Safe bets as Germany and England take on minnows in World Cup qualifying
Joachim Loew’s world champions travel to Azerbaijan, while Gareth Southgate’s charges entertain Lithuania
Germany and England, having been closely matched in a friendly on Wednesday night, go to the other end of the international scale on Monday morning (Hong Kong time) in their World Cup qualifiers when they face Azerbaijan and Lithuania respectively.
The big teams are similarly short odds, with Germany away to the nation lying 89th in the Fifa rankings and England hosting the 107th-ranked country.
By contrast, Germany are the top-ranked European country in third overall behind only Argentina and Brazil, and England are 14th on the world list.
England were in the top 10 a year ago, but have dropped down the rankings after a disastrous 2016, which saw them lose two managers and go out of the Euro 2016 finals to Iceland.
New boss Gareth Southgate steadied the ship with an unbeaten run of four matches in the autumn and, despite the 1-0 defeat by Germany, he has some innovative ideas too.
For a start, Southgate abandoned the notion that Wayne Rooney is undroppable by cutting him from the 26-man squad for these matches.
Rooney declared he was fit, but the manager took the brave decision to leave out the 31-year-old and replace him as captain on the field with Gary Cahill.
Southgate believes Rooney can only be considered nowadays for the number 10 role, rather than as an out-and-out striker, and in that position there are younger options who are not only playing more regularly at club level but are playing better than England’s record goalscorer.
Dele Alli is the leading candidate for that attacking position – with Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley among the other options – and the Tottenham Hotspur star was widely seen as England’s best performer on Wednesday night against Germany.
With Cahill leading a three-man defence against Germany, England had a better attacking shape and Alli was comfortable and effective in a role that replicated his club set-up.
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England did not score, of course, but Southgate was right to try a different system in a friendly and there was distinct promise in the experiment, with the visitors matching Germany for shots and beating them for possession and corners.
Another point worth noting is that four of the outfield players in the starting team were from outside the Premier League’s big six – Burnley’s Michael Keane in the three-man defence, wing back Ryan Bertrand of Southampton, West Bromwich Albion midfielder Jake Livermore and Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy up front.
England have had false dawns before and the only real judgement can be drawn in a major finals tournament – which is where it tends to go horribly wrong – but Southgate could be satisfied with Wednesday’s performance against the best nation in Europe.
The match with Lithuania is mostly about ensuring England collect three points at home and there should be no problem, with former manager Roy Hodgson having produced a perfect 10 in qualification for Euro 2016, followed by victory in Sam Allardyce’s sole qualifier in charge and two wins and an away draw under Southgate in group F for the 2018 World Cup.
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England did concede a goal in the autumn qualifiers and the best bet is to look for a correct score with a home win to nil.
The shortest odds are a 2-0 home win for England, but it is worth going for the combination of 3-0 and 4-0. In the Euro qualifiers in 2015, England beat Lithuania 3-0 away and 4-0 at home.
Another bet to consider at good odds is High on the First Half HiLo, which is a win if at least two goals are scored in the first 45 minutes. The half-time score in both of the England-Lithuania matches was 2-0.
As usual, it is difficult to find any great value in the majority of mismatched qualifiers but Poland are worth considering away to Montenegro in group E as they are unbeaten in 12 competitive internationals, having been knocked out in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals only on penalties by tournament winners Portugal.
Denmark have had a couple of setbacks in that group, with autumn defeats away to Poland and home to Montenegro, but they are a decent bet on the handicap away to Romania.
With the big European leagues taking a break, punters should take a look at the action in England’s League One.
Sixth-placed Southend rate well on the handicap away to Wimbledon, who have won only one match out of 10 against the top six.
At home, Wimbledon have taken just one point out of 15 in that category.
Bradford City are the handicap pick in their top-six clash away to Scunthorpe.
Southend on handicap
Excellent form since the end of September
Oxford on handicap
Have lost to only two teams below them in 2017
Bradford on handicap
Only one defeat in their last 12 league games
Poland away win
Have the scoring power to beat Montenegro
Denmark on handicap
Solid chance to get back on track in Group E
Consecutive wins to nil for England in home competitive matches