France, meanwhile, have the easiest route of all in terms of getting to the semi-finals. They were Euro Under-19 Champions in 2010 and World Under-20 Champions in 2013 and have a squad that looks to be coming to the boil at the perfect time. Les Bleus have won their last three major tournaments on home soil (Confederations Cup 2003, World Cup 1998, Euro 1984) and they have a great chance to enjoy another success here. Should they win the group, they have the easiest route of all in terms of getting to the semi-finals, but should they get there, they could well meet World Champions Germany. As much as we rate a team that can boast the talents of Griezmann, Martial, Pogba, Payet and Kante we can’t fancy any XI to brush the Germans aside with conviction.
Defending World Champions have an excellent recent record at European Championships, as three of the last four have reached the final. However, Germany look set to have a far tougher quarter-final than either Spain or France and then a semi-final clash between themselves and the host is a big negative for both their chances. Furthermore, with that semi-final taking part just three days before the final, and 24 hours after the first semi, whoever advances will have to battle some extra fatigue. In fact if Spain and France were to meet in the final having won their groups then from the quarters onwards Spain would have to play three matches in 11 days while France would have to do so in just eight. Spain lost four times between winning the World Cup in 2010 and retaining their European title in 2012 but while the Germans should have no problems with their group, their draw puts us off backing them to follow in Spain’s footsteps as they’re likely to meet hosts France in the semis.
Provided Spain tops their group then the draw should give them a wonderful chance of reaching the final and potentially claiming a third consecutive title. Spain were victorious as favourites in 2012 while the losing semi-finalists, Germany and Portugal, were second and fourth in the betting respectively. 2008 saw Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands all vie for favouritism, with Germany and Spain contesting the final. Under Del Bosque, Spain’s tika-taka philosophy will always remain the same. Given the lack of a stand-out striker in the squad there is no doubt they will pack the midfield as Busquets will sit deep while the likes of Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva dictate play. The exclusion of Diego Costa means they could even go with a 4-3-3 with Fabregas in the ‘false nine’ role.
England became just the sixth team to complete qualifying for the European Championships with a perfect record. However, it has to be noted that this appears to be ever-easier to achieve, with Spain and Germany achieving the feat en-route to Euro 2012. Looking back at the qualifying records for participants at the Euros since 1992 we can clearly see how the change to 24 teams has weakened the field here. The most teams to qualify with less than 2.10 points per game from their qualifying groups for any one of those past six tournaments was five, but here we have nine teams in that position. Hodgson’s side are the most obvious bet in the top-half of the draw. A perfect qualifying record has raised hopes of a first title in 50 years. A relatively easy group followed by a third-placed side and then a likely quarter-final with Portugal or Italy – neither of whom are particularly strong right now – is as much as any team could ask for.
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With Eden Hazard returning to form (and certainly not tired after his exertions this season) and the exceptional Kevin De Bruyne they have the X-Factor to go with quality in all positions and are a major reason to avoid Germany, given that is their more probable quarter-final. With 17 wins in their last 23 matches, prior to the pre-tournament friendlies, they are very real contenders even if they win their group and go into the tough bottom-half of the draw – though that would almost certainly be the toughest route to the final of all teams. The whole squad is full of quality, with full-back the only position they are lacking world class players, and we rank them as the fourth best team in the tournament. Marc Wilmots’s side look a class above and should win their group. That would actually lead to a harder path to the final than coming second but with the crucial game against Italy coming straightaway no one should be thinking about that.
Italy were runners-up four years ago but they ended that tournament with a negative goal difference after being thrashed 4-0 in the final. After a disappointing World Cup where they exited at the group stage following defeats to Costa Rica and Uruguay there are question marks about this generation’s ability to compete at this level and dating back to the final four years ago they’ve won just three of 21 matches against teams in the top 20 of our rankings, while losing 11 times. Conte rotated between four at the back and three at the back during an unbeaten qualifying campaign and we expect him to opt for the latter here in a 3-5-2 formation with two wing-backs getting forward and a holding midfielder as he will aim to build his team from a solid foundation. With Montolivo injured, De Rossi could regain his place and with no stand-out striker in the squad, Pelle could get the nod as a target man with Eder alongside him.
In the past three major tournaments, Portugal have failed to score in half their 12 matches and they found the net just 11 times in their eight qualifying matches as all seven of their wins were by one goal margins. Only once in Fernando Santos’ 16 games in charge have Portugal scored more than twice and that was against minnows Armenia. With four of Ronaldo’s five goals in qualifying coming against them, and the lack of significant striking support, Portugal’s problems in attack look like they are set to continue. Austria look a more well-rounded side and as a result, Portugal may have to go through as runners up and should they do so, they would most likely meet hosts France in the quarter-finals. Santos has experimented in recent friendlies with a diamond formation with Nani and Ronaldo playing as a front two, but for much of the qualifying campaign he preferred a 4-3-3 and so we expect him to revert back to this.
Ante Cacic only took over less than a year ago but he’s made an excellent start to his time in charge, winning four of his opening five matches, and he’s been blessed with a squad that is full of quality. They are in undoubtedly the toughest of all the groups, with all four teams ranked in our top 13 of the 24 sides here. Croatia are 1.44 second favourites to make it out of the group, though the fact that both Czech Republic and Turkey are just 2.45 to get out shows how competitive this group is. We fancy Croatia to be a team that causes a big surprise in this tournament and with a midfield featuring Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic, they should be a threat to anyone. They finished behind Italy in qualifying but were unbeaten in their two meetings with the Azzurri and overall both scored more and conceded fewer than the Italians.
We are bullish on teams that should be in the top-half after the group stages. Not only should the teams there have an easier route to the final but they also have more rest than those in the bottom sector. That leaves us with three main choices: Spain, Croatia or … England. While we certainly wouldn’t put off anyone backing the first two – we aren’t against them like we are with France, Germany, Italy or Portugal – our standout selection here is for England to end 50 years of hurt.
One further point to note is that 17/38 Euro Championship knock-out games since 1992 have finished level after 90 minutes and so if there are any offers available relating to money back on your outright selection if they are knocked out on penalties they are definitely worth considering. England backers should be aware of the offer from Betfred of Moneyback if Rooney & Co are knocked out on pens.
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