Finland v France, Friday, 19.30, Group I
FIFA’s Dubious World Rankings: 15
World Cup Appearances: 15
Last appearance: South Africa 2010
Best performance: Winners 1998
A disgrace at South Africa 2010, a big disappointment at Euro 2012 so if France are average on the Road to Rio it will be an improvement. Laurent Blanc bid au revoir to Les Blues and now fellow World Cup winner Dider Deschamps takes over in the dug-out.
France are odds-on at 1/2 with Finland at 11/2 and the draw priced at 14/5 in Paddy Power’s online betting.
The two side’s last met in a World Cup qualifier group in 1992/93 where France ran out 2-0 winners away and 2-1 winners at home. (1998? 6 wins in 6??
It’s 11/2 and 7/1 respectively for history to repeat itself in Paddy Power’s online betting.
No wins and no goals in their last three games France quickly need to get back to the form that saw them go 23 games unbeaten under Blanc before the Euro 2012 test took them down a peg.
Normally, Finnish journeymen shouldn’t cause top Premier League’s players like Newcastle United’s Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Manchester City’s Nasri with too many problems. But Deschamps needs to stamp his authority on the more egocentric French crew quickly.
Odds to win Group I:9/4
With Spain in the five-team group France’s chance hinges on their home and away games against the reigning double European and World Cup winners.
Bulgaria v Italy, Friday, 19.45, Group B
FIFA’s Dubious World Ranking: 6
World Cup Appearances: 17
Last appearance: 2010
Best performance: Winners 2006, 1982, 1934, 1938
Mario Balotelli’s eye surgery rules him out of the Azzuri’s first competitive clash since they surprised us all – and probably themselves – by reaching the Euro 2012 final before Spain put a halt to their gallop.
This was a big performance by Italy with Super Mario’s goals putting the icing on the cake to their usual blend of controlled possession and solid defending.
AC Milan’s new striker Giampaolo Pazzini has been drafted into the squad after scoring a hat-trick against Bologne on his debut last Saturday.
Cesare Prandelli’s side are in transition and Balotelli’s loss will be felt for a side that, while unbeaten in their last 10 away qualifying games, don’t generally score more than one goal on their travels and may look to Andrea Pirlo’s dead-ball skills to nick one before shutting up shop.
Bulgaria held Italy to a 0-0 draw at home in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 but will find it hard to replace the retired Dimitar Berbatov and Stiliyan Petrov who’s undergoing treatment for leukemia.
Have won friendlies against the Netherlands (2-1) and last month against Cyprus (1-0) but mightn’t have enough penetration to punish the Italians.
Italy’s odds of qualifying from Group : 4/9 to win Group B and 1/10 to be on the road to Rio.
Should advance comfortably but they”ll need Mario to regain his sight and come up with some goals.
Montenegro v Poland, Live PPTV, 19.30, Group H
FIFA’s Dubious World Ranking: 56
World Cup Appearances: 7
Last appearance: 2006.
Best performance: Finished third in 1974 & ’82.
What promised so much for the Poles was ended at the Group stages of Euro 2012 as the hosts participation ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
A couple of 1-1 draws with Greece and Russia and a 1-0 loss to the Czech Republic ended their tournament relatively early and the hangover lingers with a 1-0 loss to Estonia in a friendly last month.
Montenegro suffered similar losses to the Czech Republic in European Championship qualifying (2,0 away and 1,0 at home) and have contented themselves with two friendly wins at home (2-1 v Iceland, 2-0 v Latvia) and a commendable 2-2 draw away to Belgium this year.
There’s no history to go on as this is their first meeting in a World Cup qualifier as Montenegro are the world’s youngest international side established in 2006 after the split from Serbia. They finished fifth in their World Cup 2010 group.
Poland’s odds of qualifying from Group H: 6/1
A handy draw for England has them red-hot favourites but Poland are well capable of finishing second and getting to the play-off places .