The World Cup is edging ever closer and attention will turn to Russia where 32 nations will compete for the ultimate prize in world football.
There are a few markets that I’m looking to get my teeth stuck into.
In this series of previews, I’ll take a look at the outright market with the Top Scorer and Golden Ball previews to come.
Ten World Cups have been hosted in European countries and nine European nations have gone on to lift the trophy.
The 1958 World Cup played in Sweden is the only one to have seen a nation from outside the continent end up taking top honours and that was Brazil.
It is Brazil who are favourites in Russia and that’s despite them falling at the semi-final stage in their own World Cup four years ago.
They were embarrassed by Germany in that semi-final before being beaten heavily in the third-place play-off.
A lot rested on the shoulders of Neymar during that tournament and he suffered that back injury against Colombia, which saw him miss the remainder of the competition.
He’ll be the inevitable big player for Brazil but if he does pick up a knock, considering he’s just recovered from injury, then they have got cover in Man City’s Gabriel Jesus, who should be able to fill those boots.
They have an easy enough group to get through but the likes of Serbia and Switzerland will do their best to stifle the Brazilian frontline and if that means dropped points then it could make life tricky in the Round of 16.
However, that might be very unlikely given the Samba Boys have topped their group on every occasion since the 1978 event. That’s a record of W23, D3, L1.
Under Tite, they have a swashbuckling style of play in a 4-3-3 formation with Gabriel Jesus likely to play through the middle with Neymar and Philippe Coutinho on either side of him.
Their qualifying record of W12, D5, L1 was exceptional, especially with them scoring 41 goals and conceding just 11.
It was Man City’s Jesus that topped scored during that campaign with seven goals with Paulinho and Neymar both one behind on six.
It’s clear why they are favourites but after the last World Cup and potentially tricky path then I’m swerving the Selecao.
Germany are next in and after lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Brazil many will expect a similarly efficient performance.
However, no side has defended their title since 1962 when Brazil backed up victory in Sweden by defeating Czechoslovakia in the final in Chile.
The four-time winners left many Premier League fans puzzled when Joachim Low named his final 23-man squad and had omitted Leroy Sane in favour of Julian Brandt.
But they still have plenty of quality all over the park, which unsurprisingly should see them make the semi-finals at least.
Manuel Neuer has been named as captain but only featured four times for Bayern Munich due to a metatarsal fracture, so his fitness has to still be a concern despite him starting in their 2-1 friendly defeat against Austria.
That said, Marc-Andre ter Stegen isn’t a bad deputy to have on standby!
Die Mannschaft did breeze through qualifying with the likes of Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner filling the void left by Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose.
There doesn’t look too much vulnerability in this German side and we know they always turn up to the big events, so that friendly defeat the other day means very little.
A perfect ten in qualifying scoring 43 goals shows their ruthless edge and Thomas Muller top-scored with five goals – the same as Sandro Wagner, who like Sane, failed to make the cut.
If there was a criticism it’s the fact they’ve only named three forwards but that suits the Low 4-3-2-1 set-up with Werner likely to lead the line and the 22-year-old has seven goals in 13 international appearances.
The Germans tick pretty much every box heading to Russia and I’m quite surprised they aren’t at the head of the betting given how easily they should reach the last four.
2010 winners Spain arguably have one of the toughest groups facing Iberian rivals and European Champions Portugal, plus Morocco and Iran are up there for the best sides in their respective confederations.
Many have written Spain off with them lacking that out and out forward, however they’ve already proved that that doesn’t necessarily matter.
La Roja has been excellent under Julen Lopetegui with his philosophy of the neat, tidy short passing game that their players excel at but they also have the press.
There is a nice balance to the squad, in terms of age and experience, with the likes of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos at one end of the spectrum while Alvaro Odriozola and Saul are at the other on the international stage.
When you look at the spine, it’s a really strong one. David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world, Sergio Ramos takes no prisoners, Andres Iniesta – a scorer in a World Cup Final and the snarling Diego Costa up front.
If Costa can control his aggression, then he could enjoy a successful tournament given the chances the likes of Isco, David Silva and co should cut out for the Atletico Madrid forward.
Considering Spain had Italy in their group, they came through that test with flying colours and conceded just three goals.
David Silva, Isco and Costa all netted five goals each proving that when they get the passing and movement going, that it can cause all sorts of problems.
Now Spain have re-found their identity I struggle to see a way they don’t the last four at the minimum.
That could set up a mouthwatering tie against Germany and I would just fancy La Roja to get the better.
Of The Rest:
France never really convince me. This is one of their strongest squads and if Didier Deschamps can keep them all happy then they will threaten.
They were the ones hyped up during the European Championships but that soon changed when they failed to break down Portugal in the final.
Les Blues are very forward heavy and an injury or suspension at the wrong time to their defensive players could throw a spanner in the works.
Portugal won the Euros by boring everyone to death and they’ll employ the same sort of brand here in Russia.
Fernando Santos has pretty much a similar squad to go with but the aging defence could be a problem here with Pepe and Jose Fonte named in the squad and both of them have had injury problems over the last season.
They have a lot to like in attacking areas with the obvious threat being Cristiano Ronaldo but Bernardo Silva enjoyed a good end to the season for Man City, while Joao Mario performed well at West Ham.
Argentina only just qualified and Jorge Sampaoli knows how to get a side firing but this side can be dysfunctional. It’s that thought that stops me from going anywhere near them despite the quality they do possess.
The three goalkeepers named in the 23-man squad share nine caps between them despite them all being 32+.
The two likely starters in the CB position are rash in Nicholas Otamendi and Federico Fazio, so defensively they could be exposed and if someone highlights that early on they could come tumbling down.
That said, magic from Lionel Messi wouldn’t surprise anyone while he has the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala and Angel Di Maria to support him.
Ever Banega has a big role to play in the middle of the park but Sporting Lisbon’s Marcos Acuña could play a pivotal role with his work ethic.
Uruguay have a fine balance in their squad and I’m like many, they could surprise a few here.
Semi-Finalists back in 2010, the South American nation were the closest pursuers of Brazil in qualifying and they finished as second top scorers with Edison Cavani bagged ten – the only player in that region to reach double figures.
They have potentially the easiest group to negotiate and then Portugal the most likely in the Round Of 16 wouldn’t be the worst of ties for them to progress from.
Oscar Tabarez’s side have an excellent spine to this team with Fernando Muslera in goal, Diego Godin in the centre of defence leading from the back then in front of the back, you’ve got the steel of Juventus’ Rodrigo Bentacur.
At lofty odds, then Uruguay could be the ones to spring something of a surprise but I fancy Spain to replicate their performances of 2010 and go all the way.
Spain to Win the World Cup (6/1)
Offers: Sky Bet are going money back as a free bet if your team gets knocked out.
William Hill goes bet £10, get a free £5 bet every time they win a match.
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