International friendlies frustrate more than they satisfy, but in a World Cup year they take on great importance for those coaches hoping to make an impression in Russia this summer. They also provide a final chance for fringe players to force their way into the reckoning for the main event.
Undoubtedly, there will be players, perhaps still under the radar, that are likely to become hot property after the FIFA-hosted finals. Given the scope of its Goalscorer Pricing & Settlement feed (GPS), Abelson Odds, are well positioned to identity some of the lesser known, or forgotten, talents that will be on show this summer.
We spoke to the Head of Compilation at Abelson Info, Jeevan Jeyaratnam who gave us his insight on who the standout stars could be at this Summer’s much anticipated World Cup.
SBC: Could you reveal some of the lesser known players who could announce themselves to the footballing world at this Summer’s World Cup?
Jeevan Jeyaratnam: Poland’s Piotr Zielinski isn’t yet a guaranteed starter for Serie A contenders, Napoli but he is already a mainstay in a Polish midfield hoping to build on an excellent Euro 2016. Zielinski can operate behind Lewandowski in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, or as a right forward in the 3-4-3 formation trialled last week against Nigeria and South Korea. He will have just celebrated his 24th birthday in June and is primed to stamp his mark on the World stage.
Peru’s captain and record scorer Paolo Guerrero’s proposed one-year drug ban was reduced to six months in December, meaning he is eligible for selection in June’s showpiece. He has been Peru’s most important player for years, but arguably that has changed in his absence. Jefferson Farfan’s star looked to be dwindling when he moved to Al-Jaizira in 2015, but a move to Lokomotiv Moscow in January 2017 has coincided with some of the best form of his career. He will be vital for a Peru team that snuck through the CONMEBOL qualification, and into a play-off with New Zealand, amid accusations of match-fixing.
The Argentinian’s talent-laden conveyor belt shows no sign of slowing down, Lautaro Martinez is the latest European-bound sensation. Joint-top scorer in the 2017 South American Youth Football Championship, striker Martinez received a first senior call in last month’s internationals, making his debut, from the bench, in the 6-1 thrashing suffered at the hands of Spain. Inter Milan are rumoured to have fought off Borussia Dortmund to the 20-year-old’s signature, a move expected to complete in the summer.
PSV and Mexico’s Hirving Lozano is primed for a move to a major European league after a sensational season in Holland. The left or right sided forward has netted 14 in 24 starts for PSV this season. With seven assists and two red cards added to the mix, he is a very exciting 22-year-old. Scorer of two goals against Belgium last month, he has surely done enough to ensure Javier Aquino is usurped from the left-forward spot this summer.
Morocco have a number of Dutch-based talents at their disposal, experienced Karim El Ahmadi, youngsters, Sofyan Amrabat (both Feyenoord), Zakaria Labyad (Utrecht), Mimoun Mahi (Groningen) and Yassin Ayoub (Utrecht, joining Feyenoord in June), but it is midfield playmaker, Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) that excites the most. At 25-years-old, he is yet to reach his prime, and a good World Cup will surely see him move to a bigger club. With 12 assists and eight goals, in 28 appearances for Ajax this term he will be a key component of Morocco’s World Cup bid, providing the bullets for highly regarded striker Ayoub El Kaabi.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has excelled after a transfer from Genk to Lazio in 2015. A centre-midfielder with an eye for goal, he is set to become a long-lasting midfield lynchpin for Serbia. The tall 23-year-old is dominant in the air and will form a key part of a tough Serbian midfield.
SBC: When it comes to the golden boot are there any unlikely candidates you think could be in the running?
JJ: A word of caution, the World Cup Golden Boot is adjudicated differently to many of the bookmakers World Cup Top Scorer markets. The FIFA Golden Boot uses a count-back method, including assists, and then minutes played, to absolve tie-breaks.
Operators will be hoping that cash-out provides this market with an extra dimension this time, with profits possible for punters with wagers on players who have a good start to the tournament.
Oleg Salenko, at USA 1994, is the only winner (joint in this case, it was the catalyst to include tie-breaker count-backs) of the award to have exited the tournament at the group stage. Realistically, and it sounds obvious, you need a player who is fancied to make at least the round of 16. Six goals are generally required to put you in with a chance.
This all makes finding unlikely winners tough, though James Rodriguez won the accolade, at a best price 300/1, in 2014 for a Colombian side that ‘only’ went as far as the quarter-finals.
As for players at big prices that might provide some interest; Isco (Spain) is still available at 66/1, each-way. He has been in sensational form for the national team, with seven goals in his last eight appearances, he tends to play left-forward for Spain but more centrally and with more defensive responsibility for Real Madrid.
The aforementioned Hirving Lozano (Mexico, 200/1) is another worthy of consideration. Mexico look to have a great chance to qualify from a group featuring Germany, Sweden and South Korea. Lozano was the top Mexican scorer in qualifying.
The well-known Aleksandr Mitrovic (Serbia 200/1) is the first-choice front-man for a Serbian side with a better than fair chance of beating Switzerland to the second qualifying berth, behind Brazil, in Group E. A loan move to Fulham has reinvigorated him, form carried over to the latest set of international friendlies, where he scored a brace against Nigeria. He has 13 goals in 35 appearances for his national team.
As always, it is best to search around for the best prices but do be aware of differing each-way terms. Mitrovic is available, win-only, at 500/1, for example.
SBC: With the tournament being played in Russia, are there any Eastern European players that could become stars at this World Cup?
JJ: Russia may well feel they have another Oleg Salenko on their hands. Salenko scored six times for the Russians in USA ’94, although that did include five against Cameroon in a 6-1 rout. He never scored another international goal, though hopes for Fedor Smolov are much higher. A transfer to West Ham in January looked likely but failed to materialise. FK Krasnodar’s target man is a prolific goalscorer, even in a league averaging just 2.13 goals per game, last season. Smolov has racked up 50 goals in just 68 appearances for Krasnodar. He has 12 in 30 games for the national team and is the undisputed number one choice. You might wonder why I haven’t selected him as a bet in top scorer market, the reason is that I really don’t fancy Russia to qualify from their group and given that scenario, he should be bigger than 100/1. If Russia are to advance they will need Smolov firing, much of that will depend on the quality of service he receives.
Of the other Russian players worthy of consideration, Aleksandr Golovin is the young star. This World Cup might come a little soon for this 21-year-old to fully embrace his talent but he is very highly regarded.
Alan Dzagoev has long been considered the most talented Russian footballer of his generation but he is injury prone and tends to play a deeper role than he did in his youth.
SBC: Who are some of the lesser known defensive players who can make a name for themselves at this World Cup?
JJ: The plethora of player-based data available to operators this summer will mean that it shouldn’t be just the goalscorers that attract the attention of the punter. With markets based on pass completion, tackles and headers won, all possible, there is scope for defensive-minded players to come for the fore.
Of the lesser-known ones, Thomas Delaney (Denmark) has established himself at Werder Bremen after a switch from Copenhagen in January 2017. He is tough tacking ball-winner with an eye for goal.
Tomoaki Makino is a mainstay of the Japanese defence. At 30, he is no longer considered an emerging talent, but after helping Urawa Red Diamonds to victory in the Asian Champions League he is considered vital to Japanese hopes in Russia. With four goals in his 30 international caps, he is a centre-back with an attacking instinct.
Wilmar Barrios isn’t a guaranteed starter for Colombia, but perhaps he should be. The defensive midfielder has recorded a pass success of 84% for Boca Juniors this season. He moves around the pitch well and at 24-years-old, looks to have a bright future.