Austria could be dark horses and Mike Holden fully expects them to qualify from Group F.
Whether commanding wins over Hungary and Iceland could be sensationalised is up for debate but when a nation steeped in such history hasn’t qualified for a major tournament in almost 20 years and hasn’t played a knockout match since 1954, you can rest assured the television commentators will not waste the opportunity to indulge themselves in the narrative.
The big question is whether Austria can finish above Portugal and while the Alpine nation should still be considered inferior to the Iberians in broad terms, they seemingly come into this tournament much more stable and better prepared. In fact, in relative terms, no team at Euro 2016 arrives in better shape, so take the 5/1 available on the Austria/Portugal straight forecast.
Marcel Koller’s men qualified impressively with nine straight wins that included a 1-0 double over Russia and a 4-1 win away to Sweden but this is no overnight success story. The Swiss has been at the helm for five years now and his meticulous methods - he’s big on psychology, physiology and performance analysis - began to bear fruit in the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014.
Now the Austrians head to France with a very settled starting 11, seven of whom are aged between 27 and 29. David Alaba is the most talented individual and he’s only 23, although, in truth, there’s no obvious weakness in the side. Everybody is capable of stepping up and contributing in some way. Needless to say, there’s a tangible sense of this being the defining moment in the script.
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Portugal, by contrast, are caught between two generations with Joao Moutinho and Nani (both 29) the only peak-age performers in a squad with a dearth of players in the 25-29 age bracket. Heavily reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, now 31, much will depend on the form and fitness of the Real Madrid man but the signs recently suggest he might not be in peak condition.
The straight forecast price is particularly attractive for the likelihood that Austria will outscore the Portuguese and pip them on goal difference should the two teams play out a stalemate in the second game. Fernando Santos is a cautious manager and all seven of Portugal’s qualifying wins were achieved by the odd goal, two of them snatched in stoppage time.
Iceland and Hungary are ranked 22nd and 24th in my ratings for this tournament, so it’s hard to imagine either of them causing a stir in the opening round of fixtures. However, you wouldn’t rule out the winner of their head-to-head clash in Marseille on June 18 going on to nick a point if it secures qualification for knockout stages in the third match.
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