Favourites Brazil can put the pain of four years ago behind them and win their sixth World Cup title in Russia this summer.
While continental tournaments can throw up surprise winners – think Greece 2004 or even Portugal two summers ago – the World Cup is only for the big boys.
It simply isn’t won from outside the betting market leaders, the month-long festival of football eventually weeding out the surprise packages and dark horses to leave the superpowers to slug it out at the last. Italy at 10/1 in 2006 are the closest thing the World Cup has seen to a ‘shock’ winner.
And this means that plenty of tempting teams have to be ignored at tantalising prices – at least when looking at who will win the whole enchilada.
Poland, for instance, are an under-the-radar side who have an elite goalscorer and are seeded in a nice section of the draw. They are clearly too big at 50/1, but it just screams value loser; quotes of 6/1 that they reach the semi-finals show both how good they are and how hard it is to make that final push from competing to winning.
If we look at the odds, taking into account the starting prices of previous winners, we’re left with six teams that can be given a realistic chance.
Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina and Belgium are all priced between 4/1 and 11/1.
By pure coincidence, these happen to be the only teams shorter in the betting than 18/1 England.
Of that leading six, two can be dismissed as betting prospects instantly. Argentina have the pedigree but no form to justify getting involved at 9/1. Lionel Messi gives them a puncher’s chance but they are in a tough group – the 9/2 for Argentina to finish behind at least two of Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria in Group D probably represents better value than their outright price.
Belgium at 11/1 are the next name struck from the list. They have plenty of quality, built primarily from the Premier League’s big six. They have English football’s best player in Kevin De Bruyne and its best defensive pairing in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
That pair are two of three Tottenham players in the Belgium squad, and it feels like a fitting comparison. A team that has broken into the elite, has a squad full of fine players playing lovely football and attracting plenty of attention. But they haven’t won anything and have wilted under the pressure before. Until they prove they can clear that final hurdle, we’re not interested in backing them.
That leaves us with the big four, and the likeliest semi-finalists: Brazil, Germany, Spain, France.
As the odds suggest, it would be no surprise to see any of that quartet strike gold. They’ve won seven of the last eight World Cups between them, with the only interlopers in that time – Italy in 2006 – not even here this time around.
France have astounding strength in depth but under Didier Deschamps are perhaps less than the sum of their parts. The way they wilted in the European Championship finals two years ago is also a concern for any potential France backers.
We’d rather back resurgent Spain at 6/1 than ever-reliable Germany at 9/2 but there’s little in it. Spain have perhaps the cleanest route to the last four of the big contenders, providing they can top Group B ahead of neighbours Portugal.
If they do, it is likely they will face hosts Russia or Egypt in the last 16, while they are slated to meet Argentina in the last eight. We’ve discussed Messi and co already; it’s far from certain they win their group (or their last-16 clash) and even if they did, we would heavily favour Spain in that one.
But Brazil look to be the team to beat. While European qualification is generally a cakewalk for the very best, with 10 matches of which at least six are close to a formality, South America’s 18-match round-robin is a far tougher school. Brazil bossed it from the moment Tite replaced Dunga as head coach, the Selecao easing clear of the mad scramble for final places to head the standings by 10 points.
Tite has got the team defending properly again – they conceded only 11 goals in qualification – while they have an embarrassment of riches going forward.
Brazil have won 10 of their last 12 competitive fixtures and lost only one match in all under the current coach. A Neymar-inspired Brazil side also struck gold at the 2016 Olympics, beating Germany in the final.
They tick every box, and their route through the competition looks fairly benign.
Based on the group and match odds, Brazil will saunter through their section and then face Mexico – who always lose in the last 16 – in the first knockout round before facing the talented but still unproven Belgium in the last eight. France, the weakest of the ‘big four’ are slated to be their semi-final opponents, with Germany or Spain in the final.
Brazil are the one side who look clear favourites every step of the way – and even at 4/1 are the best option to carry your outright cash, while bet365 will refund your money should Brazil go out on penalties.
If you do want to back a team from outside the head of the betting to cause a stir, then it has to be Uruguay at 28/1. They reached the last four eight years ago, and in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani possess game-breaking striking talent in front of some reliable campaigners. Most importantly, they have the easiest possible first-round draw in Group A alongside Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They are an each-way option, but a safer bet is the 8/1 on offer for another last-four exit.
A final word on the ever-reliable Germans, though: they know their way around a World Cup and have reached at least the semi-finals in each of the last four renewals. Their quarter-final opponents could well be England this time around. If not England, then Poland, Colombia or Belgium. They should have too much for any of them.
The Mannschaft motored through qualifying with 10 wins out of 10, scoring 43 goals. Germany are evens to reach the last four once again and that looks an absolutely rock-solid investment.