Belgium v Russia | Thursday 21st November 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Belgium finished third at last year’s World Cup and looked to be heading towards the Nations League finals in November before inexplicably chucking away a two-goal advantage and succumbing 5-2 to Switzerland in Luzern. Roberto Martinez’s men have endured a few hiccups on the road but back in Brussels the Red Devils tend to be efficient operators.
That reverse to Switzerland and Belgium’s World Cup semi-final defeat to France are the Red Devils’ only losses in their last 32 outings (W24-D6-L2). On home soil, Martinez’s troops have lost just once (against Spain) in 29 matches here since the start of 2014 (W21-D7-L1). The hosts have taken top honours in nine of their last 10 competitive outings in Brussels.
Belgium kept a clean sheet in half of those 10 ties, never leaking more than a sole strike. Meanwhile, the Red Devils bagged an average of over four goals per-game in that 10-game sample above, as well as notching at least three times in 14 of their last 18 home wins since October 2014, striking at least twice in 14 of their last 16 competitive fixtures.
However, record goalscorer Romelu Lukaku is rated 50/50 after picking up an injury in Paris, and although Martinez has an array of excellent options in attack, the Manchester United man plays a key role in leading Belgium’s line – he will be missed. Nevertheless, I expect the home side to be too strong for Russia on Thursday night.
Russia upset the odds to enjoy a successful World Cup in their own back yard. I was never completely convinced by Stanislav Cherchesov’s side last summer and their most recent results– a 2-0 defeat at Sweden and 3-0 loss in Germany – suggests they’re still in a relatively unremarkable shape coming into qualification.
Only four members of the current squad have picked up more than 25 international caps and with the domestic season – where all but four of the roster ply their trade – only returning from its winter break at the beginning of the month, they could be slightly undercooked.
Russia aren’t renowned for their ability to pick up positive results on the road and the fact the visitors have failed to score in eight of their last 10 defeats since the beginning of 2017 has to be a concern too.
Finding ways to keep Belgium onside is difficult in a such a lopsided betting heat but supporting the Red Devils alongside Under 4.5 Goals at 7/10 (Ladbrokes) appeals. Only home triumphs against Gibraltar, Estonia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Andorra have beaten this line over the past eight years in competitive clashes.
Macedonia v Latvia | Thursday 21st March 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Of all the minnows starting their journey on the road for Euro 2020 qualification, Macedonia are the one that standout as possible challengers. Housed in a relatively open Group G alongside top seeds Poland, Austria, Israel, Slovenia and Thursday night’s visitors Latvia, the Red Lions are potentially dangerous opposition and deserve respect, particularly in Skopje.
Igor Angelovski’s outfit arrive off the back of a successful Nations League campaign (W5-D0-L1) where they notched an average of 2.33 goals per-game. Admittedly, overcoming the likes of Liechtenstein, Gibraltar and Armenia is no form book for reaching the European Championship finals but their ability to see off similar strugglers is noteworthy.
Macedonia have won each of their last five fixtures on home soil when starting as pre-match favourites, bagging three or more goals in four of those encounters. Meanwhile, the hosts haven’t lost in their capital base since a World Cup qualifier in June 2017 – and that came via a narrow 2-1 margin against Spain.
Across all contests, the Red Lions have suffered only two defeats in their past 17 matches (W10-D5-L2) and even picked up a draw away at Italy in that sample. Only twice in five years have Macedonia been beaten in Skopje by more than a solitary strike, emphasising their ability to stay competitive against continental rivals.
Unfortunately, the market is already hugely in Macedonia’s favour but there is an angle we can exploit – a home win alongside Under 3.5 Goals at 10/11 (Ladbrokes). It allows us to have a series of correct score results onside, such as 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 and 2-1, the most likely scorelines against opponents just above the bottom table of European football.
Macedonia have claimed top honours alongside a clean sheet in nine of their last 10 victories, whilst only two of their past 10 games have seen both sides score. Those records – alongside Latvia’s inability to threaten away, which I’ll come to – point towards the win ‘to nil’ market. But for a marginally worse price, I prefer the comfort of the chosen selection, knowing an away goal isn't game over.
Latvia have been in the doldrums for a while now. The Wolves’ only competitive wins in five years have come against Andorra and in the Nations League they failed to beat Andorra, Georgia and Kazakhstan (W0-D4-L2), managing only two goals across nine hours of action. Only once in 14 fixtures have Latvia scored more than a solitary strike.
Slavisa Stojanovic’s men have won once away in competitive football since 2011 – against Andorra in September 2016 – and the visitors have scored fewer than two goals in all bar one of their last 17 games as guests. And it’s worth noting that a healthy 14 of their previous 19 away trips have featured fewer than three goals as they’ve kept things relatively tight.
Only Hungary, Holland, Portugal and Bosnia have scored more than twice at home to Latvia in meaningful matches since 2009 and so it’s difficult to see the Wolves getting completely sliced and diced in Skopje despite defeat being the most likely scenario in Thursday's opening round of matches.