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Argentina v Saudi Arabia
Argentina are unbeaten in 36 matches, just one shy of the international record set by Italy between 2018 and 2021, and it would represent a major shock if they can’t match that feat here. In fact, Lionel Scaloni’s side have conceded just two goals across their past 15 outings, which included clean sheets against Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay in World Cup qualification, as well as the Finalissima with Italy.
Saudi Arabia aren’t exactly blessed with firepower either. They’ve managed just eight goals of their own from 17 matches since November last year, as all 17 featured fewer than three goals in total, while 13 saw a maximum of one strike. Although adept at keeping games tight, there’s only so long this side can be expected to keep Argentina’s attack at bay.
This encounter should go along similar lines to Qatar’s opener with Ecuador, with the South Americans barely having to get out of second gear to earn the points. All six of Saudi Arabia’s defeats since 2021 have seen them fail to score, with five finishing 1-0 and the other 2-0.
Argentina are certainly capable of racking up bigger scorelines, with each of their last five games ending either 3-0 or 5-0, but it remains to be seen how much energy they’re willing to expend on Saudi Arabia with tougher tests to come. That leaves the win to nil a more attractive proposition than the handicap, as they may well knock the ball around at the back for large periods of the second half as Ecuador did against Qatar.
ARGENTINA TO WIN TO NIL
Denmark v Tunisia
Denmark are understandably favourites heading into their opener with Tunisia, having established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage in recent times. They made it as far as the semi-finals at the Euros, finished top of their qualifying group for the World Cup and beat France twice in the recent Nations League as they finished above Les Bleus.
Aside from a 3-0 friendly defeat to Slovakia in 2018 (where a reserve team was fielded owing to a dispute between the Danish FA and the players), as well as a defeat to Finland (where Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest), Denmark have only been beaten seven times in 69 matches over 90 minutes since November 2016. These were inflicted by Belgium (three times), Croatia (twice), the Netherlands and Scotland, with the latter winning what was a dead rubber game to the Danes having already secured first place in qualification.
With that in mind, it’s hard to envisage Tunisia coming away with an opening day win. They’ve only ever won two of 15 matches at World Cups, including a W1-D3-L8 record since 1998. Even that victory came over minnows Panama in Russia four years ago, while the only other side they’ve taken a point from since 2006 was Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia may boast eight clean sheets from nine appearances heading into the tournament, including shutouts against Chile and Japan, but the exception was a 5-1 drubbing in their last game at the hands of Brazil. They are however typically a low-scoring side with 11 of their last 15 games featuring under 2.5 goals, as five of their six games at the Africa Cup of Nations in January saw just the single strike. Denmark should subsequently have enough to see off Tunisia, but don’t expect them to play the Atlas Lions off the park.
DENMARK TO WIN AND UNDER 3.5 GOALS
Mexico v Poland
There’s no room for error in this encounter with these sides expected to battle for second spot behind Argentina, though Mexico can boast the bigger pedigree having reached the knockouts at every World Cup since 1994. Poland haven’t made it beyond the group stages during this period, and will need 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski to finally score a World Cup goal if they’re to stand a chance.
Both sides are stronger in attack than defence and so despite the potential for quite a cagey opening phase, both teams to score may well land here, with a goal for either team sure to open the game up. Poland kept just one clean sheet from six Nations League games, including a 6-1 defeat to Belgium. In fact, they can only boast five shutouts from 22 matches now, with both teams scoring on 15 occasions.
Meanwhile, the majority of Mexico’s clean sheets tend to come against the weaker CONCACAF teams, with their last seven shutouts achieved over Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Suriname, Peru and Iraq. Recent defeats in friendlies to Paraguay, Colombia and Sweden would suggest their backline can be breached, though with greater World Cup experience and with the conditions in Qatar more favourable than to the European side, we wouldn’t want to be against Mexico as far as the result is concerned here.
BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE
France v Australia
The last three World Cup champions (Italy, Spain and Germany) have all gone out at the group stages at the next attempt, while of course France were dismal in 2002 as they went out without a victory. However, Australia have lost five and drawn their other game across the past two World Cups, conceding twice at a minimum in each defeat. Moreover, they only made it to this World Cup by the skin of their teeth, winning just four of 10 third-round Asian qualifiers, before play-off wins over United Arab Emirates and then Peru, requiring penalties against the latter.
These two met in their opening game at the last World Cup as France ran out 2-1 winners, and it’s hard to overlook Didier Deschamps’ side once more. However, the French do head into the tournament in poor form, winning just one of their Nations League games (W1-D2-L3) across June and September, registering just the solitary clean sheet.
Whether Australia can find the net without star striker Martin Boyle remains to be seen, with the forward now ruled out of the entire tournament. In addition, attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustic misses the opener with an ankle problem, denying Graham Arnold two of his key outlets going forwards.
France have also lost some of their weaponry with Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku forced to pull out, though such is their riches at the sharp end, Deschamps is hardly devoid of options. Still, they can be slow starters, with 21 of the 27 goals they’ve scored since October 2021 coming after the break, with the six first half goals they’ve managed all coming on home turf. In fact, it’s been just over a year since they bagged a first-half goal in a competitive game, and they can expect a passive Australia to sit back during the early proceedings.
HIGHEST SCORING HALF - 2ND
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