I’d dearly prefer to see Messi line up against Brazil in a potential semi-final than Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay, but how likely is that? Well. the bookies reckon 8/13 on Argentina to advance and 5/4 on Holland.
The tallest people in the world who live on the flattest land pitted against the fiery home of the tango.
The fixture is one of the more storied cross-continental clashes at World Cups, with the 1978 tickertape final, when Total Football was overcome for a second final in a row, the standout clash.
The game is also a rematch of their 2014 semi, which finished scoreless and saw the South American side advance to the final on penalties. Still, the Dutch have not lost a game to non-European opponents at a World Cup since defeat to Brazil back in 1994, a run of 19 straight matches. They are also on a 19-match unbeaten run across all competitions dating back to their defeat to the Czechs in the Euro 2020 round of 16.
England-France is a derby game, no doubt about that. I don’t think it is a secret that English people generally look at the French with the sort of disdain that ourselves and our Celtic cousins gaze at the English. It’s not really right to do so, and not everyone does, but enough do to make it a thing.
The game could be labelled as the best player versus the best squad. England have been ploddng along nicely, clinical more than flamboyant. They looked ordinary in the first half against Senegal but ended it 2-0 up.
Without Mbappe, would we be talking about France as contenders? Will he run Kyle Walker and co. dizzy tomorrow evening? It’s a distinct possibility. He will also lock horns with Declan Rice for the first time since the two played on opposing sides in Paris, when the West Ham man wore green. Such has been the imperious play of Jude Bellingham in the middle, you could argue England could have managed without Rice and Grealish and left them to us.
The Dortmund star’s tussle with Rabiot and Griezmann in the centre of the pitch is crucial. He’ll also have to engage in a battle with 22-year-old Aurélien Tchouamáni, who plays deeper and will be tasked with tracking Bellingham’s forward surges.
A game to savour. France are 4/5 to go through; England evens (and 2/1 to win in 90 minutes, something they have not done in a competitive match against France since the 1982 World Cup.)
SOUTH African clubs add their considerable heft to the now oddly named European Champions Cup this week-end.
Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria are added to the list of venues with the introduction of the African contingent from the URC: winners the Stormers, finalists the Bulls and the Sharks embark on a maiden journey in the competition.
The format is the same convoluted one as last season with tiers in pools again, like a child learning to swim. The traditional six-groups-of-four format remains binned and instead 24 teams will again be split into two pools based on seeding and paired up with two teams to face home and away.
This unwieldy format was meant to be a temporary arrangement during Covid, but is now in its third season.
Munster welcome second favourites Toulouse (13/2 to win the title outright) to Thomond this Sunday and travel to Northampton the week after (the fixtures are reversed in January).
Next year’s final will be in Dublin and Leinster are well out ahead in the market to join the storied French club on five titles. They are 9/4 to win the trophy in front of a home crowd next May. Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, who as underdogs defeated Leinster in the decider last year, are 7/1 to retain their title. English champions Leicester are 14-1, the Stormers 28-1 and reigning French champions Montpellier 33-1. France boast the last two Champions Cup winners and six of the last eight semi-finalists, yet still remain suspected of treating the tournament as a secondary priority. Munster are rated as 25/1 shots.
The Reds are 7/5 to beat the side from the Garonne region this weekend (the game is live on RTÉ 2), while the French Top 14 leaders (led by wonderful scrum-half Antoine Dupont) are 5/6 favourites to leave with the points. They have made the last four in the past four seasons, including lifting the trophy in 2021. It should be a close tie and Munster to win by 1-5 points is 9/2. Toulouse to win by 6-10 seems more likely at 11/2.
Elsewhere, Eddie Jones has been sacked by England with less than a year to go to the World Cup. Despite having the best win record in the country’s history (and best win rate [90%] of any coach at World Cups) and guiding them to a World Cup final and three Six Nations titles, the Aussie was told to pack his bags after a poor year.
O’Gara had been mentioned as a successor, but has ruled himself out and for now Richard Cockerill has been appointed caretaker and is 3/1 to take over full time. Ahead of him at 2/1 is former England captain Steve Borthwick, who worked with Jones for five years in the England set-up as forwards coach.
Having taken charge of the Leicester Tigers in 2020, Borthwick has overseen a turnaround at that club, transforming them from English Premierships strugglers to pace-setters.
Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland are rated as outsiders for the job.
BRAZIL are surely a lock. Morocco might trouble Portugal if Ronaldo keeps stirring things up. Or his behaviour might galvanise the starting 11 again.
I’ll go for a four-timer of naming the semi-finalists. Go for three favourites and the auld enemy: Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and England at 6/1.