The FIFA World Cup is less than a fortnight away and the increased global excitement is palpable.
With preparations really kicking into top gear, every second is important for the 32 nations appearing at this summer’s tournament.
We’ve picked these three World Cup hopefuls to build momentum on Saturday.
Norway V Russia. 3PM
Fabio Capello will lead Russia to the World Cup this summer and the Group H hopefuls will be confident of beating Norway in Oslo.
The Russians enter this fixture on the back of an impressive eight-game unbeaten streak and will be looking to build momentum by extending that to nine against an out-of form Norweigan side.
Norway have won just three of their past 15 matches. Even a change of manager in 2013 hasn’t done anything to improve their fortunes and a genuine lack of quality is clearly evident. Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to France was a telling barometer of their current shortcomings and there’s a strong chance that will be the story of the day against Russia.
While Russia aren’t world beaters, they are a very rigid outfit under Capello and are more than capable of reaching the knockout stage in Brazil. With that in mind, victory in Oslo should be well within their reach.
There is a definite gulf between the two sides in this one, expert Russia to assert their dominance with a win.
Russia Win @ 6/4 with Paddy Power
Netherlands V Ghana. 7:30PM
Louis van Gaal’s Dutch stars continue their World Cup warm-up schedule with the Saturday evening encounter with Ghana in Rotterdam.
Much of the Netherlands’ preparations have been overshadowed by the announcement of van Gaal’s pending move to Manchester United. However, as far as the players are concerned, contrations are fully turned to this summer’s event and Oranje will be out for a big performance at de Kuip.
The long-term absence of Kevin Strootman has seen van Gaal switch to an unfamiliar 5-3-2 formation and the Dutch will also have to cope without the presence of centurion Rafael van der Vaart, who was injured earlier this week. Nonetheless, they’ll be confident against Ecuador.
Oranje drew with Ecuador in their last fixture, but they can be optimistic of beating Ghana. The return of Arjen Robben will allow van Gaal to partner the Bayern man with squad captain Robin van Persie and that should result in a much more lively performance in the final third.
African side Ghana are no pushovers and will put up a strong test. The Black Stars boast a number of talented players, notably Asamoah Gyan and Chelsea’s Christian Atsu. However, with home advantage, the Netherlands will be fully expected to win.
With van Gaal set to name his final 23-man squad just 48 hours later, it is crucial for every player to stake their claim. This should ensure a big performance from the hosts.
Netherlands Win @ 8/15 with Paddy Power
Italy V Republic of Ireland. 7:45PM
Cesare Prandelli’s men have endured a poor run of form in recent months, but the Italians should be too good for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland.
Saturday’s contest, which takes place at Craven Cottage, is the first match of Italy’s World Cup preparations and their need for a result is tangible. England’s Group C World Cup opponents have not tasted success in any of their past five encounters and finding a return to winning ways is essential for the four-time World Champions.
Italy’s only other warm-up match comes against Italy, which with all due respect is not a real challenge, and therefore they must perform here.
As for Ireland, they are still searching for a first win of the O’Neill reign. A 0-0 draw with Poland, followed by back-to-back defeats against Serbia and Turkey have signalled a tumultuous beginning for the former Celtic manager and it is hard to envisage them getting a positive result in London.
The world-class talents of Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo and Daniela de Rossi will be a daunting prospect for the vulnerable Irish defence. A comfortable win for the Italians seems likely.
Italy Win @ 8/15 with Paddy Power
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