BEN LEVENE (@BenLevene96) shares his betting views on Thursday night's World Cup qualifying play-off first leg contest between Croatia and Greece.
Croatia v Greece | Thursday 9th November 2017, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Croatia can be firmly placed in the serial underachievers bracket when it comes to international sides. Although possessing undoubtable quality, neutrals can’t help but think they are capable of more.
In the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic they have high-class talent in their ranks. Danijel Subasic, Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Marko Pjaca and Nikola Kalinic don’t have bad pedigree either.
After an underwhelming qualification campaign, Ante Cacic was replaced by Zlatko Dalic as boss. Dalic had an immediate impact as they won 2-0 away at Ukraine in a must-win game that kept hopes of qualification alive.
Nine of Croatia’s 10 qualifiers saw Under 2.5 Goals. In fact, each of their last five competitive games at home have seen two or less goals.
They tend to control games, as is expected with a team owning such quality, but like most international games, the tempo is quite slow.
They are very patient in possession and are often tasked with breaking down organised deep-lying defences. This is perfectly illustrated through the fact their last five competitive games have been goalless at half-time.
Greece themselves are an organised outfield. They’ve conceded more than the single goal in just one of their last 14 games.
On the road during qualification, they went unbeaten, picking up points in Bosnia and Belgium and conceding just three goals across five matches. Their only loss in the qualification process came at the hands of Belgium when they lost out 2-1, and on that occasion they held out until the 70th minute.
After a poor Euro 2016 campaign under Claudio Ranieri, the experienced Michael Skibbe was brought in and has reverted to basics. An ageing squad has been freshened up and they are finally over the hangover brought about after their 2004 European Championship success.
Team news and trends
Croatia are without Mateo Kovacic through injury but it is with Greece where the injury worries lie. Particularly at the back. Roma’s Kostas Manolas is suspended while Dortmund’s Sokratis is a doubt. Captain Vassilis Torosidis is also a doubt.
Originally the plan was to side with Greece in some way but the appeal of that has somewhat weakened with the team news. Having said that, if Skibbe has his side organised as expected, the centre-backs won’t be overly exposed and it may be a case of the team structure being more important than personnel.
I’m wary of the extent to which we can read into previous Croatia form. Dalic was brought in to get his side performing with efficiency, and in Ukraine he did exactly that.
Two-legged affairs tend to be cagey and void of goals. It’s evident in the knockout phase of the Champions League and on the international stage it’s no different. In the European qualifying play-offs for the 2014 World Cup, three of the four first legs had Under 2.5 Goals.
If we look at the play-off stage in qualification ahead of Euro 2016, three of those four first legs also saw Under 2.5 Goals. All four competitive meetings between the two nations have had two or less goals too.
The betting angles
I don’t think Greece will be rollovers like the market suggests, despite their injury worries. We’ve already established their defensive strength throughout the qualification campaign.
Football isn’t won on paper and the likes of England and Belgium in recent times can be used of evidence that a strong-squad alone isn’t enough.
The game to be level after 30 minutes is 7/10 (Marathon) and is worth chancing ahead of Under 2.5 Goals which seems too short now at a best price of 8/13.
In five appearances during this qualification campaign, Andreas Samaris has been booked four times. He also got booked in his only Champions League appearance this season.
Three of his five starts came against Belgium and Bosnia and that gives us great insight into how Skibbe opts to use Samaris. He only missed Greece’s trip to Bosnia because of suspension.
Referee Gianluca Rocchi has given out at least four cards in each of his last six European and International matches combined. Rocchi has awarded four or more cards in eight of his nine games this season. So he’s clearly card-friendly.
Samaris is 6/4 to be booked this Thursday and should he start, that looks a great price in what is set to be a cagey affair. Look around on the day for better prices as not all bookies have priced up.
Croatia v Greece – Match Result after 30 minutes: Draw (7/10 Marathon)
Croatia v Greece – Andrea Samaris to be carded (6/4 William Hill)