All eyes will be on Moscow on Thursday as the 2018 World Cup finally gets underway. Mark O'Haire analyses the Outright Winner market ahead of the big kick-off...
"The collusion course with Germany is the major obstacle to overcome but at the prices, the Iberians appear the best value option to take."
All eyes will be on Moscow on July 15 as the 2018 World Cup build-up reaches a crescendo. While all 32 nations will have aspirations of a glorious midsummer night's dream, only a select few will have realistic claims in taking top honours.
With 20 previous tournaments producing only eight different victors, the World Cup isn't too far shy of a closed shop. The 2010 World Cup final is the only final not to feature at least one of Brazil, Germany, Argentina or Italy, while the average price of a World Cup winner since 1986 is just 6/1, suggesting it's hard to look beyond the top four in the market. So that's where we'll start.
The leading contenders...
Brazil have been a popular selection with punters over the past 18 months and were backed into favouritism early this year. It's easy to see why, with head coach Tite revitalising and rebuilding the Selecao after a disastrous two-year spell in the aftermath of their horrendous 2014 exit.
The Samba Boys strolled through CONMEBOL qualification and head to Russia in fine fettle. Crucially, star man Neymar appears to have fully recovered from injury to take his place amongst a frighteningly good front three.
However, Dani Alves' absence is a blow. An outstanding attacking full-back, the veteran is also a key player in the dressing room and doubts are beginning to surface over their defensive ability.
Brazil are the only non-European side to claim outright glory on this continent across 10 previous tournaments - that came way back in 1958 - and the current crop have a potentially tricky path to the final, suggesting they might not be capable of justifying their position at the peak of the market.
Bettors' interest in Germany has cooled in 2018 with Joachim Low's men winless in five friendlies before arriving in Russia. However, few should seriously wish to oppose Die Mannschaft with the defending champions boasting a quite phenomenal record at major tournaments.
Germany have reached at least the semi-finals in all bar five of their previous 18 outings at the World Cup and contested the competition's showpiece final in half of the past 12 renewals. The four-time winners are the very definition of a tournament team.
As the saying goes in Deutschland, 'A bad Germany goes to the World Cup final, a good one wins it' and there are few faults in the 2018 vintage. A plethora of young, burgeoning talent is in-twinned with experience and know-how, while few teams can match the temperament of Die Mannschaft, marking them out as major contenders to retain their crown.
Spain are attempting to rediscover their mojo after two poor tournaments and La Roja's outright price appeals. A devilishly difficult group-stage draw has pushed Julen Lopetegui's troops out in the market and a seismic semi-final contest with Germany is forecast according to the odds.
Seven of their proposed all-star XI hail from Barcelona and Real Madrid and crucially, the squad now has options and versatility in forward areas. Lopetegui has also returned to Spain's blueprint for mesmeric short-passing game and implemented a relentless and suffocating pressing style out of possession.
La Roja are unbeaten since their Last 16 exit against Italy at Euro 2016 and the energy, confidence and motivation has been restored. The collusion course with Germany is the major obstacle to overcome but at the prices, the Iberians appear the best value option to take.
France pitch up with arguably their greatest generation of talent since their 1998 triumph on home soil. Les Blues are packed with potential but could this competition have come four years too soon for some? Possibly.
Eleven of Didier Deschamps' squad have won fewer than 12 international caps and the side does appear to lack leadership in key areas. Qualification was unimpressive and there's also a valid argument to suggest the boss isn't yet sure of his best XI from his glittering array of available riches.
A semi-final berth has been targeted and the final-four should be well within their capability. But whether France can bring their individual talent together to form a balanced, collective unit is up for debate.
The best of the rest...
It's difficult to know what to expect with Argentina. La Albiceleste could challenge for top honours, or bomb out in the group-stages, such is the turmoil the national team have found themselves in over the past 18 months.
Three coaches - all with their own different philosophies - has left a top-heavy squad lacking any sort of cohesion. There's a huge overreliance on Lionel Messi and famed high-pressing fanatic Jorge Sampaoli may need to curb his instinct to give this group a punchers chance of progressing deep.
Belgium struggled to excite four years ago despite their envious golden generation coming to the fore and under Roberto Martinez, the Red Devils have taken a different approach. Much more attack-minded, the Benelux boys will be hoping to utilise Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard wherever possible.
Even so, the two standout stars in a squad dripping in talent have rarely produced their best in Belgium colours and there are clear concerns over their wing-backs' ability, as well as captain Vincent Kompany's condition.
England are looking to the future with a fresh group of players without the baggage of yesteryear and there's growing optimism amongst patriotic punters. A kind draw gives Gareth Southgate's side a great opportunity to reach the knockout stages with the Three Lions favourites to progress to the last-eight.
However, the quarter-finals is likely to be England's glass ceiling with Brazil or Germany scheduled to be waiting in the wings. The new three centre-back system may work well against elite opposition but whether those players are comfortable in their new formation is up for debate.
European champions Portugal look vulnerable in their bid to progress from their Group B pool, let alone challenge for title honours. The Selecao won just one match in 90 minutes en-route to their triumph two years ago and many of those tournament-winning stars are lacking form and fitness.
Fernando Santos' dogged, safety-first football is suited to the knockout stage, and with Cristiano Ronaldo in tow, they shouldn't be completely discounted. But it's difficult to see a repeat in Russia should the Iberians apply a similar style.
As my B.B colleague Ben McAleer wrote, it's a surprise to see Uruguay chalked up at almost double the price of England. The South Americans boast world-class ability in both boxes and have been handed a dream draw to progress to the knockout stages.
Oscar Tabarez's troops face a daunting route to the final but few can match La Celeste's aggression and mentality in one-off matches and nobody will relish playing the two-time former winners this summer.
A long-shot with potential to trade...
Without a major top seed in their pool, wildcards Senegal could spring a surprise. The African outfit have made steady progress under 2002 skipper Aliou Cisse and have the talents of Sadio Mane to spearhead an exciting forwardline.
The midfield might be overstocked with muscle and lacking in invention but the Lions are build on firm foundations with Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly knitting together a capable backline. Should Cisse bring it all together, Senegal could surprise and won't fear a potential Last 16 showdown with England or Belgium.