THE Road to Russia is complete and qualifiers begin their finals preparations in earnest tomorrow as a series of friendlies kick off.
Games to look at include Denmark v Panama and China v Wales on Thursday while on Friday the highlights are Russia v Brazil, Germany v Spain, Holland v England, Italy v Argentina and France v Colombia.
Any of those games would whet the appetite if played competitively but friendlies are rarely exciting and usually difficult from a punters' perspective.
It's just over two months to the real thing and it doesn’t seem like four years since the last staging of the World Cup finals.
For most fans the abiding memory isn’t Germany’s extra-time defeat of Argentina to lift the trophy but their extraordinary 7-1 pounding of hosts Brazil in the semi-finals.
The gulf between the nations that day was bigger than the Amazon – now bookies can’t separate them.
Everyone connected with Brazil was shellshocked that day but instead of crying in their Brahmas they acted immediately with boss Dunga binned and the call sent to Tite to
save the Titanic.
The Samba stars haven’t looked back – they’ve got Tite in the dugout, they’re tight at the back and bright going forward.
Brazil breezed to seven wins in a row in qualifying and were the first side to book their place in Russia.
Germany may live to regret that 7-1 humiliation because it forced Brazil to take drastic action and they’re desperate for revenge.
If bookies are correct it will be a Brazil v Germany final in Moscow on July 15.
In the outright betting three of the top four are European but most of Brazil’s top stars play here.
Brazil’s plan of attack could be hatched 1700 miles west of Moscow in Paris. Neymar will be their key man while team-mates Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos mean PSG will provide one third of the starting line-up.
If Neymar is at his best I’d back Brazil to go all the way and his support acts include Barcelona star Philippe Coutinho, Chelsea’s Willian, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus.
Their forward array of talent is exceptional and Germany can’t match it – but with
Dani Alves organising a settled backline they’ll probably not concede seven in the tournament never mind one game.
Neymar is 12-1 second favourite behind Lionel Messi (10-1, McBookie) to win the Golden Boot and he’s likely to play more matches. Cristiano Ronaldo (14-1, bet365) will hope to have a say but Portugal will struggle to repeat their Euro 2016 heroics.
If France go well Antoine Griezmann could be a good outsider at 16-1 with 188Bet while Germany’s big goals hope Timo Werner is 20-1 at Unibet. Joachim Low’s side usually share the goals.
Both outright favourites have cushy groups with Brazil in with Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica while Germany have been drawn against Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. A double on them to table their tables pays 9-10 at SportPesa.
There’s not been much support for Argentina at 9-1 with McBookie as they rely too much on Messi and struggled even to qualify. They’re 7-10 with Marathonbet to win Group D but face tough contests against Croatia, Nigeria and new boys Iceland.
Apart from Brazil and Germany in my opinion only two other sides can triumph – France and Spain.
France are third favourites at 6-1 with bet365 and it’s easy to say why when you look at their squad. Antoine Griezmann will lead the line but has the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman and Dmitri Payet for company.
Such is Griezmann’s importance he is 2-1 with BetVictor to be the French side’s top scorer compared to 7-1 for £160m Mbappe and Lacazette.
Spain, a biggest 8-1 at Betway, can’t be ruled out and are unbeaten since exiting Euro 2016. New coach Julen Lopetegui has vibrancy in the shape of Isco, Vitolo, Koke and experience with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and David Silva.
It’s a good balance and their opener against Portugal could be the game of the group stage – unless both sides agree a draw would be fine ahead of games against outsiders Morocco and Iran.
Spain are hot favourites at 1-2 with bet365 to top Group D with the Portuguese 2-1 – Morocco and Iran are bigger outsiders than Scotland and we’re not even there.
That opener takes place on day two and a draw at 5-2 with Marathonbet could be the sensible play.
So what about England? Gareth Southgate’s men are seventh favourites at 18-1 and 5-6 with bet365 to make the quarters.
They qualified unbeaten from Scotland’s group despite a scare at Hampden and Southgate’s men are second favourites to win Group G at 6-5 with William Hill.
Belgium are 10-11 and it’s likely to come down the meeting of the big two as Tunisia and Panama will have as much of a say as Nicola Sturgeon in Brexit talks.
England are still haunted by their Euro 2016 exit and the team lacks flair but have one big weapon in Harry Kane.
He’s enjoyed a spectacular season at Spurs and is massive favourite at 11-10 with Betfred to be his country’s leading marksmen ahead of Spurs team-mate Dele Alli at 9-1.
There isn’t a price yet on Alli to be booked for diving but when there is we’ll dive in quicker than Tom Daley can make a splash.