The countdown is over and its finally time to play some soccer! Grab a beer, find a comfy spot to watch and enjoy over the next month, because it'll be over quicker than you know it.
Depending on what time you are reading this at, France is either still playing or has beaten Romania comfortably (which is what I'm going to assume has happened).
What I'm here to do now, after all the previews and after all the predictions, is share with you some of my picks heading into the weekend action. We have six games between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. That presents us with a chance to find the best possible lines and exploit the many matchup problems teams face during the group stage.
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There are some interesting games on tap. Some I think you can only bet one way despite the steep price or pass, and the other games I think are just too close to call, which means I will pass.
As always, odds are courtesy of our friends at Bovada.
Wales vs. Slovakia
This game is the second game to be played on Saturday and kicks off at noon EST.
I will just state the obvious right out of the gate. This first game is going to go a long way in helping one of these teams qualify for the knockout stage, probably at the expense of their opponent. I can't envision this game being anything other than a free-flowing game with lots of chances for both teams. Both teams have a plethora of offensive strengths.
Wales possess the "most expensive player in world football" (love using that line) and probably one of the quickest when 100 percent healthy. Gareth Bale needs to have a breakout type tournament if Wales is to make any noise in this tournament. Bale scored 11 goals in qualifying, and the team seems to rally around him. Their midfield boasts the likes of Aaron Ramsey, who can turn a trick on his day, Joe Allen and Andy King. All of those players are attack minded.
Slovakia's best player is striker Marek Hamsik. He's a good one, too. The focus of their formation and tactics rely on getting him the ball as soon and as often as possible to let the mohawked wonder create the chances.
Both these teams know that this is probably the match that they can both win. A draw wouldn't be the worst result, but a loss would probably put qualifying for the knockouts out of reach. Both teams will go for the jugular early because that's just how they play.
I expect at least three or four goals in this matchup, with Hamsik and Bale finding the back of the net.
Pick: Wales vs. Slovakia "Over" 2 Goals (+105)
Poland vs. Northern Ireland
It will be a great moment for Northern Ireland as they take center stage for their first international tournament since 1986. I'm just afraid the celebration will be short lived after they get taken to the woodshed by a hungry Polish squad.
Poland led all teams in scoring during qualification by netting a whopping 33 goals in just 10 games. They are led by Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, who is a striker who will become a household name very soon. Together, they form one of the most lethal scoring partnerships in the entire tournament. We all know how good Lewandowski is as he plays for Bayern Munich and consistently scores against the biggest teams in Europe. Milik, on the other hand, is only 22 years-old and burst onto the scene by scoring 21 goals in 28 Dutch League starts for Ajax. That is a very impressive record.
Now I ask this question - Who is going to stop these two from running rampant in the attacking third? While Northern Ireland is a defense-first team with a 4-4-1-1 formation, the quality of players they boast to not match up to that of Poland's hitmen.
Northern Ireland will not see much of the ball throughout this game, and their only real threat will come through set pieces, which, to be honest, are a threat for every team pretty much. Yes, they have some big guys that can head the ball home, but I don't think they will be given very many chances to capitalize on those opportunities.
I think the line of -145 is a gift and I suggest you get it before it skyrockets up to around -170, -180 like I think it will.
Don't overthink it. Poland is the better team with more depth and experience all over the field. They know this game is a must if they want to qualify at top of the group.
Pick: Poland ML -145
England vs. Russia
This has to be the year England lives up to expectations and makes some noise in a major tournament. I don't think English supporters can stomach any more disappointment. It just has to happen eventually, doesn't it?
This England squad is a good team. They have one of the most lethal group of forwards in the tournament with the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. They are solid in midfield and have a goalie that can steal a game if he's called upon to do so. The only question is the back line. And while that is an issue for any matchup, I think Russia is the wrong team to bank on to exploit the weakness.
Russia is a good team and has a bunch of players that generally play in Russia for CSKA. They were unable to make any noise in the last major tournament, and heading into Saturday's game with England they are missing arguably their two best strikers. That's a tall task for any team to overcome, let alone against a good team like England.
England figures to line up in a 4-3-3 formation and attack right from the start. I heard that Vardy would be starting on the bench, which makes Harry Kane the man of the hour. Usually never one to shy away form big moments, he should be able to produce some sort of magic against an older Russian team that lacks pace.
I think the line is fishy, sitting only at -110 on the moneyline. It's almost like Vegas is asking for people to take England, knowing full well that a classic letdown is a real possibility. I just can't see how Russia can score goals and keep pace with England.
Pick: England ML (-110)
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