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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Punters should rein in betting on dark horses

Hyped nations often flop

Costa Rica fans enjoy the 2014 World Cup quarter-final
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World Cup qualification hits the home straight this week, with most finalists confirming their place in Russia over the next week.

Many bettors will look at qualifying performances as a guide as to how nations might fare in the finals, but qualifying form can be as misleading as it is useful.

On one hand, it’s true that most teams who reach the latter stages of the World Cup finals arrive on the back of strong qualifying performances.

But then given that most teams who reach the semi-finals are European and that Uefa qualifying is split into multiple small groups, it stands to reason that semi-finalists performed well to reach the finals.

In 2014, hosts Brazil reached the semis while Germany, Argentina and Holland were all impressive qualifying group winners, franking the form.

However, there was little to suggest Costa Rica, who finished second in Concacaf having failing to win a single away game, or Algeria, who scraped through on away goals in a playoff against Burkina Faso, would be dark horses.

Equally, many who shone in qualifying – Belgium, Spain, Russia, Ghana, Bosnia and Japan – failed to live up to the hype and flopped at the finals.

In 2010, the three European sides to reach the semi-finals – Spain, Holland and Germany – all romped through qualifying.

However, the fourth semi-finalists, Uruguay, finished only fifth in South America and had to navigate a playoff against Costa Rica to reach the finals.

Once again, a strong display in qualifying could be just as misleading as it was helpful as England and Italy breezed through to South Africa before flopping horribly. South America’s qualifying top two were no better, with Brazil and Chile exiting by the quarter-final stage.

Another two nations who were impressive enough in qualifying to earn dark-horse status, Serbia (who finished above France) and Denmark (who topped Portugal), also flopped badly.

Indeed, it is the rapidly elevated dark horses who disappoint most reliably, as teams who come from nowhere to surprise in qualifying almost always fail to maintain that form into the finals.

In 2006, Croatia and Serbia & Montenegro were fancied, but the latter finished pointless while Croatia didn’t win a single game in a weak group.

And in 2002 the England hype seemed fair given their 5-1 demolition of Germany in qualifying, but while they beat Argentina in the group stage they also drew with Nigeria and Sweden before bowing out in the quarters.

Meanwhile, unheralded Turkey and hosts South Korea went all the way to the semi-finals.

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A strong display in qualifying could be just as misleading as it was helpful as England and Italy breezed through to South Africa before flopping
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