INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) delivers his favourite fancies from Thursday night's UEFA World Cup qualifying coupon.
France v Netherlands | Thursday 31st August 2017, 19:45 | Sky Sports
An injury-time defeat in Sweden last time out saw France surrender top spot in an ultra competitive Group A on goal difference to the Swedes but Didier Deschamps' star-studded squad have the ability to bounce back on Thursday.
Many shrewdies have already outlined France as potential World Cup winners but the hosts still have plenty to do if they’re to guarantee their place in Russia. However, with this one of three remaining fixtures to play in Paris, Les Blues should be more than capable of securing automatic qualification.
Although four of the starters from the Euro 2016 final failed to even make the French squad, five the group have been involved in moves worth a combined €333.5m this summer. And that figure doesn’t include Benjamin Mendy and Ousmane Dembele, two players excluded for fitness reasons.
Deschamps' is expected to stick with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann in attack with in-demand Kylian Mbappe’s move to PSG – and lack of playing time with Monaco this season – almost certainly ruling the 18 year-old out of a start.
Elsewhere, Layvin Kurzawa and Lucas Digne compete for the left-back spot whilst Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny should partner up at the back with Raphael Varane sidelined. And it’s defensively where Deschamps' will be desperate to improve his side.
At the Stade de France, France have suffered a sole reverse in 18 World Cup qualifiers – winning the most recent four by an aggregate 12-2 scoreline. Indeed, the home team have claimed 14 triumphs from their last 16 in the capital but alarmingly, Les Blues have conceded in eight of their past 13 as hosts.
Deschamps' charges have shutout only three of their last 11 opponents – including leaking against the likes of Luxembourg. With that in mind, the 11/4 on France to win and Both Teams To Score holds plenty of appeal with William Hill – alternatively, punters should consider the 2-1 (8/1 SkyBet) and 3-1 (14/1 William Hill) correct scores.
The Netherlands pitch up knowing they must get a result here if they’re to avoid missing out on another major tournament, trailing both Sweden and France by three points. Head coach Danny Blind was dismissed following a dreadful 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria and Dick Advocaat's back in situ for a third spell.
Advocaat saw his side smash Luxembourg 5-0 in his first outing in June and the veteran boss has recalled all-time top scorer Robin Van Persie to the fold in a bid to fire the Dutch back into contention. And since Blind’s departure, the Oranje have notched 13 goals in four matches.
Elsewhere, Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen are both in the running for a start having shown plenty of good form in the national team shirt whilst Memphis Depay and Quincy Promes join Arjen Robben and Kevin Strootman in potential game-changers in the visiting dressing room – there’s certainly still some punch left in this Holland squad.
But Advocaat's men could come unstuck at the back. Virgil van Dijk, Rick Karsdorp, Nathan Ake, Daryl Janmaat and Jeffrey Bruma all miss out meaning Wesley Hoedt and Stefan de Vrij could start together in central defence due to their understanding from their time at Lazio together.
And the Dutch’s rotten road record leaves a lot to be desired; over the past two qualifying campaign’s the Oranje have W3-D1-L4 on their travels despite trips to the likes of Kazakhstan, Latvia, Luxembourg and Belarus. The visitors have been convincingly beaten in Iceland, Turkey and Bulgaria.
The Netherlands’ only victories in eight away qualifiers came in Latvia, Kazakhstan and Luxembourg, they’ve been beaten by at least two goals in seven of their last eight losses outside of Amsterdam and kept a sole clean sheet in 11 games on the road.
Saying that, Holland have found the back of the net in eight of their last nine away days and going for broke on Thursday, I’d fancy Advocaat's troops to at least trouble the scoresheet here.
Bulgaria v Sweden | Thursday 31st August 2017, 19:45 | Sky Sports
With both France and the Netherlands locking horns in Paris, Group A table-toppers Sweden have an excellent opportunity to secure top spot on Thursday night in Sofia. But the pre-match odds appear to have given the Blue-Yellow a little too much respect.
Many – I included – expected Janne Andersson's men to toil following talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international retirement but Sweden have defied their doubters in spectacular style, beating highly-fancied France 2-1 in a dramatic finale from Solna in their previous World Cup qualifier.
The Blue-Yellow have scored 16 goals in their last five encounters and will fancy their prospects in Sofia against a Bulgarian outfit they thumped 3-0 in the reverse fixture last October. Arriving unbeaten in five, Andersson's men arrive in buoyant and confident mood as the quest to qualify reaches the business end.
But should the visitors be chalked up as odds-on favourites here? I’m not so sure. Sweden have secured only five success in their last 16 outings outside their home country, including being held in Norway and Montenegro – similar standard of sides to that of Bulgaria.
The performance data available for the qualifiers isn’t as striking as results on the pitch and it’s worth noting four of the Swedes’ six matches have been at home. The two tussles on their travels ended in defeat in France and a 1-0 success at rock-bottom Luxembourg.
For Bulgaria, results have been chalk and cheese. In Sofia, the eastern Europeans boast a 100% record by beating Holland, Luxembourg and Belarus but Petar Hubchev's men have yet to pick up a point on the road.
The fourth-placed side at the 1994 World Cup face an uphill struggle just to qualify for next summer's showpiece but reminded the continent what they’re capable of with a composed 2-0 beating of the Dutch in March.
In fact, Bulgaria have been beaten in only four of their last 17 games in Sofia since 2012 and have now clocked up five successive victories on home soil. Backing the Lions to avoid defeat again on Thursday night at odds-against quotes of 6/5 (888) is the way to go.
Luxembourg v Belarus | Thursday 31st August 2017, 19:45 | Sky Sports
I’m staying in Group A for the final of my three selections. There’s plenty of potential punting opportunities from around the continent on Thursday – I’ll try and highlight a few others on Twitter – but the battle between these two minnows caught my attention.
Why? Well, little Luxembourg are always a nation I try and keep onside when playing in their cosy Stade Josy-Barthel home. That might sound nonsensical when a side has lost 45/52 (87%) home qualifiers since 1995 but delve a little deeper and the Red Lions are making small progress.
Luxembourg’s home loss rate has fallen since the road to World Cup 2010 began – 16/23 (70%) – and quite often this tiny landlocked country has competed. Narrowing the sample size and only four of their past 17 home losses have arrived by a margin of three goals or more.
Macedonia, Northern Ireland and Albania have all been toppled here in the past six years whilst Azerbaijan and Thursday’s visitors, Belarus, have all been held to draws. And arguably more impressive is the fact that Luxembourg have managed to grab a goal in eight (57%) of their past 14 meaningful matches on home soil.
Head coach Luc Holtz has been in charge since 2010 and his intention to play a more forward-thinking game appears to be giving the Red Lions a new dimension. Although rock-bottom of Group A, Luxembourg haven’t sat back to try and contain their more illustrious opposition like rival minnows.
The hosts have scored six goals in six games – by far the best tally of those sitting bottom in their pool – and Luxembourg have even notched at home to France and the Netherlands in this campaign, as well as three when travelling away to Bulgaria. Only the Dutch (away) and table-toppers Sweden have kept them out
Having scored in the reverse encounter with Belarus (1-1), the offer of 1/1 from BetVictor for Luxembourg to score here – Over 0.5 Goals – is just too big to ignore. Holtz’s charges deserve a bit more respect in this scenario.
Despite their devilishly difficult group, the Red Lions have attempted 44 shots at goal – Slovakia (54) and Wales (55) haven’t exactly rubbished that record – and landed 14 on-target – again, Ireland (18) and Wales (21) hardly pouring scorn on such a return.
Belarus are the fifth seeds in the group and have been particularly poor travellers recently. Turned over 4-1 in Amsterdam, 1-0 in Sofia and 4-0 in Solna, the White Wings have also been beaten 3-0 in Macedonia and 1-0 by Switzerland in friendly internationals this calendar year.
The visitors have recorded one clean sheet in 15 away qualifiers over the past seven years and look a little overrated in the pre-match markets.
France v Netherlands – France to win and Both Teams To Score (11/4 William Hill)
Bulgaria v Sweden – Bulgaria +0.5 Asian Handicap (6/5 888)
Luxembourg v Belarus – Luxembourg to score Over 0.5 Goals (1/1 BetVictor)