wonderful goal won the day the last time Scotland and the Republic of Ireland met at Celtic Park, Martin O’Neill’s side really can’t afford to fall further behind with a home defeat to Gordon Strachan’s visitors, who arrive in good heart.
As preparations for a big match go, being involved in a motorway car crash must be up there with the worst of them, but for O’Neill to prove that last Sunday’s kickabout with England was actually useful for his side he’s going to need his big players to turn up in the Irish capital, where defeat isn’t an option.
The Republic of Ireland are 2.25 to win
Can Gibraltar Keep The Score Down Again?
With the world waiting for a cricket score to be racked up when Germany faced Gibraltar in Nuremburg in November, they was widespread surprise when the score ‘only’ ended up 4-0, with the solitary second half strike being an own goal.
In truth Gibraltar would probably take the same result when the world champions come to Faro on Saturday, although whether Joachim Low’s side will be so forgiving this time remains to be seen.
Germany -6 is 2.00 on the Asian Lines
Windsor Park (Just) Gets Ready For Its Biggest Night In 30 Years
It was a close run thing, but after some quick renovations Belfast’s Windsor Park has been declared safe and ready to host Romania’s visit on Saturday night. Now all that’s left is to hope that the Northern Ireland players feel the same way.
The West Stand at the famous old venue was demolished after cracks began to show during the win over Finland in March, but there have been no cracks visible during a remarkable qualifying campaign for Michael O’Neill’s men which now features four wins from five games.
Beat Romania in front of 10,000 passionate supporters in Belfast on Saturday night and they’ll almost be in their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
It’s a good job that a roof wasn’t part of those renovations, as it would be about to be blown off.
Northern Ireland are 3.25 to win
Serbia Enter The Last Chance Saloon
With familiar names throughout their side such as Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Dusan Tadic and Lazar Markovic, Serbia were tipped by many to come through the shortened Group I, but a mixture of bad luck and bad behaviour has seen them left on the brink of an exit already.
The deduction of three points for the behaviour of their fans in October’s match against Albania is the key factor, and a defeat in Denmark on Saturday night would probably end their hopes.
Denmark are 2.20 to win
When Does Roy Hodgson Start To Experiment?
Such is the lack of quality in England’s Group E, what at first glance appears to be a match against an also-ran is actually one against their closest challengers, with Slovenia’s surprise 1-0 win over Switzerland in October meaning that the Three Lions would be wise to be on their guard in Ljubljana.
In truth though this should be another three points for Roy Hodgson’s side who, if the manager shows some invention, might find that this is a good time to experiment, with perhaps the likes of Theo Walcott and Ross Barkley coming in for Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana, who were both underwhelming in the bore draw with the Republic of Ireland.
Walcott is 3.15 to score at any time
Can Alvaro Morata Take His Chance Again?
They’ll still surely progress to the finals in France, but the fact that Spain aren’t top of Group C at this point will have got them a little nervy, although the man likely to lead their line in Belarus on Sunday night doesn’t seem to get nervous at all.
Alvaro Morata couldn’t drag Juventus to Champions League glory in Berlin, but with Diego Costa out and showing very little appetite to even play for his adopted country, the chance to become Spain’s regular No. 9 will be presented to him in Borisov after four caps and one goal so far.
And as Morata shown recently, he’s very good at taking chances.
Spain -1 are 1.90
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