Favourites Portugal, Germany loo
The 10th FIFA Confederations Cup gets underway on Saturday, but anyone looking for clues as to who will triumph at Russia 2018 should be mindful that no team has ever won this tournament and then gone on to lift the World Cup the following year. Hosts Russia kick off proceedings when they face New Zealand in St. Petersburg. However, punters tempted to lump on Russia to beat the All Whites at short odds would do well to remember this is a side that lost successive matches against Costa Rica and Qatar within the past year.
Portugal is hoping a red-hot Cristiano Ronaldo can continue his sparkling form and help the European champions show that their victory at Euro 2016 wasn't a fluke.
With Ronaldo looking at the peak of his game, Portugal trained for the first time in Russia on Thursday ahead of its Confederations Cup debut against Mexico on Sunday.
Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year, is enjoying one of his greatest career runs, having scored 18 goals in his last 11 matches, including two in Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final. He also scored important goals in the decisive stages of the Spanish league, a competition Madrid won this season for the first time in five years.
"Obviously there are no words to describe what Cristiano means to our country, with everything that he has achieved," Portugal defender Bruno Alves said Thursday. "He is an idol even for the players, and we hope that he can help Portugal with some of his goals and victories."
Portugal are fancied to go well, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and new Manchester City recruit Bernardo Silva named in a squad that looks to have a great mix of youth and experience. Portugal are the European champions and have won seven matches out of nine since beating France 1-0 in the final of Euro 2016. The Portuguese are making their debut in this competition and have the players to get off to a flying start on Sunday against Mexico. El Tri won this tournament on home soil back in 1999 but conditions could prove unfavourable conditions in Russia.
Mexico will score goals with Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez up top and should have enough firepower to get them out of an average-looking Group A. However, they don't look to have enough strength in depth to deal with Portugal here, so the bet is to take Fernando Santos' men to win and both teams to score at 4/1 with bet365.
Ronaldo's recent performances have left him in a strong position to catch up with Lionel Messi with a fifth world player of the year award. He would almost certainly secure the prize if he can help Portugal win the Confederations Cup, the main warm-up event for next year's World Cup.
Ronaldo has 11 goals in five games with the national team this season, including two in Portugal's 3-0 win at Latvia in European World Cup qualifying last week, the team's last match before the Confederations Cup.
"Cristiano is a great player and we know that he makes a difference," Mexico forward Hirving Lozano said. "But soccer is a team sport and I think that we have a great squad to confront him."
Ronaldo will be playing his first match since being accused of defrauding Spain's tax office of 14.7 million euros ($16.5 million) in unpaid taxes. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Portugal arrived in Russia as one of the title favorites, and also with a unique chance to show that last year's European triumph didn't come by accident.
On Monday, Germany face Australia. The Socceroos are unbeaten in eight World Cup qualifying games but were hammered 4-0 by Brazil on Tuesday. Germany, World Cup winners and joint favourites for the Confederations Cup, warmed up with a 7-0 win over San Marino last weekend. This is a youthful German side with players such as Julian Brandt, Timo Werner and Joshua Kimmich expected to feature. Julian Draxler is arguably the most experienced player in the squad at age 23, so it will be fascinating to see how they line up in Russia.
"Portugal always shows ambition in every competition that it plays," Alves said. "Now we have to show on the pitch why we are being considered favorites. We have already shown our strength in the past, and we want to do it again. We want to show that we are able to win more tournaments."
Australia, the Asian Cup winners in 2015, may have the edge in terms of international experience, but this young, vibrant German side looks very strong and they've won five of their last nine games by three goals or more. Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner scored a hat trick against San Marino at the weekend, and he could be worth a punt at 15/4 with bet365 to score firstagainst the Aussies.
The 2016-17 football season has come to an end, but the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup is already upon us to fill the gap. Nick Ames reviews the eight teams involved and predicts their progress in the tournament.
Portugal is making its first appearance in the Confederations Cup, the eight-nation competition played by continental champions plus host Russia and World Cup winner Germany. The other teams are New Zealand, Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Mexico.
Portugal, which made it to the tournament after beating host France in the Euro 2016 final, is in Group A along with Russia, New Zealand and Mexico.
Russian football could do with an injection of positivity after such a disastrous European Championship last summer, both on and off the pitch, and with next year's World Cup on the horizon. Two respectable friendly results -- a 3-0 friendly win in Hungary and 1-1 draw with Chile in Moscow -- have raised hopes that Stanislav Cherchesov's team are moving in a better direction, although it is only eight months since they suffered successive defeats to Costa Rica and Qatar.
The tools available to Cherchesov remain more workmanlike than inspiring, and he has been dealt a bad hand with several key injuries. Striker Artem Dzyuba, playmaker Alan Dzagoev and midfielder Roman Zobnin are particularly important absentees. All the players on Russia's roster play professionally in Russia, and the side looks short of attacking thrust to trouble the best.
The moderate opposition New Zealand tend to face in Oceania can make them hard to judge, but they are a solid outfit and should perform respectably enough. Englishman Anthony Hudson, 36, is the manager, and they have a backbone of good Premier League and Championship quality in the form of West Ham's Winston Reid, Ipswich defender Tommy Smith and Leeds centre-forward Chris Wood.
New Zealand lost to Mexico 2-1 in an October friendly, and that was followed by an impressive 1-1 draw with the United States. The All Whites hope to go one better this time, although the last time they faced the Mexicans competitively, they fell 9-3 on aggregate in a qualification playoff for the 2014 World Cup.
Prediction: They aren't pushovers and may achieve a draw or two, but New Zealand will not seriously threaten to pass through the group stage for the first time in their fourth Confederations Cup.
The European champions roll in with a well-stocked squad, but without their hero from last summer, Eder, who didn't make the cut after a patchy season with Lille. Bayern Munich's Renato Sanches has also been left out, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and new Manchester City signee Bernardo Silva will travel.
Portugal have won seven matches from nine since that memorable night when they won the Euro final at Stade de France, although their two defeats came against Switzerland and Sweden, the strongest opponents they have faced. Manager Fernando Santos is phasing in a talented new generation, and if Portugal can keep their momentum from last summer, they will be serious challengers for their first Confederations Cup title.
Prediction: Ronaldo & Co. will win the group and should have too much for Germany in the last four, but Chile will trip up Portugal in the final.
Portugal won 2-1 the only time it faced Mexico in an official match, in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Portugal won 1-0 in a friendly in 2014.
"Mexico has shown that it is a very good team, always playing attacking football," Alves said. "It is an aggressive team, pressing you all the time, but I think that we have enough quality to win this game."
Cedric Soares and Pepe, who had been practicing separately because they were not fully fit, joined the rest of Portugal's group in Thursday's session at Rubin Kazan's training grounds.