MARK O'HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) delivers his favourite fancies from Saturday night's UEFA World Cup qualifying coupon.
Poland v Romania | Saturday 19:45 | Sky Sports Red Button
Dark horses Poland were one of the most impressive nations at Euro 2016, coming close to beating world champions Germany in the group-stages, easily ousting Switzerland in the Last 16 before falling short to eventual winners Portugal on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Adam Nawalka’s men put in an unusually cautious performance against the Portuguese but haven’t taken long to recover from their disappointing last-eight exit. In fact, the White Eagles are now in the box seat to seal their place at the 2018 World Cup having W4-D1-L0 in their first five Group E outings.
With a six-point cushion over the chasing pack, Poland are in pole position to be the first European qualifiers on the road to Russia and the odds-makers expect Nawalka’s charges to continue their impressive run of results with victory over Romania.
The White Eagles are unbeaten in 12 games inside normal time and have suffered a sole competitive defeat in four years – away at Germany en-route to Euro 2016. And their goalless draw against the Germans at Euro 2016 is the only time in which the Poles have failed to find the back of the net in 19 meaningful matches dating back to 2013.
Having captain fantastic Robert Lewandowski leading the line gives Poland real cutting edge in attack and the return to fitness of Arkadiusz Milik will only add to the quality in the White Eagles offensive ranks this weekend and I’m keen to find a way of getting the White Eagles onside here.
Poland put Romania to the sword in November, running out 3-0 winners in Bucharest and taking shot count honours 15-9, facing only three attempts from inside their own penalty box and triumphing in the expected goals market 1.2 – 0.85. It was quite a conclusive result.
Last time out the White Eagles triumphed 2-1 in Montenegro in a much more even contest but six of Poland’s seven attempts arrived from inside the box, highlighting their final third threat. And back in Warsaw – where the Poles have W7-D2-L0 in their last nine qualifiers – we should expect further improvement.
A few pundits suggested Romania could be capable of causing a few upsets at Euro 2016 but in the end the Tricolorii were the second side to be on their way home after an ultimately disappointing campaign following a promising start.
Anghel Iordanescu left his post having been wildly criticised for his ultra-defensive tactics and opting to drop key player Nicolae Stanciu for the Romanians second game but in the past year, new head coach Christoph Daum has struggled to turn the tide.
The visitors have W1-D3-L2 under the German’s charge but have failed to score in their past four fixtures and only returned W1-D3-L1 in their World Cup qualifiers, leaving the Tricolorii with a mountain to climb to reach Russia.
So I’m backing a home success but seeing as Romania are rarely sliced and diced, I’ll add in Under 3.5 Goals to the equation for an even-money play with BetStars. Romania have shipped more than three goals just twice since 2009 in competitive action whilst just 7/33 (21%) meaningful matches since Euro 2012 have featured Over 3.5 Goals.
Lithuania v Slovakia | Saturday 19:45 | Sky Sports Red Button
Slovakia surprised a few when progressing past a tricky pool at Euro 2016 but Jan Kozak’s side had been preparing for that stage for quite some time and the Repre’s relative success in France came as no surprise to the squad.
Eventually knocked out by Germany, Slovakia regrouped with the intention of reaching only their second ever World Cup finals. However, a major tournament hangover wreaked havoc on the Repre with Kozak’s men making a nightmare start to qualification.
Back-to-back defeats to England and Slovenia left the team reeling but Slovakia have bounced back in impressive style, recording three successive victories against Scotland, Lithuania and Malta whilst rattling in 10 goals and keeping two clean sheets.
The Repre are now sat in second and eyeing up a play-off position for the campaign’s conclusion but they’ll be well aware avoiding defeat in Vilnius on Saturday night could prove pivotal in a competitive battle for that runners-up position.
Slovakia may appeal to some but this workmanlike team are at their best when playing at pace on the counter-attack and although there’s plenty of positives n their favour, I’m happier to taking an alternative approach and backing goals.
On their travels, Slovakia have only failed to score in three of their past 13 qualification matches dating back to 2011. But Kozak’s crew have also conceded in 10 of those ties, giving Both Teams To Score (31/21 888) backers profit on seven occasions.
Hosts Lithuania were fancied to fight Malta in a straight clash to avoid the wooden spoon in Group F but an impressive opening – holding Slovenia and Scotland whilst beating Malta – has put Edgaras Jankauskas into outside contention for second.
That early form has declined with three losses on the spin – including a 4-0 thumping at Slovakia – but I wouldn’t want to totally dismiss their prospects here after valiant home efforts against stronger nations in the recent past.
Lithuania have scored in nine of their last 13 home qualifiers, including games against Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Czech Republic so I’ll happily support BTTS here at a decent price.
Slovenia v Malta | Saturday 19:45 | Sky Sports Red Button
Malta recorded one of their greatest results in history on Tuesday night when overcoming Ukraine 1-0 away at odds of 40/1 in a warm-up fixture for this weekend’s 2018 World Cup qualification clashes.
It was the Reds’ first taste of success since November 2013 and provides Pietro Ghedin’s group with a massive confidence boost as they bid to avoid a sixth successive defeat in Group F of their qualification pool.
With 36 year-old former Coventry ace Michael Mifsud still the side’s greatest threat, it’s not hard to see why the Maltese have struggled. The Reds have been beaten in 13 of their past 17 games and picked up only two points from a possible 57 in 19 qualification encounters over the past four years.
Outside of Valetta, that record looks even bleaker for Malta. Saturday night’s visitors have lost 15 of their last 18 games as guests and W1-D1-L24 in meaningful matches on their travels since 2007 – the Reds scored five goals in those 26 contests at a rate of one every 7.80 hours of action!
However, Malta have improved on their defensive stability in recent years. Ghedin’s men have leaked more than two goals in just one of their last 16 away fixtures with 14 of those encounters featuring fewer than three goals in total.
So with the Slovenia win ‘to nil’ too skinny and handicap prices appearing a little prohibitive, it might be worth attacking the home win alongside Under 2.5 Goals at a kind 28/11 (188BET) here instead.
Slovenia missed out on Euro 2016 after a play-off loss to Ukraine but are making a decent fist of reaching Russia, sitting third on goal difference behind Slovakia.
Sreeko Katanec’s charges were beaten 1-0 at Scotland in their last tie, ending a seven-match unbeaten streak (W3-D4-L0) and it’s their lack of goals that’s likely to prove their undoing should the hosts miss out on qualification again.
San Marino are the only side Slovenia have scored more than two goals against in four years and 31 international matches whilst each of Slovenia’s past eight games in Ljubljana have returned profit for Under 2.5 Goals backers, adding further weight behind our chosen selection.
Norway v Czech Republic | Saturday 19:45 | Sky Sports Red Button
Norway’s 2018 World Cup qualification hopes are already over after a dismal start to their campaign. Per-Mathias Hogmo was dismissed in November having achieved only W10-D7-L18 in his four-year stint with Swedish legend Lars Lagerback brought in to change the Landslaget’s fortunes.
Having failed to reach the World Cup finals since 1998, Norway’s fourth defeat in five qualifiers against Northern Ireland in March put paid to their 2018 dreams in Lagerback’s first game in charge.
Sure, the Landslaget reached the play-offs for Euro 2016 but were deeply disappointing and entirely unthreatening against a very average Hungary outfit over two legs, deservedly missing out on finals qualification.
And things haven’t gotten much better. The only match the Norwegians haven’t lost in World Cup qualification Group C came against San Marino – a match in which the scores were locked at 1-1 until the final 15 minutes – and so Lagerback’s now looking for a fresh approach as attention turns towards Euro 2020.
The current squad features eight players with one or zero international caps whilst injuries to defenders Omar Elabdellaoui and Martin Linnes, plus star striker Josh King, have left the squad looking bereft of experience and top-class talent.
When Norway were beaten by Saturday night’s guests Czech Republic in Prague last November they were twice caught out by the Czechs pace on the break and I’d expect the visitors to adopt a similar approach in Oslo as they bid to keep the pressure on Northern Ireland.
With Germany almost guaranteed top spot, the battle to finish second has intensified in recent months with the Irish holding a two-point advantage over the Czechs and Azerbaijan waiting in the wings. With Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan meeting this weekend in Baku, Karel Jarolim’s men have a great chance to capitalise.
Following a disappointing showing at Euro 2016, Pavel Vrba stepped down and the Czechs took time to adjust to Jarolim’s methods. Failure to score in their first qualifiers – including damaging home 0-0 draws against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan – has left the Lions playing catch up.
But they’ve since found their shooting boots, scoring 13 goals in their last five outings and putting in a solid display during a 2-1 defeat to Belgium in Monday’s warm-up clash. Jarolim will now know, victory in Oslo is paramount if the Czechs have realistic aspirations to seal second spot.
With Norway already looking ahead to 2020, the Czech Republic have a great chance to pick up pivotal points and I’m happy to support the Lions off a scratch 0 Asian Handicap start (21/20 188BET) – this selection would see our stake returned should the game end all-square.
Since 2008 the Czechs have only lost four away qualifiers (W12-D4-L4) – against Spain, Germany, Italy and Iceland – and their robust nature should ensure Jarolim’s men avoid defeat again on Saturday night.