Dark horses Belgium, an old favourite in Italy, a home interest in the Republic of Ireland and, of course, Zlatan’s Sweden….does anyone else get the feeling that Group E might be the pick of the bunch at Euro 2016?
There are so many twists and turns here, with Belgium expected to qualify as group winners given the extraordinary amount of talent they have at their disposal. Could this be their breakthrough year? We shall have to wait and see.
But how can we write off Italy, who have won so many major trophies? And Republic of Ireland, who have a habit of big performances in major competitions? And even Sweden, led by Ibrahimovic on his last tour of duty internationally? It should all make for an exciting spectacle.
Here’s a closer look at the runners and riders in Group E, and a few betting tips to whet the appetite:
There is a lot to like about this Belgium side, and any outfit that lost just one game in qualifying and averaged 2.4 goals per game scored deserves respect.
The healthy Premier League contingent in their squad means they will perhaps be many England fans’ ‘second team’, and you can expect the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to form the spine of their team. On paper at least, they should go very deep in the competition.
Perhaps crucially, they defeated Italy 3-1 in a friendly in November, and whether that will have any significance in the outcome of Group E is anybody’s guess. But they can take a lot of confidence from that victory; crucial for a side that has only qualified for one European Championship in more than 30 years; and even then it was by default as they hosted the tournament in 2000. That said, this very much a team maturing at just the right time.
Given that Italy could slip up against the other two sides in the group, we have to fancy Belgium to top the pile at 6/5.
The Italians did very well to progress from a tough qualification group undefeated; the likes of Croatia, Norway and Bulgaria are all considerable obstacles. They will be boosted by the presence of a number of Juventus’ all conquering squad too, like Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and of course the irreplaceable Gigi Buffon.
The lack of a genuine goal threat could perceivably be a problem – although they have scored in each of their last nine games, which makes a mockery of that assertion. Alas, dig deeper and single-goal wins over Scotland and Malta, for example, is hardly indicative of a frontline on fire.
The impression you get of this Italy outfit is that they are still a decent side but a little off being one of the frontrunners for honours, as recent friendly defeats to Belgium and Germany testifies. As such, you can make a strong case for them finishing second in Group E at 21/10.
Republic of Ireland vs Sweden
The reality for Irish fans is that they are facing a shootout with Sweden for third place here, and if they can beat the Swedes then they might just qualify for the last 16 as one of the ‘lucky losers’.
It’s hard to know where we’re at with Ireland given that they have beaten Germany and Switzerland in recent times yet lost to Belarus last time out. You certainly get the impression that they’re a more effective force on home soil than away from home, however.
Sweden also needed a play-off victory to book their place at Euro 2016, and with recent friendlies yielding a defeat against Turkey and draws with Czech Republic and Slovenia, again we’re a little lost as to where we stand with the Swedes.
Perhaps the difference maker could be Zlatan, who has confirmed that Euro 2016 will be his last set of matches as a Sweden player. While not getting any younger, he has just enjoyed the best goalscoring season of his career with 50 in 51 games, and if anybody on the pitch in the Sweden vs Ireland game look likely to break the deadlock, it’s him.
So our final bet in Group E will be Ireland not to qualify at 7/10.