INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his best bets from Thursday's Nations League action.
Kosovo v Malta | Thursday 11th October 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Kosovo clinched their first-ever win in a competitive international by beating the Faroe Islands 2-0 in the Nations League last month. Two goals in a six-minute spell after half-time by Arber Zeneli and Atdhe Nuhiu earned the Dardanians victory in their maiden competitive outing in their home country.
The success sparked jubilant scenes at a packed Fadil Vokrr Stadium in Pristina and the UEFA newcomers are capable of building on that triumph when Thursday’s tussle with Malta comes around in the landlocked territory.
Kosovo only W0-D1-L9 during World Cup qualification but having appointed Swiss boss Bernard Challandes in March, results and performances have rapidly improved. The Dardanians dominated Azerbaijan away (0-0) in their Nations League opener and have also beaten Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Albania.
Sure, it’s not a who’s who cast of international heavyweights but belief is growing in the camp as the group enjoy their best run of results since formation in 2106. Although top-class quality isn’t spread around the squad, there are a smattering of stars that can prove too strong for Malta.
Heerenveen attacker Zeneli and Owls striker Nuhiu form a solid offensive partnership, while vice captain Valon Berisha and Milot Rashica ply their trade with Lazio and Werder Bremen respectively. In contrast, Malta’s roster is filled with home-based players bar journeyman foward Andre Schembri who’s currently based in Cyprus.
Now 37, ex-Coventry hitman Michael Mifsud skippers the lowly visitors who seldom travel well. Malta have W1-D3-L21 in their past 25 away days since June 2013 and overall have recorded just two wins in 30 (W2-D6-L22) with 12 of their past 14 defeats arriving ‘to nil’.
The Falcons have fired blanks in 10 of their past 16 outings with two of their past three goals arriving from the penalty spot. There’s merit in backing the home win ‘to nil’ (5/6 BetVictor) but I prefer the 20/23 (Boylesports) available on Kosovo winning alongside a game featuring Under 3.5 Goals having banked in nine of Malta’s past 10 competitive losses.
We'll have the 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 and 3-0 correct scores onside.
Russia v Sweden | Thursday 11th October 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Two of the summer’s surprise packages lock horns in Kaliningrad and there’s a strong case to be made for both sides scoring.
Since their memorable run to the World Cup quarter-finals on home soil, Russia have won away in Turkey (2-1), as well as trounced Czech Republic 5-1 in a friendly. With CSKA Moscow beating Real Madrid in the Champions League last midweek also, the buoyant mood towards football lingers on.
Eight members of the Sbornaya’s squad from the summer are no longer around – veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and centre-half Sergei Ignashevich both retired from international duty last month, while striker Fyodor Smolov is crocked. Nevertheless, Stanislav Cherchesov has enough arsenal in his armoury.
Aleksandr Golovin is back with the group following injury and national hero Artem Dzyuba remains in situ, looking to add to his tally of 15 goals in 29 caps for his country. The home side have scored in all bar one of their last eight outings but at the back Russia still appear ropey.
The hosts have kept a solitary shutout in 15 – against Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the World Cup – and across their last 19 matches on home soil the Sbornaya have silenced only four opposition outfits. Considering the current international inexperience in defence, I’m not holding out hope for an improvement here.
Sweden have suffered a World Cup hangover. Since their last-eight exit to England, the Blue-Yellow have been beaten 2-0 by Austria in a non-competitive contest before chucking away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 against Turkey in Solna.
However, Emil Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist missed those matches and their return to frontline action should bolster Janne Andersson's men. Viktor Claesson will switch to the right to accommodate Forsberg with Granqvist renewing his excellent partnership alongside Victor Lindelof at centre-half.
So I’d expect Sweden to step things up a gear on Thursday. They have only W1-D2-L4 on their travels when excluding the World Cup, while encounters tend to be fairly low-scoring under Andersson's watch.
Under 2.5 Goals has copped in 12 of the Blue Yellow’s previous 16 with Both Teams To Score banking in only two of their most recent 10. But with a point to prove, Nations League supremacy still on the line and a Russian side that’s far from watertight in opposition, this meeting could go against the goals grain.
Both Teams To Score has landed in seven of Russia’s last 10 games and appeals at even-money with William Hill.
Poland v Portugal | Thursday 11th October 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Poland welcome Portugal to Chorzow and again I’ll be taking Both Teams To Score at even-money with William Hill.
The White Eagles were held by Italy in their Nations League opener, while Portugal managed to beat the Azzurri in Lisbon. It leaves the pool wide-open as we come into crunch contests in October, with the hosts here playing catch-up.
Jerzy Brzeczek took charge of Poland following a dismal effort in the World Cup and surprised many by leaving Arkadiusz Milik and Krzysztof Piatek on the bench and fielding Robert Lewandowski as a lone striker in their opener. Supporters will demand a more offensively-minded approach on home soil.
Lewandowski will again skipper the side on his 100th cap and will be hoping Brzeczek gives him the attacking support he needs to function. With Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski impressing in Italy, and Piatek breaking records for Genoa, it’s not like the White Eagles are short on firepower.
Doubts persist over their defensive ability, mind. Poland have kept their sheets clean in only three of their past 13 fixtures, a stat that should encourage a Portugal team that’s scored in all bar two of their past 18 matches.
The winners of Euro 2016 lost just two of those 18 tussles but have scored exactly one goal in each of their last five. With Cristiano Ronaldo again absent, and Goncalo Guedes withdrawing from the squad, Fernando Santos is without two of his key attacking weapons.
However, the Selecao can still call upon La Liga hot-shot Andre Silva, as well as namesake at Manchester City, Bernando. But like their hosts, we can pick holes in Portugal’s backline with Santos’ squad featuring only two players with more than 20 international caps in defence.
Poland haven’t failed to score at home competitively since 2009 and with BTTS rewarding goal-hungry backers in four of Portugal’s past six since the start of the World Cup, there’s enough encouragement to support a repeat.
Kosovo v Malta – Kosovo to win and Under 3.5 Goals (20/23 Boylesports)
Russia v Sweden – Both Teams To Score (1/1 William Hill)
Poland v Portugal – Both Teams To Score (1/1 William Hill)