World Cup Qualifying: Top Bets and Picks for 1-6 September, 2016

Eden Hazard

It's time for the first international break of the new football season, and this one comes at a time when the domestic leagues are just getting started, and some nations are still reflecting on an excellent - or not so excellent - Euro 2016. The focus must shift quickly for players and fans, because qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia starts here. Let's look at some of the top World Cup Qualifying bets and picks.

Gibraltar Cast to the Margins?

This is Gibraltar's first World Cup Qualifying tournament, and the tiny principality, which has been active within European football officially since 2013, has one win (against Malta), three draws (against Slovakia, Estonia and Liechtenstein) and 14 defeats.

It's a pretty inauspicious record for a team that faces some of the best players in Europe in another group stage, but the enthusiastic band of amateurs will head to their borrowed home stadium in Portugal with confidence yet again, whatever life is about to throw at them.

First up is Portugal on Thursday, in Lisbon, with the Euro 2016-winning side almost a racing certainty to win. Following that, there is the relatively short journey to the Algarve for a "home" fixture against Greece next Tuesday. Against top-tier international teams, Gibraltar usually loses by between 4 and 7 goals. With Portugal still recovering its motivation after winning a major trophy, this is possibly going to be a team in third or fourth gear, and with Cristiano Ronaldo absent, BetFred's odds of 6/4 for Portugal to score fewer than 4.5 goals look tasty.

Against Greece, there are more possibilities, given that the Greeks have taken two wins and two defeats this season, including one each in a double-header with Australia. In Euro 2016 Qualifying, Greece had a horrible time, even losing to the Faroe Islands on one famous occasion. Although any prediction of a Gibraltar win is fanciful, Betfair's 22/1 for a draw is certainly worth a punt.

Martinez and Belgium to Get a Mixed Start

Roberto Martinez was almost no-one's choice as the new Belgium manager, but the Belgian FA went for a leftfield appointment when they snared the former Swansea, Wigan and Everton manager. In charge of arguably the most talented, but most disappointing, team in European football, Martinez has the task to take Eden Hazard and company to the closing stages of major tournaments.

First up for Martinez and Thierry Henry, his surprise choice as assistant, is Spain on Thursday, now managed by former goalkeeper and age-group national coach Julen Lopetegui. The squad is arguably as good as it ever has been, with the possibility of building a decent XI of players left out. Thursday's game is a must-win for both teams - and that never works out well. A Spain win comes at the surprisingly decent odds of 17/10 with Ladbrokes - but then Belgium is always overvalued by bookmakers.

England Meets Familiar Foe

New England manager Sam Allardyce must have groaned when he saw that his team would need to face Euro 2016 opponent Slovakia in the first World Cup Qualifying game of his tenure. It's a difficult away game on Sunday, with an England side that is far from settled, plus a Slovakia team not materially changed that much from the Euros squad that may not have been exciting, but performed well.

Don't forget how well Slovakia did in Euro 2016 Qualifying - beating Spain and finishing second in its group, ahead of Ukraine, made Europe sit up and take note. At 31/10 with BetVictor to win in Bratislava, Slovakia is well worth a bet.

Germany in Tricky Assignment

Some countries coast through qualifying and then do poorly in the tournament itself - England and Switzerland being two examples that spring to mind. However there is another kind of team, such as Germany, which habitually seems to treat qualifying as a kind of extended tune-up exercise, finally hitting top gear at the finals.

If that scenario plays out again - Germany lost to Poland in Euro 2016 Qualifying - then we might see Norway share the points with the 2014 World Cup-winning nation on Sunday. Oslo is always a tough place to go to, with fervent supporters and a Norway team that doesn't mind playing the ball long and getting physical if it means getting an edge on the opposition. 7/2 with Betway says that both teams will draw.

Annoying Orange for Holland Fans?

Two games will show us if the Netherlands have shaken off that slumber from Euro 2016 qualifying, in which a series of disastrous performances saw non-qualification from a very winnable group. Greece at home on Thursday seems like the perfect tonic, and even though this Holland team is very young, with only Wesley Sneijder remaining from the famous group of 2000s superstars, it should still be too strong for a resilient but unimaginative Greek side.

Sweden away on Tuesday is a far bigger test of the talent on display. Janne Andersson, the new coach, no longer has Zlatan Ibrahimovic to cover up the team's flaws, but he does have a very strong, workmanlike squad which includes a bit of firepower in the form of Celta Vigo's John Guidetti and Panathinaikos striker Marcus Berg. Sweden plays 4-4-2, it doesn't often change its game fundamentally, and it will be hard to break down. A draw is 5/2 with Bet365.

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