THE long and arduous road to World Cup 2018 begins this week for South American nations. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the best bets on matchday one.
Bolivia v Uruguay | Thursday 21.00
Ten nations. Four automatic qualification places at the World Cup are available. The race to reach Russia in 2018 begins this midweek with Bolivia’s head-to-head with Uruguay cutting the ribbon on CONMEBOL’s inflated World Cup qualification campaign.
La Paz hosts this encounter, a full, 3600 metres above sea level – it’s Bolivia’s not-so-secret weapon – and having never lost to Uruguay on home soil, are confident they can reap the rewards of playing at altitude again on Thursday evening.
The high altitude always proves difficult for opponents, with Bolivia having lost only two of their home qualifiers in the last qualifying campaign (to Chile and Colombia). Unacclimatised players find the thin air difficult to cope with and so the limited athletic capacity of travelling teams often proves their undoing.
La Verde have not qualified for a World Cup since 1994 and in the following five qualification campaigns have only once finished outside the bottom-two (and then they finished seventh from 10). But for such a poor previous return, La Paz has proven their saving grace. The 35 home qualification matches across those five campaigns since the ’94 World Cup 21 years ago have returned W14-D12-L9.
Diego Maradona’s Argentina have been humbled 6-1 in the Bolivian capital, Brazil have been beaten whilst Thursday’s opponents Uruguay were stuffed 4-1 here in their last visit back in October 2012. The home side have certainly got previous when it comes to upsetting big fish at their Estadio Hernando Siles home.
Elsewhere, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has even changed the working hours of the country to ensure there will be a full stadium for the afternoon kick-off whilst the national team have been preparing for the contest with head coach Julio Cesar Baldivieso taking the team to a military college to help instil discipline and commitment.
La Verde are certainly trying to make up for recent clangers off the pitch. Since the Copa America concluded in July (where Bolivia made the knockout stages for the first time in five attempts) the nation have sacked coach Marcelo Soria and had an attempted appointment of Spanish coach Miguel Angel Portugal blocked.
Baldivieso is the new man in the dugout but things have started dreadfully as the minnows were hammered 7-0 in a friendly to Argentina back in the US last month. Veteran centre-half and skipper Ronald Raldes and star centre-forward Marcelo Martins Moreno have made themselves unavailable so there’s still plenty to put you off the hosts on Thursday.
However, the altitude factor is huge and Uruguay head to La Paz without either Luis Suarez or Edinson Cavani. Suarez still has four games left of his nine-match suspension from last year’s World Cup whereas Cavani received a two-game ban against Chile at the Copa America.
La Celeste coach Oscar Tabarez is expected to start Championship duo Christian Stuani and Abel Hernandez up front and the visitors are hardly setting the world alight. Uruguay were dull as dishwater at the Copa – scoring twice and conceding three goals in four fixtures – as they exited at the last eight stage and recent friendlies have been far from impressive.
Tabarez’s troops scraped a 1-0 win over Panama before being beaten by Costa Rica by the same scoreline in September and without their two prized assets just can’t be trusted to deliver in Bolivia.
Backing the hosts in the Draw No Bet is worth a poke – some firms are offering La Verde at odds as short as 8/13 but Coral are dangling 19/20 in our direction, which is well out of line. I’m on.
Chile v Brazil | Friday 00.30
Chile won the first major honour in their history on home soil at this year’s Copa America and have since followed it up by beating Paraguay 3-2 in their final World Cup qualification warm-up match last month.
Widely regarded as the best squad of Chilean players the country has ever produced, La Roja must now show their summer success was no flash in the pan by securing their place in Russia. It’s the last World Cup cycle for a large swathe of the squad that’s been around for five years now and they must not take their foot off the pedal in the unforgiving and often punishing CONMEBOL campaign.
An opener with old rivals Brazil should sharpen the mind at least and Alexis Sanchez’s expected return and fitness should give Jorge Sampaoli’s side a nice boost ahead of the Santiago showdown. As always, this should be a feisty and fiery affair between a real clash of footballing styles.
La Roja tend to press high, commit men forward and create overloads down the flanks when turning possession over. Charles Aranguiz ‘s absence could be crucial to Chile’s prospects but they still boast enough craft and guile to cause any national side problems.
Brazil will look to play on the counter-attack and score with moments rather than flow whilst puncturing their opponents’ efforts with tactical midfield fouls. It’s ugly, attritional and very un-Brazil but that’s Dunga’s style and with Neymar suspended, they’re unlikely to dazzle us in the Chilean capital.
The pressure is certainly on the Samba Boys who, since their World Cup humiliation on home soil, were then eliminated by Paraguay in underwhelming fashion at this summer’s Copa America under Dunga’s tutelage. But the visitors are the last side to defeat Chile, in a friendly at the Emirates Stadium back in March, and do boast a superb W49/70 head-to-head record against La Roja.
However, can they get by without Neymar? Is the South American powerhouse good enough to add to Chile’s sole reverse in three years of home football? Is Dunga wise enough to get one over Sampaoli? I don’t believe so; even if last month’s friendly wins over Costa Rica and United States have washed away their summer woes amongst Brazil’s ardent followers.
With a vociferous Santiago support behind them, I don’t see Chile losing to a Brazil side minus their one and only superstar. Neymar was their go-to man in the summer and without him the Samba Boys are stuffed with no idea or no Plan B. Obviously they’ll have had a chance to rethink and overhaul their strategy but again Coral’s 19/20 Draw No Bet on the hosts just looks too good to ignore, if they can overcome the potential pitfalls of a Copa hangover.
Argentina v Ecuador | Friday 01.30
Argentina are just 2/5 (Betway) best price to get their World Cup campaign off to a winning start and Tata Martino’s men should be able to justify those skinny odds even without the mercurial Lionel Messi in tow.
The Albiceleste have endured crushing defeats in successive summers but a home tie against awful travellers Ecuador should allow the side to exercise a few of those haunting demons in the early hours of Friday.
Argentina suffered extra-time heartache in the World Cup final of 2014 before losing out on penalties in the final of the Copa America this summer. It’s 22 years since the Albiceleste last lifted a major trophy and many within the nation described their defeat to Chile in the summer as a national disaster.
But Martino maintains it was decent preparation for their bread and butter – the World Cup qualifiers – and having only been installed after the 2014 World Cup, the former Barcelona boss has plenty of change left to convince the adoring home support that Argentina are worthy candidates when Russia rolls around.
A 7-0 spanking of Bolivia back in September caught the imagination and although missing Messi understandably raises alarm bells, the attacking armoury at Martino’s disposal is quite frightening. Sergio Aguero could be joined by any of Carlos Tevez, Paulo Dybala, Angel Correa or Ezequiel Lavezzi with the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Nicolsa Gaitan and Erik Lamela also amongst the squad.
Aguero’s obviously a man to watch having bagged five goals in Manchester City’s 6-1 mauling of Newcastle last weekend and with 32 goals in 68 appearances for the national side is now only two behind the legendary Diego Maradona in Argentina’s all-time goalscoring charts. With that in mind, I like SkyBet’s 5/4 on Aguero scoring in an Argentina win.
Ecuador were desperately disappointing at the Copa America, failing to even get out of the softest group. Head coach Gustavo Quinteros is Argentine by birth but is well aware of La Tricolour’s defensive deficiencies. The Yellows lack any class at the back to hold the defence together and could well come unstuck against arguably the best international forwardline on the planet.
Quinteros’ team have continued the tradition of Ecuador in recent years – there’s plenty of blood, thunder, pace, power and old-fashioned wing play on display although there are enough talented individuals to ruffle a few Argentina feathers.
However Enner Valencia’s injury along with the absence of Osbaldo Lastra, Ely Esterilla and Jonathan Gonzalez puts huge emphasis on a small squad and stars Antonio Valencia, Jefferson Montero and Felipe Caicedo to provide the goods.
Ecuador tend to struggle on the road and away from the high altitude of Quito. The Yellows have won just three of their last 27 World Cup qualifiers on their travels with the last a 3-1 success at Bolivia back in 2009.
The visitors were crushed 4-0 by Argentina on their last trip to Buenos Aires and odds of 11/10 on Argentina in the W-W double result with BetVictor are appealing.
Bolivia v Uruguay – Bolivia draw no bet (19/20 Coral)
Chile v Brazil – Chile draw no bet (19/20 Coral)
Argentina v Ecuador – Argentina-Argentina double result (11/10 BetVictor)
Argentina v Ecuador – Sergio Aguero to score and Argentina to win (5/4 Skybet)
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