I was able to manage a winning record in 2018 World Cup picks and futures, but it was not a result of great experience handicapping FIFA. In fact, I would argue the opposite – my successful World Cup predictions happened when I happened to care the least about each side’s depth chart and tendencies.
When I tried to delve deeply into the Three Lions’ psyche and the cocky attitude of Belgium headed into the 3rd-place match, my projections were horrible. I could not have been more wrong. But macro-analysis brought fantastic results. I went 4-of-4 in the final between France and Croatia, including proposition bets and the O/U.
My pre-fixture breakdown could have been summed up in a breath: “Croatia has just beaten a moderately-paced team and hasn’t seen anyone like Kylian Mbappe or the other French forwards; Croatia is likely to give up a goal or 2 early, then get used to the tempo and fight back.”
That worked fine for the moneyline, spread, the “over” and a prop on France leading early. And my elementary-school handicap for the final was money, compared to the sad failure of trying to psycho-analyze Eden Hazard’s squints and Harry Kane’s smiles.
There’s something to be said for the raw approach. Let’s take a soccer-betting-for-blokes tack toward the much-awaited England-Croatia grudge match on Friday afternoon, starting with an overview of the tournament and the odds.
The layout of the Nations League is complex. UEFA has chosen the 4 “Leagues” (labeled A through D) with the idea of promoting friendlies across geographical lines, and between nations of similar strength.
England and Croatia are in Group 4 of League A, competing with Spain for a spot in the Nations League Finals. Spain scored a vital 2-1 comeback win over a strong Three Lions lineup to lead off Group 4 play, then gunned-down Croatia with an astounding 6-goal explosion and a clean sheet.
Obviously, the World Cup silver medalists and their Russia 2018 foil must each hope to win the upcoming match, then defeat Spain in the rematch. To lose – or even to draw – would be distressing for any 0-point team after 1 round of such a short round-robin.
The goal spread is a pick’em with a tiny edge to Croatia at (-112). Croatia is at (+164) in the moneyline while Three Lions are at (+172).
Players will almost never abuse their bodies in a friendly. But they will try very hard to win, especially when something is on the line. The key component of the Nations League that could set it apart is that multi-millionaire performers are exuberant about taking part.
There’s a little juggling going on in advance of the England-Croatia match. For instance, James Tarkowski is injured for the Lions so the Queen has called upon the brilliant Lewis Dunk of Brighton to reinforce the backline. But make no mistake. These are no “reserve” friendlies, and this is not a friendly match.
Friday’s match will be played at Stadion Rujevica in Croatia, supposedly giving the Blazers a nominal home-pitch advantage. But there will not be any supporters there. The match being played behind closed doors, thanks to an ugly Neo-Nazi incident at the venue that brought forth punishments from international football officials just as the Croatia National Team was peaking on the world’s stage.
Not to turn a hate-crime scenario into a sporting handicap, but thanks to the controversy, Croatia will have to play in its own backyard with no real advantage to speak of. In fact, both sides could face a drawback with the lack of supporters’ chants and yells revving them up. The athletes are all human beings. When is the last time such a significant match occurred with nobody cheering at all?
When there is a lot on the line and only the benches for fanfare, the mindset and participation of each sideline becomes critical. Who will be the first to rouse his teammates?
Jordan Pickford will be there in goal – largely responsible for the paltry O/U total. The pillars of English backline play are mostly in place, with names like John Stones, Kyle Walker, and Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool. Kane is, of course, up front with vengeance on his mind. Raheem Sterling of Manchester City is also a World Cup hero.
Meanwhile, Croatia must pick up the pieces after a dreadful outing against Spain. Lovre Kalinić scored an own-goal against himself to make it 3-0 Spain late in the 1st half, but Ñíguez and Asensio had already tallied by then:
The Blazers must relight the fire of their offense from the FIFA tournament. Ivan Santini was the 4-2-3-1 striker in the Spain match, and he’s got 8 goals in 9 club apps so far…but nothing in 2 Europe League matches. Mateo Kovačić could get a few opportunities if the Croatians can effectively defend the methodical Lions and then play out from the back.
Croatia beat England in a recent, fateful match in Russia. But the Blazers are looking pretty bad in the UEFA Nations League so far, and that is a more significant trend line to go on. A slightly-thinned talent pool and injury issues for both sides will help England, not Croatia, as the UK team is stacked with Premier League talent and has more where it came from.
Finally, a lack of head-banging (both sides want to win badly, but they are all in-midst of pricey club contracts) would not benefit the Three Lions against Brazil, Mexico, or Argentina. But it will help them this time. Croatia needs a physical match and a thunderous crowd to beat elite football nations.
Take the England National Team on the moneyline (+172).
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.