With the 2016 UEFA European Championship right around the corner, all eyes will be on France starting June 10, 2016, through July 10, 2016.
Many pundits have labelled this the "Group of Death," and I believe they are correct. This group features four-time world champion Italy, a Belgian squad
loaded with talent, King Ibrahimovic (I mean Sweden) and a feisty Irish squad that shouldn't be taken lightly. The pick of the fixtures will be on match
Day 1 when Belgium takes on Italy in Lyon. Whichever team claims the full three points can almost be assured qualification to the knockout stage.
Disclaimer: I am Italian, but there will be no Italian bias here. I think this squad is terrible, but you can never count them out.
Here are your four nations comprising Group E. Futures provided by Bovada.
Despite being ranked No. 2 according to the FIFA rankings (these are a joke), Belgium's "Golden Generation" has not made a major impact in any major tournament. Belgium's track record at the Euro is anything short of solid. This is their first qualified appearance since 1984, apart from the 2000 tournament in which they automatically qualified due to hosting the event. Belgium has a midfield and attack that can be world class on its day, and they are currently the favorites to top the group (-105). To win the tournament they are +900.
How they got here:
Belgium qualified quite comfortably atop their group despite managing to take only one point in two games against second-place finishers Wales. They were able to score 24 goals and conceded only five, which makes for high optimism despite missing their captain Vincent Kompany. Several first-team players come into camp high on confidence thanks to stellar domestic seasons. The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne saw tons of first-team football and production, and even Eden Hazard is returning to form at just the right time.
With the attacking power that Belgium has, anything other than a 4-3-3 lineup would be shocking. They have the prototypical power striker in Lukaku, who will be flanked by true wingers de Bruyne and Hazard. These three will make any defense lose sleep at night when they are in form. The problem for Belgium is that they usually lack the required linkup play to feed the forwards. This year, however, they have a great midfield that should provide quality balls all over the pitch.
The window is closing on the so-called "Golden Generation". And while they could have been drawn into an easier group, they should have the quality to escape unscathed. However, finishing first will likely mean a QF date with Germany (barring upsets), which I don't think they'll have enough to proceed. For a nation budding with talent, the tournament will be a disappointment should they not reach the semis.
The Azzurri are four-time world champions and are usually a team that nobody wants to play. Not because they are talented, but because they defend well and can punish you on the counter attack. However, with their recent tournament results (2012 Euro Cup excluded), they are a far cry from their championship form in 2006. Italy are without any real stars but do have the "know how" when it comes to navigating cagey and intense matches. The Italians are +160 to win the group (unlikely) and +1600 to win the tournament (more likely to happen than winning the group). They truly are an enigma.
How they got here
The Italians secured their ticket to France by topping their qualifying group (7W, 3D) by four points over Croatia with a game to spare. They hardly put in any dazzling displays that made you look twice, but rather some very ordinary workman-like performances that got the job done. They were held to only single-goal victories over Malta and Azerbaijan to leave the Italian offense in a state of limbo. They managed only 16 goals in 10 games against weak opponents, which is terrible.
This is where I get really pissed off. It is my own philosophy that in world football you simply cannot play with a three-man back line because of the level of opponents you will face. However, head coach Antonio Conte (who I loved at Juventus) will deploy the 3-5-2 formation because he has no real choice. The goalie and the back three all play at Juventus, which allows for familiarity, and they were the strongest defense in Serie A this year. However, in attack they have absolutely nothing. The fact that Conte chose to leave MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner Sebastian Giovinco at home is laughable. The best forwards on this squad barely make their respective first team, with the exception for Graziano Pelle, who plays for Southampton.
One point and a group stage exit wouldn't surprise me, neither would a run to the semi-finals. That is how jekyll and hyde Italy is. They seem to play their best calcio (soccer) when they are written off, and they are certainly not looked upon to make any noise in France. A loss to Belgium will spell a quick exit for the Italians because I don't see them winning their last two games. Should they finish second in the group, a knockout match with Portugal awaits, which is surprisingly winnable.
This year's version of the Swedish national team is very poor. They are ultimately a one-man team, and even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the way they will likely be watching the knockout stages from their homes. Sweden have exited three of the last four Euros at the group stage and this year are priced accordingly. Should they be able to beat Ireland in their first game, +650 could look pretty juicy. At +10,000 to win the tournament, I'd say save your five bucks and buy a slice of pizza.
How they got here
Sweden was rather unimpressive during qualifying, winning just half of their games and needing a playoff tie against Denmark to secure their spot in France. They finished behind the likes of Russia and Albania, which is a sad result. They managed only 15 goals while conceding nine, which begs the question of if they are any good at playing defense.
I would peg Sweden for a 4-4-2 formation with Ibrahimovic leading the front line and the rest of the squad doing all of the dirty work. Elsewhere in the squad, there are a few known players such as Sebastian Larsson and Marcus Berg, but this is not 2006, and these players are past their prime. This is thin and vulnerable team.
The key matchup is their opening fixture against Ireland, which could go along way in determining if Sweden can qualify for the next round or not. Should they win that match and end up qualifying in third, they would get dusted by France or Spain. Expectations internally shouldn't be too high as they certainly aren't high amongst fans or experts.
Republic of Ireland
Everyone knows that the Republic of Ireland are outsiders and long shots to cause chaos in a group like this. However, they are a workman-like side. And after a shocking 1-0 victory against Germany in qualifying, their belief should be sky-high. Still, it's one thing to secure a qualifying win against a top nation, but it's a completely different game when the games actually mean something right off the hop. Priced as long shots to win the tournament (+12,500) and win the group (+1100), my best bet would to take them "under" their predicted point total of 2.5 for the group stage.
How they got here
Ireland secured their ticket to France after beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1 on aggregate in the playoff matchup. They finished third behind Germany and Poland, which isn't the worst result, and claimed a famous home win over the reigning World Cup champions. What they lack in talent, they make up for in effort.
This one is easy. It's a 4-5-1 formation that is predicated on getting as many men behind the ball and stopping the opponent. The numbers say they scored 19 goals in qualifying. That would be a great stat for 10 games, but they scored 11 of those goals versus Gibraltar. For the record, Gibraltar conceded 56 goals in 10 matches, which means, you, me and nine of our closest friends could score on Gibraltar.
They can't do worse than their previous Euro tournament. They lost all three games and conceded nine goals in the process. While qualification to the knockout stage is a long shot, they should be satisfied with beating Sweden. Anything short of a victory against the Swedes would make for a quick exit out of the competition. My money is on the "Under" 2.5 group stage points.
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