Stan Hey: Think like Sven and count profits

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As you, The Punter's faithful followers read this (hello mum!), do you realise that there are only 102 days to go before the 2002 World Cup starts? The biggest football tournament ever will provide a huge betting bonanza for punters around the globe. But closer to home, last week's England friendly in Amsterdam brought the likely shape of the final England squad into focus. Bookies Blue Square have been offering prices on certain fringe players to make the squad over the past three months, a sort of "musical benches" to see who gets on in time, and who doesn't.

Most punters will have a fair idea of the core of the team, but the Sunday lunchtime pub conversation is always about who should go to Japan beyond the obvious 14 or 15. Last Wednesday's draw against Holland offered up an obvious late candidate in Aston Villa's Darius Vassell, and you get him at what looks like a fairly generous 3-1. The logic here is not just based on his performance and goal, but also his pace and temperament. Alan Smith has achieved more, but will Sven trust him not to go native in the land of the martial arts? Smithy is therefore 11-2, while another "maybe", Kevin Phillips, is 3-1. Unfortunately, he looks to be another "swerve" too, along with poor Michael Ricketts at 7-1.

In midfield, I'd want to be on Joe Cole (11-8) because he has that surprise element that could turn a draw into a win late on. I also like Trevor Sinclair, (15-8) because he can get goals and put crosses in, while Frank Lampard (5-2) is probably a shade behind Nicky Butt as "the reserve enforcer", if Steven Gerrard gets injured. Speaking of which, would you risk betting on Darren Anderton (at evens) to be on the plane rather than in the sick-bay? He certainly deserves to go. So too does Wayne Bridge (2-1), who looked as though he could even play left-sided midfield ahead of Ashley Cole. But enough of being a fantasy manager – I've just sacked myself.

There's prime-time FA Cup fifth found action studded throughout today, although all four games pitch lower division sides away from home against Premiership teams. The Punter's friend and conspiracy theorist, Gloomy Jim, reckons that the draw was a swizz, with six of the eight Premiership sides drawing lower-ranked opponents, with five of them at home, and only two drawn together. He may have a point – The Punter still wants to know how two former Manchester United players, Gary Pallister and Bryan Robson, managed to pull out Arsenal against Liverpool in the previous round. All it needs is a couple of sessions with Paul Daniels, and bosh!

Anyway, the draw has left the betting pretty threadbare today, with all the Premiership teams odds-on to win their games. It is tempting to just stick a ten quid accumulator on with Hills on Chelsea (1-4) to beat Preston, Everton (4-11) to see off Crewe, Spurs (1-5) to send Tranmere roving and Newcastle (1-2) to un-Man City. But the return of only just over 2-1 wouldn't be worth sweating for through the whole of today.

Besides, there is bound to be one little hiccup somewhere – an unexpected draw, or even a win. The most likely suspects are Manchester City, who might get a draw at St James's in what looks like being a goal-fest – perhaps 2-2 or 3-3? It's also possible that if Chelsea turn out in one of their dozy moods, Preston, cleverly organised by Dave Moyes, could force a replay – at 1-1? But small stakes are advised all round.

There may be more mileage in the resumption of the Champions' League during the week. There have been transformations in form during the two-month lay-off, most notably the resurgence of Manchester United, and the slumps by Bayern Munich and Deportivo la Coruña in their leagues. Some of this may not yet be factored into the bookies' match odds – out tomorrow – so there may be an edge for punters. Certainly in the two Group A matches, Manchester United should be backed to win at Nantes, while Boavista can take advantage of Bayern's woes.

In the other group games, a revived Liverpool can register a vital win at home to Galatasaray, and hope that the huge contest in the Nou Camp, Barcelona versus Roma, ends in a draw. Arsenal will need to play well at Leverkusen, who are holding on in second place in the Bundesliga, while Juventus (second in Serie A) and Real Madrid are home bankers against Deportivo and Porto respectively. The Punter is already on Juventus outright, but the general 16-1 about Liverpool, and the 14-1 at Sporting Odds on Roma, both seem large in the light of recent form. Risk a few Euro each-way.

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