INTERNATIONAL football fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his favourite fancies from Friday’s UEFA World Cup qualifying coupon.
Armenia v Montenegro | Friday 17:00 | Sky Sports 1
Montenegro have made an excellent start to their road to Russia, sitting atop of Group E after three games; Ljubisa Tumbakovic’s men began with a well-earned point in Romania before upsetting the odds to see off Denmark in Copenhagen.
The Brave Falcons then saw off Kazakhstan comprehensively in Podgorica as they continue their bid for a first appearance at a major tournament in their short history. The visitors played their first official fixture under 10 years ago and only embarked on their maiden qualification phase in 2010.
Whether Montenegro boast the squad depth to continue their upward trajectory until the conclusion of the campaign is up for debate but in Stevan Jovetic the guests possess a forward capable of hurting any continental defence. The Inter Milan man has notched five goals in his last nine international appearances.
As you can probably tell from the opening paragraphs, I’m swaying towards another positive result for the Brave Falcons here. Tumbakovic’s troops have been chalked up as 6/5 shots to claim maximum points with Bet365 and it’s a price well worth taking at the Hanrapetakan Stadium.
Montenegro have W5-D3-L3 in their past 11 away qualifiers and pitch up in Yerevan with hosts Armenia really struggling to put their best foot forward.
The Eurasians impressed many in their unsuccessful attempts to qualify for Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 but their form in the following years has nosedived dramatically. Since 2014 Armenia have W3-D3-L16 when including friendlies and returned W1-D3-L7 in home qualifiers over the past four years.
Romania butchered Artur Petrosyan’s charges 5-0 at home in their last outing with defeats in Poland and Denmark either side of that ugly mauling. And despite only losing to the Poles in stoppage-time, Armenia were outclassed for the majority of that match.
The home side have fired blanks in eight of their last 11 games, have seen a player sent off in each of their past two encounters and look desperately short of options in the attacking third with Henrikh Mkhitaryan well short of game-time.
Romania v Poland | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports Interactive
Poland have been marked up as favourites for this fixture in Bucharest and whilst I wouldn’t dare knock the White Eagles’ achievements over the past 24 months, making Adam Nawalka’s men market leaders feels a step too far.
For starters, injury absence of Arkadiusz Milik with cruciate ligament damage further increases the attacking burden on Robert Lewandowski and their draw in Kazakhstan during the first game in this campaign brought more questions than answers.
Narrow home wins over Denmark and Armenia haven’t dispelled the theory that Poland are flat-track bullies and the White Eagles do appear slightly vulnerable when they travel.
During Euro 2016 qualification, Nawalka’s team were held in Scotland and Ireland and further back they’ve managed to beat only San Marino (twice), Gibraltar, Georgia and Azerbaijan in competitive away games in 10 years.
Both Poland and Romania are likely to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and this contest is likely to be tight and attritional. And that, for me, should play into Romania’s hands.
Christophe Daum was appointed as Romania’s new head coach in the summer and the Frenchman has taken a similar approach as his predecessor. Defensive strength and organisation is paramount but crucially the Tricolorii have added a counter-attacking edge that was so blatantly missing previously.
The 5-0 shellacking of Armenia was mightily impressive and although draws against Montenegro and Kazakhstan won’t have really registered with European fans, the Romanians remain awkward and very capable.
Daum’s men have shipped just one goal thus far whilst the home side have kept eight clean sheets in 15 competitive matches in Bucharest since June 2011. No side boasted a better defensive record en-route to the Euros and with only two home qualifying defeats in seven years, I want Romania onside.
BetVictor are offering 3/4 on the hosts with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap here. We’ll make money should Romania avoid defeat, picking up a full-stakes profit should the Tricolorii bag a victory and a half-stakes return if the game ends all-square – that seems very fair for a nation unbeaten in 14 qualifiers (W6-D8-L0).
France v Sweden | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports 3
France’s only defeat in 15 fixtures was the most important – the Euro 2016 final – but following a false start in Belarus when Les Blues did everything but score, Didier Deschamps’ side are back on track.
An early Bulgaria penalty gave the outsiders a lead in Paris last month but France stormed back to record an emphatic 4-1 win before a 1-0 success against the Netherlands in Amsterdam thanks to Paul Pogba’s long-range strike.
Now Les Blues can take sole lead of Group A by winning at home to Sweden, with whom they are currently level at the top with an identical points tally and goal difference after three games. And it’s hard to oppose the French.
Sweden have made an encouraging start to Janne Andersson’s reign – holding the Dutch in Stockholm before a narrow triumph in Luxembourg. A more routine victory followed against Bulgaria but there’s no getting away from the fact that the Blue-Yellow look light in attack without Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swedes scored once at Euro 2016 and head to the French capital without striker Marcus Berg and injured full-backs Martin Olsson and Mikael Lustig. Andreas Granqvist is the only player in the squad with 50 caps or more and the visitors have bagged only four away triumphs in 16.
Deschamps looks likes fielding Atletico Madrid pair Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro in his XI again here. The pair have shown a thrillingly sharp understanding already together and their pace, movement and finishing ability should prove decisive in a home win.
Finding angles to support France is hard but there’s little wrong in backing the 11/8 Wincast with SkyBet for a Les Blues victory and Griezmann to score.
The hosts have W12-D2-L0 in their past 14 on home turf whilst scoring at least twice in 11 of their 14 fixtures this calendar year. Griezmann’s notched eight goals for his country in 2016 at a rate of one every 129 minutes.