Plenty of opportunities to score during World Cup

Christmas comes once a year, but for soccer freaks like me, Santa Claus pops out of hiding a second time every four years wearing cleats and shin guards.

Yes, the World Cup is here and I’m happier than Lindsay Lohan avoiding jail time. Thirty-two countries begin their quest for the coveted championship, with host nation South Africa taking on Mexico in the June 11 opener.

So if you’re looking to find me anytime between sunrise and sunset over the next month, I will be camped in front of my TV watching match after match of the greatest sporting event on earth.

That said, here’s some analysis, trends and selections for the tournament.

Go heavy on group-play matches: Here’s where you can do the most damage and pad your wallet. Evenly matched early games in which neither team can afford a loss have draw/low-scoring affair labeled all over them. Teams with high-powered offenses and weaker defenses going against powerful nations trend heavily toward the total going over. The Nigeria-Germany contest comes to mind, and could be one of the highest-scoring matches in group play.

Watch starting lineups: By the time the final games in group play arrive, many of those advancing have been determined. And that means some of the powers will rest starters to keep them fresh for knockout play.

Lean toward the underdog when that’s the case, especially when a team needs a win to advance or simply wants to go out in a blaze of glory with a solid showing before they head home.

African nations equal goals: There’s no hiding the obvious; whether it’s Nigeria, Cameroon or Ivory Coast, these teams feature potent offenses with sometimes-shaky defenses. All will throw the kitchen sink at opponents in an attempt to score and leave themselves vulnerable to counterattacks. The majority of this trio’s games have over-the-total stamped on them with permanent ink.

Load up on Spain: The top-ranked team in the world is red-hot and should plow through group play. History is also on Spain’s side against its Group H foes as it boasts a 6-0-1 record against Chile and is unbeaten in 18 matches against Switzerland.

Four best bets in opening matches of group play: Note: All odds are from the Las Vegas Hilton sports book.

  1. Nigeria vs. Argentina (Over 2½, -120), June 12: Goals, goals and more goals.
  2. United States (+1, +105 and Under 2½, -120) vs. England, June 12: Draw written all over this game. Neither team can afford a loss.
  3. Italy (-½, Even) vs. Paraguay, June 14: The defending champ opens with a win.
  4. Spain (-1½, -115) vs. Switzerland, June 16: Spain’s David Villa and Fernando Torres light things up in a shutout.

U.S. chances: The Americans’ success depends on which version of the team shows up. Will it be the sloppy one that rears its ugly head at times or the squad that rolled to the final of the Confederations Cup, where it knocked off Spain?

I’m leaning toward the latter. Coach Bob Bradley is one of the world’s most underrated coaches and will have his squad ready to roll. I’m saying the U.S. defeats England for the Group C title, then loses to Brazil in the semifinals.

And the winner is ... I’m not one to go chalk with my picks, but I’m having a hard time going against Brazil, getting 4-1 odds, as the champion.

The main reason? Try a super-light upper bracket in the knockout stage. After taking the top spot in Group G, the Samba Boys will find themselves facing a potential cakewalk to the final, with only the Netherlands posing a potential threat in the quarterfinals.

Spain, Argentina, Italy and Germany all should be in the lower bracket, thus creating some physical matches that will take their toll. And that sets up a Brazil team loaded with talent that should be fresh to face a leg-weary team in the final, leading to a record sixth World Cup and first since 2002.