Predicting what is going to happen at a World Cup is a little like trying to win MILLIONS Main Event. Get it right and you'll be adored and respected in equal measure. Get it wrong, and you'll always have another chance to win next time. Except for me, and World Cup predictions, it doesn't happen every few weeks on the partypoker LIVE tour. It's a four-year wait between World Cups. This has been a long time coming.
Back in 2014, I was a live poker reporter, working at poker tournaments all over the world. Doing so actually gave me an added appreciation of football as a pastime. Go virtually anywhere in the world and there is a common language that bonds so many - football. More people will watch the 2018 World Cup than watched the Olympics in 2016. Plenty of those viewers love to have a flutter.
Four years ago, inspired by conversations with poker players, many of whom who love to bet on football, I took a look at some of the value on offer and plumped for James Rodriguez to be top scorer and win the Golden Boot at 150/1, pre-tournament. I figured that with Radamel Falcao injured, virtually every goal Colombia might score would likely go through a player on the cusp of greatness. It happened and Rodriguez signed for Real Madrid that summer. Since then, he's only made 99 club appearances, first for Los Blancos, and then for Bayern Munich. He's now 26 and still averages one in three for club and country. But that summer was his hour in the sun.
Since 2014, and especially in the run-up to this year's World Cup I've been asked to pluck another 150/1 out of the air. That's what happens when you strike it lucky in the way I did. But picking a winner in this year's World Cup and especially in the area of who will take the Golden Boot is infinitely more difficult. Football itself has changed in the four years since 'James' (pronounced Ha-mezzzzz via my Twitter feed of the last World Cup final) smashed in that spectacular volley against Uruguay.
Watching that goal back, it wasn't just a deserving winner of the Puskas Award given to the best goal of the World Cup, it was a perfect moment, both in terms of the player, team and tournament itself. The ball is in the air for almost the entire build-up, from desperate defensive clearance to the soft, inviting cushion into Rodriguez' path. The shot itself is the perfect expression of South American flair. It's a shot that most footballers wouldn't even attempt, let alone execute with the kind of expectant air that would suit a playground show off that everyone still somehow adores.
I want to start by saying that James Rodriguez, as big a fan of him as I am, and as crucial as he still is to Colombia, won't win the Golden Boot again. He had his time taking that prize and it will go to someone new. Falcao is back and Colombia share goals more these days.
I predict that there will be a first-time winner of both the World Cup and the Golden Boot.
Who Will Win the World Cup?
Don’t Back the Favourites... For Now
If you love football, then by now your social media advertising will have been flooded with 'experts' proclaiming which favourite is going to win. But none of the four favourites - Brazil, Germany, France and Spain - offer any kind of value at their opening prices. Each of them should prevail in their groups - although a managerless Spain team will need to watch out for Portugal, Morocco and Iran who’ll smell blood - but which position they finish in could be important.
Combine potentially facing each other early if they don’t win their group with the simple fact that they’ll probably need to win six or seven games to lift the trophy make odds of between 4/1 to 7/1 unattractive for such a proposition from the kick-off. You’d get better odds if they got to the final and went a goal down to the team who will win the World Cup, which we’ll tell you later.
If there’s a team from the middle order of countries who have decent reputations yet have flattered to deceive for decades, it’s England. From the faded lustre of the self-titled Golden Generation, who were largely managed by foreign managers with big reputations such as Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Eriksson, we now find England a developing football nation. The biggest domestic league in world football has a few of the Premier League’s superstars in it too, with the Spurs spine of Dier, Alli and Kane likely to provide English fans with plenty to cheer. The defence is perhaps the area where England will suffer in this tournament, with an untried goalkeeper at tournament level just one risk. Gary Cahill can be exposed by pace, and both John Stones and Kyle Walker could be exposed by counter-attacking football.
Argentina suffered during a tumultuous qualifying campaign that saw Lionel Messi quit after the Copa America preceding it, then come out of retirement to salvage Argentinian hopes by scoring a hat-trick in the final round of qualification. I'm not convinced Argentina have the team around Messi to deliver and their mercurial number 10 missed a golden chance to make the 2014 final his own. It's not going to happen.
Of the other middle-ranked teams, Belgium have made a serious error in appointing the only manager weaker than former coach Marc Wilmots at defensive organisation in Roberto Martinez. While they have flair, substance and a cutting edge playmaker in Kevin de Bruyne, they had all that when they capitulated against Wales two years ago, and I've seen no reason to think that won't happen under Martinez. Belgium are, however, crucial to figuring out a path for our winners.
An Outsider Triumphs
The last five winners of the World Cup have been (in reverse order): Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil and France. It’s been a familiar story of a major player in World football coming to its peak level of performance at just the right time. Germany triumphed in Brazil last time, of course, becoming the first team from Europe to win in South America. I think there might be a similarity in how the most beautiful trophy in all sport is won come July 15th. When looking at outside bets, it's essential to plot a path to victory. If the bigger sides are to fail, who would step into the gap? Portugal are many people's so-called dark horses for victory in Russia - although they're not so dark given they won the 2016 European Championships - but Ronaldo has aged to a little past his phenomenal best, while other players don't appear to have his ability to conjur a win from losing positions.
Croatia will delight with their football given their central midfield axis of Rakitic and Modric are the key cogs in the midfield of both Barcelona and Real Madrid. But I'm not convinced they'll quite score enough goals. They also share a group with a powerful if not perfect Argentina, the chaos theory of Iceland and a stubborn Nigeria side.
Of the other challengers, I like both Denmark (100/1) and Colombia, but of the two teams, I'd say Colombia have the best chance. Their group of Poland, Senegal and Japan looks like one ot build confidence in. Should they win that group and avoid England, then Belgium can be exposed in defence. After that, they may have to beat both Germany and Brazil, but stranger things have happened. Both qualifying games against Brazil were very close, and Colombia will want revenge for an unfortunate defeat in the knockout stage to Brazil in 2014. Germany would provide very tough opposition for anyone, but a roaming James Rodriguez (who plays in the Bundesliga) with a very strong midfield supporting him and Radamel Falcao back in form from his country scoring goals, I believe the South American side we can all root for is Colombia to win the World Cup.
Who’ll win the Golden Boot?
Avoid R ‘n’ M
Ronaldo and Messi have many different skills, and regularly perform a dizzying variety of top-notch football tricks the like of which other professionals probably dream of mastering. Yet the two men who have dominated countless column inches on the subject of who is the world’s best footballer for the last decade share one inescapable fact: with both men now past 30, neither of them have lifted the World Cup.
Ronaldo will likely never get closer to lifting the World Cup than Portugal's last four defeat to France in Germany in 2006, while Lionel Messi had - as we've covered - an even more agonising near-miss in the last World Cup Final. In Barcelona's famous 'MSN', the N stood for what it does in my R 'n' M, Neymar Junior. A prodigious talent, Brazilian hero and even sometime poker player, it's hard not to root for the man with the Mohican/mullet (delete as applicable on your World Cup bingo cards). Yet Brazil have so many goalscorers in their team that to plump for one seems folly. Firmino is devastating at his best and could no-look his way to a hat-trick in the group stages. Philippe Coutinho is in the form of his life at exactly the right time and could be incredible. Yet a single goalscorer to stand out way past the other scorers in his team - and that's what's need to win the Golden Boot - seems unlikely to me. I've picked three players to root for, with varying degrees of risk and reward.
Kane the Blocker Bet
Even accepting that England have underwhelmed at previous World Cups, Harry Kane should start every game as captain, and bag at least two or three goals in the group stage. England face Tunisia first, before playing Panama and rounding off their group against Belgium. In the first knockout round, I believe they'll play Senegal, but even if it's Poland or Colombia, I believe they could score plenty. Plus, let's factor in the defensive element. I would have liked Antoine Griezmann for the Golden Boot, and am resisting him at 16/1 despite signs pointing to him having a great tournament. That is, in part, because France may not need to score a lot of goals, with a pretty watertight defence (against teams other than soon-to-be World Cup winners Colombia, who destroyed them 3-2 having been 2-0 down recently), can hold out for wins.
England's back four/five/six/who's counting will likely concede enough to make goals at the other end of the pitch vital to the chances of Southgate's men. Add in the way Spurs go looking to help Harry score the Golden Boot in the Premier League each season, and with Dele Alli and Eric Dier in midfield, it's not hard to imagine them doing the same thing with the World Cup Golden Boot on the line. Harry Kane is 16/1 and must be backed before taking to the field against Tunisia.
The Midfield Runner
I'm genuinely nervous about tipping this next player, because I may very well end up looking like an idiot. Also, the team he plays for may not be good enough to traverse the group stages successfully. But having bagged a hat-trick when on the counter-attack against a team similar in standard to one of his team's opponents, I'm saying it. Christian Eriksen can win the Golden Boot. In winning the second leg of their play-off 5-1 in Ireland, Denmark showed that while they may not be world-beaters, they can really put a team to the sword who are chasing the game. Denmark's second opponents in a group featuring France, Peru and Australia are those luckless Aussies. Having probably lost their opening game to one of the pre-tournament favourites in France, Australia are going to need a victory in their second game to get back in the race for the knockout phase. Chasing that against a Danish side who picked Ireland off with ease could give Eriksen, the midfield runner in their team, massive potential for scoring a lot of goals. He is an astonishing 80/1 and should be taken on that basis.
The Invisible Hero
It surprises even me that just four years on from a Liverpool side managed by Brendan Rodgers and reading: Mignolet, Manquillo, Touré, Skrtel, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Allen, Lallana, Borini and Markovic, I could be saying that one of their strikers will win the Golden Boot. I do not support Liverpool. In fact, I am a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the team they hate the most. But I am, as you all should be, a huge fan of their star striker. No, not Mohammed Salah, nor the Brazilian Firmino.
Sadio Mane can win the Golden Boot. Having been the key man for much of Liverpool's recent success, he knits the team together in a way no-one else does. When Salah went off in the Champions League final, it was Mane wh rescued them to an equaliser, even if Liverpool were Baled out of contention as the second half wore on. Sadio Mane has scored a hat-trick in 2 minutes and 56 seconds in the Premier League. Sadio Mane will be playing against Japan in his second game, so with his opponents - like Australia - likely to be chasing the game, he can provide you with moments of magic on his way to becoming the Golden Boot Winner.
Those are my picks for success in Russia. Colombia will win the World Cup and Sadio Mane will be top scorer. If you want to protect those bets, then back your chosen favourite once they go a goal down in the final and tell people you had them from June 14th, they won't know any better. If you want to ensure a Golden Boot sweat, back the imperious Spurs pair of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen. But above all, only bet if it adds to your enjoyment of the game and make sure that you gamble responsibly.
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- RAMESH ARYA