Confederations Cup | Group A: Favourites look unlikely to flop

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THE six FIFA confederation championship winners join hosts Russia and world champions Germany in the scrap to claim Confederations Cup glory this summer. International football fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on Group A.

Confederations Cup | Group A | 17th-24th June 2017 | ITV

*Odds in brackets beside nation’s represent the best price available on winning the group.

Mexico (7/2 Paddy Power)

Mexico claimed their place in the Confederations Cup by winning the 2015 CONCACAF Cup – a play-off match between the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup champions – against USA in October 2015. And the 1999 winners shouldn’t be overlooked as candidates to repeat the feat 18 years later.

El Tri remain in the driving seat for World Cup qualification following a 1-1 draw with the States last weekend and Juan Carlos Osorio has decided to shift focus onto the Confederations Cup, as oppose to the Gold Cup which Mexico compete in next month.

A surprise friendly defeat to a young and inexperienced Croatian team at the end of May is only the second reverse suffered by El Tri under Osorio’s watch (W18-D4-L2); a hugely impressive record when you consider the number of friendly matches the team plays with squads cobbled together thanks to matches falling outside international breaks.

Since their bewildering 7-0 thrashing by Chile at last summer’s Copa America, Osorio’s men have shipped just seven goals in 13 games, allowing Osorio to silence his critics. The Colombian talks about structure and versatility and the capacity to switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 and has created a tight bond in the squad, despite his preference for rotation.

Captain Rafael Marquez has only played 22 minutes since undergoing back surgery in March and the 38 year-old’s participation could be seen as a weakness but El Tri will hope to out-gun their opposition with an embarrassment of riches in midfield and in attack.

Up front, Mexico can rely on Javier Hernandez, Raul Jimenez, Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta whom between them have 114 international goals plus the likes of Marco Fabian, Andres Guardado and Portugal-based duo of Miguel Layun and Hector Herrera to stack creative talent deck.

Russia (21/5 Marathon)

A miserable group-stage exit at Euro 2016 saw Russia remembered more for fan disorder than its slow and predictable style of play. Fabio Capello had already been ditched and Hull-bound Leonid Slutsky was essentially in a damage-limitation role for the Sbornaya.

Veteran defenders Vasily Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich have since departed with new head coach Stanislav Cherchesov keen to try and mould a younger, fresher national side from the ageing squad he inherited. But the hosts haven’t had a huge amount to celebrate just yet.

Russia have W3-D3-L3 in their nine exhibition games under Cherchesov, including embarrassing defeats to Costa Rica and Qatar. However, in fairness, the Sbornaya warmed up at a training camp in Austria and performed well in their two latest friendlies, a 3-0 win over Hungary in Budapest and a 1-1 draw with Chile in Moscow.

But injuries have hit the team hard with creative hub Alan Dzagoev, Mario Fernandes and Roman Zobnin missing out along with star striker Artyom Dzyuba, weakening Cherchesov’s preferred 3-5-2 approach. Meanwhile, Alexander Kokorin – who has revived his career under new Zenit coach Mircea Lucescu – hasn’t been selected.

Russia haven’t tended to fare well in major tournaments, progressing just once in eight attempts but with Krasnodar forward Fyodor Smolov impressing domestically plus 21-year-old Arsenal target Aleksandr Golovin, Russian Cup winner Aleksey Miranchuk and midfield general Denis Glushakov in tow, there are a few green shoots surrounding the national side.

New Zealand (100/1 Bet365)

Rank outsiders New Zealand have earned a solitary point from nine previous Confederations Cup games across three campaigns and the nation representing Oceania will do well to add to their tally this summer.

Leeds striker Chris Wood captains the group but with West Ham defender Winston Reid ruled out through injury, the All-Whites are thin on quality. Head coach Anthony Hudson believes the Kiwis’ wonderful energy, pressing and work rate will give them a chance but warm-up matches haven’t inspired.

New Zealand were poor in 1-0 defeats to Northern Ireland and Belarus; the All-Whites managed just six shots across those two outings and their toothless attack could prove their undoing in Russia.

A trip to the US at the back end of last year brought about only a 2-1 loss to Mexico and 1-1 draw against the States with two encouraging performances but since 2010 the only wins the Kiwis have recorded when excluding Oceania have come against Oman, Saudi Arabia and Honduras.

Hudson has worked hard to change New Zealand’s domestic structures and its mind-set since he took over in 2014 and with a squad featuring just three outfield players older than 30, the future may be bright. But it’s hard to invest faith in the All-Whites in the current creation.

Portugal (10/11 Ladbrokes)

The history books will mark Portugal out as Euro 2016 champions but the Selecao claimed their title in France having claimed just one victory in regulation time. Not that the nation cares – why should they?

Fernando Santos built a squad based on a solid defence, dourly effective midfield, counter-attacking class with the superhuman ability of Cristiano Ronaldo in attack to secure success and a similar methodology from the cranky head coach wouldn’t be a huge surprise this summer.

Bidding for back-to-back tournament triumphs, Santos has selected a strong and settled squad, taking the tournament very seriously after arriving in Moscow with the majority of the players who led them to Euro 2016 glory, including inspirational captain Ronaldo.

After a minor Euros hangover where the Selecao suffered a damaging defeat to Switzerland in World Cup qualifying, the Portuguese have bounced back in style to claim seven successive wins, all by a margin of three goals or more. Santos’ side have racked up 22 goals in their last five qualifiers.

The emergence of £33million-bound Milan striker Andre Silva has taken the pressure off CR7 and gives Portugal a second string to their offensive bow and has marked the European champions out as tournament favourites.

Verdict

Summary Portugal’s competitive record since Euro 2012 reads W22-D10-L4 and indicates what a tough team the Selecao are to see off. Head coach Santos suffered only six defeats in 49 games in charge of Greece before being given the gig in September 2014 and the side have flourished ever since.

It’s hard to dismiss 10/11 (Ladbrokes) quotes on the pre-tournament favourites taking top spot in Group A but an opening encounter against Mexico could set the tone for the Iberians as well as their CONCACAF opposition.

Mexico are more likely to face a winner-takes-all game against hosts Russia in Kazan on the final round of fixtures and I’d rather support El Tri at 8/11 (SkyBet) to clinch a semi-final berth over Russia (4/7 Betfred) with New Zealand bring up the rear at 1/4 (SkyBet).

Best Bets

Confederations Cup – Portugal to win Group A (10/11 Ladbrokes)

Confederations Cup – Mexico to qualify from Group A (8/11 SkyBet)

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After starting his career in newspaper journalism, Mark soon found his way into the online betting world, forging a career in content, social media and marketing production. With a huge passion for stats, the Football League and European football, Mark’s other interests include playing rugby, following his beloved QPR and travel.

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