WILL DYER delivers his favourite fancies from Friday night’s UEFA World Cup qualifying coupon.
Bosnia & Herzegovina v Greece | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports
The big tie in Group H on Friday evening comes live from a relatively small arena in the fourth largest city of Zenica. Bosnia and Herzegovina host Greece at the Bilino Polje stadium, the same venue in which the hosts won 3-1 in the 2013 World Cup qualifier of Group H.
The Dragons were rampant that evening and it went some way towards setting up their exceptional 25-point haul to top their group ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.
Bosnia scored 30 goals in 10 group games and headed to South America as potential dark horses before flopping with a defeat to Nigeria at the group stage knocking them out.
Greece also qualified for the 2014 World Cup from that group with 25 points but it was a much more conservative campaign. The Ethniki scored only 12 goals in 10 games, winning many 1-0, in a style that they’ve become synonymous with.
Despite being much less fancied, Greece went on to reach the Round of 16 but were knocked out on penalties at the hands of Costa Rica when they were hugely deserving of the win, in both normal and extra time, after they dominated proceedings.
This time around, the two are also paired and again they are on a level pegging in their qualification group. Belgium are the runaway favourites to top the group meaning that the outcome of this tie could be crucial to deciding who qualifies in what is likely to be second place.
Greece are unbeaten through five outings after frustrating Belgium with a workman-like 1-1 draw in Brussels. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for them after crowd troubles peaked in the domestic leagues and the abject failure of their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, in which they finished bottom of Group F, even below minnows the Faroe Islands.
Now under new tutelage in the form of German coach Michael Skibbe, they look to be getting back to the consistency experienced under former managers Otto Rehhagel and Fernando Santos, who both achieved win ratios over 50% in four and 10-year reigns respectively.
Skibbe has overseen 12 matches to date and returned six wins, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned. Compared to the three managers between 2014 and 2015, including Claudio Ranieri, who returned just one win in as many as games.
Both teams have their fair share of experienced players. However, Emir Spahic has been replaced as Bosnia captain by Edin Dzeko with the former not called up and unattached to a club at present.
Mehmed Bazdarevic’s men bagged a valuable point in Piraeus last November but were denied two extra by a last-minute Georgios Tzavellas equaliser. All told, I fancy the Dragons to go one better at home and so do the bookmakers; making them 7/10 shots for the win and that’s my best bet with Bet365.
The hosts have the far superior scoring power in the shape of Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and Vedad Ibisevic who have 90 international goals between them. At the back, they are less solid but I think we can expect a similar score-line and hostile atmosphere to the Greek’s last visit in 2013.
Estonia v Belgium | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports 3
We stay in Group H for Belgium’s trip to Tallinn. Estonia are 20/1 outsiders and rightly so. Their visitors walloped them 8-1 in the reverse fixture last November and they have built a two-point gap over the chasing pack.
Estonia have scored five goals in as many qualifying games but four of those came at home to Gibraltar, a team assembled mostly of semi-professionals. An away draw in Cyprus last time out was credible but anything more than 10 points in this group would be quite the shock.
Belgium visited the A. Le Coq Arena back in 2009 in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup; they lost that 2-0, but since that failed campaign the state and quality of the Belgian national team has changed no end.
The Red Devils now boast seventh spot in the FIFA rankings, an improvement of 59 places since that defeat to Estonia. Much of that success can be attributed to a crop of brilliant young strikers and wingers but Belgium also have the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld.
Head coach, Roberto Martinez, is without captain and world-class playmaker Eden Hazard after he fractured his ankle in training and that presents an opportunity for Dries Mertens in my opinion.
Mertens had a fantastic season with Napoli scoring an exceptional 34 goals in 45 games. He has three to his name so far in Group H, of which two of those were scored against Estonia, and should get even more free reign with Hazard absent.
I’ll back him to score at 6/5 with Skybet. Estonia should be up against it and Belgium have prepared well with a 2-1 win over Czech Republic on Monday night.
Gibraltar v Cyprus | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports
Gibraltar have certainly made some improvements on the international football scene since their first game in 2011. The opening couple of years saw them conceding seven or eight goals with frequency but this World Cup qualifying campaign has even garnered two goals.
One of those came against Cyprus in Nicosia. 40/1 shots pre-game, Gibraltar equalised through Lincoln Red Imps stalwart Lee Casciaro early in the second half and can be proud of that performance.
Despite that performance and increased competitiveness, the boys from the Rock are still 20/1 to win here and I think that offers us some value on the Asian Handicap lines.
Cyprus have scored just three goals themselves in five qualifiers and none of those came in their two away games. As a result, Christakis Christoforou’s men look unlikely to run away with this at the Estadio Algarve.
I think this fixture should be much more even than the bookies are predicting. Gibraltar +2 on the Asian Handicap is 9/8 with 188Bet, if they win, draw or lose by one goal we have a winner. Lose by two and our stake will be refunded.
I’m confident that as time goes by Gibraltar will become more and more accustomed to international football and the experience of some of their players in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League will also do no harm.
Netherlands v Luxembourg | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports
Currently ranked 32nd in the world, their lowest ever FIFA ranking, the Netherlands are at their lowest ebb of all time. Failing to qualify for Euro 2016 was unforgivable but they have not really responded during this Would Cup qualifying campaign either.
The team lacks structure and is particularly weak at the back. Through five qualifying games they are yet to keep a clean sheet and that includes the tie in Luxembourg last November, a team ranked 145th in the world.
As a result of the 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria in March, the Dutch disposed of Danny Blind and have once again turned to Dick Advocaat. This now his third stint of management with the national team. Amongst other coaching staff, he is supported by Ruud Gullit.
Wesley Sneijder turns 33 on the day of the game and will also become their most capped player of all time should he feature on Friday night but other than that there’s not much for The Orange to sing about.
Advocaat must address their open style of football if they are to turn around this bad start and qualify for Russia 2018. However, I do not think that will happen overnight.
The 5-0 win over the Ivory Coast on Tuesday night was a start but Both Teams To Score at 2/1 with 888Sports looks value to me.
Luxembourg have scored in both of their away games in this group, at both Belarus and Bulgaria. Considering the Dutch themselves failed to score in Bulgaria and France also failed in Belarus, I think that tells us a lot about the forward ability of Luxembourg.
Bosnia & Herzegovina v Greece – Bosnia and Herzegovina to win (7/10 Bet365)
Estonia v Belgium – Dries Mertens to score at anytime (6/5 Skybet)
Gibraltar v Cyprus – Gibraltar +2 Asian Handicap (9/8 188Bet)
Netherlands v Luxembourg – Both Teams To Score (2/1 888)