The sporting highlight of the summer kicks off this week, as 24 nations aim to win the 2016 European Championships in France. After Germany’s 7-1 destruction of hosts Brazil in the World Cup semi-finals two years ago, Joachim Löw’s side were crowned world champions after edging past Argentina in the final. Subsequently, when the Euro 2016 market first opened, Die Mannschaft were short favourites to earn European glory two summers on from their success in South America.
However, an underwhelming qualifying campaign and a number of unconvincing performances has seen Germany's price gradually drift. After away losses to Republic of Ireland (1-0) and Poland (2-0), plus friendly defeats on home soil to Slovakia (3-1) and England (3-2), they are rated as a 9/2 chance. Meanwhile, France’s stock has grown rapidly over the past 12 months and the current crop of players seem to be going through something of a renaissance, with a number of crucial members of the team hitting their peak. Now recognised as favourites for the competition, home advantage can play a key role and they are also the last host nation to be crowned European champions. The 7/2 price may have gone but Les Blues are still worth supporting at a slightly shorter price.
A glance over their squad will immediately highlight the terrifying amount of talent manager Didier Deschamps has at his disposal. Between the sticks, Hugo Lloris captains the side, aided by Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny in the backline of a 4-3-3 set-up. Paul Pogba controls the midfield, alongside the likes of N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Dimitri Payet. Attacking startlets Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann look set to dazzle on the big stage, whilst wonderkid Kingsley Coman could also play an important part. Unfortunately Raphael Varane and Lassana Diarra will miss the tournament with injury.
The absence of Karim Benzema has been a hot topic, with the Real Madrid forward currently suspended from international duty due to his involvement in a sex-tape blackmailing case against teammate Mathieu Valbuena. He is without doubt his nation’s finest striker, but he rarely replicates his club form for his country and has a poor goalscoring record at international tournaments. Even away from Martial and Griezmann, France can call also on Oliver Giroud – so Benzema’s absence may not be so significant after all.
Out of the main challengers to France, Germany are the biggest threat but seem to lack the desire and togetherness seen in Brazil two years ago. There are huge question marks over their defence after Per Mertesacker and Phillip Lahm have both retired. Defending champions Spain still have a number of the same players from the historic treble of two European Championships and a World Cup from 2008 to 2012. Their problems in front of goal may be the undoing of Vicente del Bosque’s team – Spain lost friendlies against France, Germany and Holland without scoring. Plus the group-stage exit in Brazil will still be fresh in their minds. Elsewhere, England seem far too short at 9/1 and considering the youth of the squad, a semi-final spot would represent huge success for Roy Hodgson’s players.
*BEST BET* FRANCE - 16/5 (4.2)
The phrase ‘golden generation’ often gets passed between national sides, and it is one that currently hangs over the crop of Belgian players. There is quality all over the pitch. Despite an inconsistent season at Chelsea, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is world class, and is backed up by the imperious centre-back duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembele provide steel in midfield, with Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne constantly a threat going forward. After an impressive season in the Premier League, Romelu Lukaku will likely start up front. Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi are both useful options off the bench.
Group E looks tricky but manageable, with Sweden, Italy and Ireland their opponents. The Belgians’ potential route to the final is a worry – they’ll likely face Croatia, Germany and France should they top the group. However, this tournament represents the best chance for some of their star performers to really find their potential on the international stage.
They suffered just one loss in qualifying, but what is more impressive is the fact that the Red Devils have lost just twice competitively in four years. With an abundance of match-winners in the squad, back Belgium to steal the show.
BELGIUM - 11/1 (12.0) each-way
Only four teams made it to France without losing – England, Italy, Romania and Austria. Traditionally European minnows, Austria look well placed to cause an upset this summer. The Austrians fired in the third-highest amount of shots-on-target per game (7.6) during qualification.
Backed up by an impressive defensive unit that was breached just five times in ten matches, Austria are more than capable of topping their group. They are 2/1 to win Group F, featuring Portugal, Iceland and Hungary, which looks like one of the best bets of the tournament.
Without pressure and guided by the world class David Alaba and Premier League champion Christian Fuchs, who knows how far this exciting Austrian team can progress in France. Attacking players like Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko will not have anything to fear. At 45/1, Marcel Kroller’s team are a great selection as dark horses.
AUSTRIA - 45/1 (46.0) each-way
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