MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Sunday’s opening round of World Cup qualifiers from Europe.
Lithuania v Slovenia | Sunday 17.00 | Sky Sports 1
Only twice in 12 qualifying tournaments have Lithuania concluded their group outside the bottom two positions but Edgaras Jankauskas’ will be hoping for an improved showing when 2018 World Cup qualifying arrives.
The Rinktine fell to a FIFA-low ranking of 135th in April but with Slovakia, Scotland, Malta and England as well as Sunday’s opponents Slovenia to come in Group F, the Yellows have a chance of upsetting a few of their favoured pool rivals.
Still, significant progress is probably unlikely for a side that’s only beaten Lichtenstein (twice), San Marino (twice), Latvia and Estonia in qualifying encounters since a famous victory over Czech Republic eight years ago.
Slovenia were held to a 1-1 draw in Ljubljana during Euro 2016 qualifying but a 2-0 reverse when welcoming the same opposition to Vilnius in October 2014 appears the more likely outcome when the teams go head-to-head for a third time in just under 24 months.
Include friendlies and Slovenia arrive on the back of a rotten W2-D1-L9 return since October 2013 with wins arriving against San Marino and the aforementioned triumph in Lithuania. That poor record has understandably frustrated but head coach Srecko Katanec is hoping to revive their fortunes.
Katanec has called up a squad mixed with a sprinkling of young talent and older heads to navigate the opening contest and the Dragons do have St Etienne striker Robert Beric back from injury to lead their attack with Josep Ilicic in a promising forward line.
Kevin Kampl and Valter Birsa are classy midfield operators, Bostjan Cesar is still going strong at the back and with Atletico Madrid cat Jan Oblak keeping goal, Slovenia do have the quality to negotiate this away day with a positive result.
However, there’s little value in the Match Odds market so have a play on the 14/5 (188BET) that the visitors win in a game featuring Under 2.5 Goals – you’re effectively backing Slovenia to win ‘to nil’.
The Dragons have seen each of their last nine games produce fewer than three goals whilst one side has been nilled in six of their most recent seven outings.
Hosts Lithuania have failed to score in 11 of their last 16 matches with 11 of their previous 14 in Vilnius all featuring Under 2.5 Goals winners.
Denmark v Armenia | Sunday 17.00
Denmark have qualified for three of the past five World Cups and the Red & White enter a new era as they begin their quest for qualification.
Legendary head coach Morten Olsen ended a 15-year stint in charge after failing to steer the nation to Euro 2016 with Malmo manager Age Hareide taking the reigns from 2016.
For the third successive campaign Denmark were pitted together with Armenia and the bookmakers believe the Danes will kick-off their campaign with a comfortable victory in Copenhagen for Hareide’s first competitive encounter.
But I’m not so sure it’ll be as one-sided as the odds suggest.
Sure, the Danes crushed Bulgaria 4-0 to take third-place in the four-nation Kirin Cup in Japan back in June (Bosnia beat the Red & White on penalties with hosts Japan taking top honours) and on Thursday night they walloped Liechtenstein 5-0 in a friendly.
However, neither contest gives us a fair reflection on where Denmark are right now.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is facing a race against time to be fit, Nicklas Bentdner is no longer around to lead the line whilst Michael Krohn-Dehli opted for international retirement.
There’s still plenty of quality in the ranks – Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schone, Simon Kjær and Jannik Vestergaard remain – but the Danes just don’t strike me as a side capable of blowing opponents away in competitive qualifiers. The stats back-up such a claim, too.
In the past five years, the Red & White have only won by more than a solitary goal on four occasions (Serbia twice, Czech Republic and Malta) in meaningful matches.
During that same sample, Sunday’s opponents Armenia (four times), Albania (twice) and Malta have all either beaten Denmark, drawn or lost by just a one-goal margin.
Only twice have the hosts beaten their visitors in Denmark by a two-goal or better margin since 2011 and so with that in mind, two bets standout.
Armenia were taken apart by Czech Republic 3-0 in their last warm-up match this midweek but I’m more than happy to overlook non-competitive encounters in these sorts of samples.
Skipper Henrikh Mkhitaryan was taken off at half-time as a precautionary measure but should be fit to play and the underdogs, led by Varuzhan Sukiasyan, have shown they’re not a complete pushover despite disappointing since a memorable challenge for 2014 World Cup qualification.
Armenia have W2-D3-L13 across all competitions since those hopes were extinguished with victories arriving against UAE, Guatemala and El Salvador. But only two of their past 14 competitive games have seen the guests lose by a two-goal margin, including away days at Portugal, Denmark and Italy.
In fact, Armenia have suffered defeats by two or more goals just twice in 12 qualifying trips over the past five years so should have enough to keep this clash competitive in Copenhagen.