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A readjust is required for football fans just weeks into the domestic season, as World Cup qualifiers rear their heads. This comes just as the smash and grab of transfer deadline day is completed. The market has gone mad; just ask Roy Keane, who this week said Ryan Giggs would be worth £2 billion in today’s overpriced, bizarre market. Away from the frantic focus on fresh faces in club football, the serious business of keeping on the road to Russia is key for players involved at the highest level this weekend.
England to make the most of Malta
England’s place at next year’s finals is almost assured. Top of Group F by two points, Gareth Southgate’s team are 1/16 to win their section and will almost certainly pick up another victory as they take on Malta in Valletta on Friday. The Three Lions are 1/40 to win on the Mediterranean island, with the hosts 40/1 to win, and the draw 13/1. As always with short-priced favourites, the best bet is to look at the handicap market. England have won all four meetings between the two nations, but only once overcame a handicap of more than two goals. Pietro Ghedin’s team have made good of a two and a half goal start in each of their last seven fixtures and 21 of their last 22. At 13/10, they should be able to do so again against an England side who will win, but might make hard work of it.
Baltic blast to tear down tartan
Scotland’s chance of qualifying for a World Cup finals for the first time since 1998 appear as slim as a ‘Yes’ vote in any independence referendum in the next four years. Gordon Strachan’s team are quoted at 200/1 to win Group F and 4/1 to finish in the top two, while it’s 3/5 that Scotland say ‘No’ to breaking away from the UK any time before the end of 2021.
Lithuania will welcome the Tartan Army on Friday, with the visitors 4/5 favourites. The Baltic state have lost only one of their last four home fixtures and held Scotland to a draw at Hampden Park last October. Scotland could struggle to break down a side that rarely show any ambition. I’ll be backing 0-0 at half time at 8/5 – Lithuania haven’t scored in the first half in any of their last six games.
No alternative Ulster
San Marino have never won a competitive international. They have only taken a point off an opponent three times in qualifying fixtures in their history, lastly in 2014 when they held Estonia to a 0-0 draw. They cannot possibly beat Northern Ireland on Friday, and will be lucky ‘to get nil’ – as Len Shackleton said after Newcastle’s 13-0 hammering of Newport in 1946. Michael O’Neill’s team are on target for a play-off place in Group C (16/1 to claim top spot and 33/100 for a top two finish) and can keep up the gallop with a comfortable success in Serravalle. 3-0 (17/4) and 4-0 (11/2) are my preferred correct score options.
Continental cream in crucial clash
Only goal difference separates Spain and Italy at the top of Group G, with both footballing superpowers desperate to finish as section winners to avoid a play-off. Julen Lopetegui’s team are 7/20 to qualify for the finals as of right, with Gian Piero Ventura’s men trading at 2/1. The pair drew 1-1 in the reverse fixture last October, in Turin, and another draw in Madrid – at 23/10 – looks a sound call. Elsewhere, Austria are 43/20 to snatch a point against a Wales side who are struggling to repeat their Euro 2016 finals form.