You might look at the four teams located in Group C and think it is pretty much an open-and-shut case as far as who progresses to the knockout phase is concerned. We’ll peg Germany as winners, Poland as runners-up and then leave the Ukraine and Northern Ireland to battle it out for third spot, won’t we?
Well, possibly, but that would be disrespectful to the two ‘lesser’ teams in the bracket. Here is a reminder of those runners and riders:
- Northern Ireland
As the current world champions and three-time former European Championship winner, there’s little wonder that Germany are highly fancied for Euro 2016 honours. The spine of their team features the best goalkeeper in the world (Manuel Neuer), a rock-solid central defensive pairing (Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels), midfield creativity and obduracy (Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil) and a forward/winger with an unerring eye for goal (Thomas Muller). You won’t find much better here.
But there are chinks in the armour: this is a German side that has lost six times in the last 18 months, and while that might not sound much in the context of an international calendar it is; particularly when their record for that period reads W8 D2 L6. Bigger picture – they’ve lost four of their last six matches. Not ideal heading into a major tournament.
That said, their experience of winning by any mean in big competition play is obviously a major tick in the box, so expect Germany – by hook or by crook – to win Group C and progress to the last four as a bare minimum.
It’s fair to say that Poland justify their position as dark horses for Euro 2016. Here is a side that scored more goals than any other in qualifying (thanks in part to being paired with Gibraltar) and handed Germany a competitive loss in October 2014. They had to settle for a runners up spot in that bracket, but with a points tally of 21 they were more than comfortable.
In Robert Lewandowski they have one of the most prolific strikers on the planet – always a bonus in big tournament play, particularly the knockout phase, and the rest of their side are solid enough pros who will be well drilled, a la Greece in 2014.
There is absolutely no reason why the Poles won’t finish second in Group C, and the price of 7/4 about that looks a great investment.
They’ve had their fair share of quality operators over the years, with Andriy Shevchenko the obvious standout, but this Ukraine side is a bit more pragmatic than their forefathers.
Recent friendly wins over Wales and Romania are encouraging, but a qualification campaign that saw them progress as one of the ‘lucky losers’ (and drawing Slovenia in the play-offs really was lucky) suggests that the Eastern Europeans are slightly off the pace. A run of results that includes draws with Lithuania and Latvia suggests that the Germans an the Poles have little to worry about here.
What a couple of years it’s been for Northern Ireland. Qualification for Euro 2016, as group winners no less, and this will represent their first major tournament appearance since 1986.
Qualifying was impressive, although it has to be said that they enjoyed a rather charmed draw: Romania, Hungary, Finland, Greece and the Faroe Islands is hardly the stuff of nightmare. But you can only beat what is put in front of you….
With all due respect, this will be an occasion for all concerned with Northern Ireland to enjoy, rather than expect to progress that far in the competition. The value comes from backing Kyle Lafferty to be their top goalscorer: the lanky frontman notched seven in nine during qualifying, with the next best being centre half Gareth McAuley with three. Take the 9/2 on offer here.