By Antony Jordan
Group E at this summer’s European Championship promises to be a very interesting group of four nations as it features the side currently top of the FIFA rankings for Europe in Belgium who are currently second in the world, the 1968 winners and three time finalists Italy as well as the Zlatan Ibrahimovic powered Sweden and an Irish side that took four points from world champions Germany in the qualification group.
Who’ll progress from this group to the last 16 stage? We preview this quartet of nations, their squads and their chances of progression to provide our top Group E Picks with online sportsbook William Hill.
13/06/2016 – Ireland v Sweden
13/06/2016 – Belgium v Italy
17/06/2016 – Italy v Sweden
18/06/2016 – Belgium v Ireland
22/06/2016 – Sweden v Belgium
22/06/2016 – Italy v Ireland
Group E Winner (To qualify for KO Stage) Odds with William Hill:
Although they sit second only to Argentina in the FIFA rankings, the Belgians are making their first appearance in the European Championships since they co-hosted the competition with the Dutch in 2000. They do have a good record in the tournament with a third place finish in 1972 (although there were just four teams entered) and reached the final in 1980 where they were beaten by the Germans. With that final appearance and reaching the semi-finals at the 1986 World Cup the 80’s were a halcyon period for the small nation, but with them making the last eight at the World Cup two years ago and sitting so far up the world rankings they will believe that can move towards the latter stages in France this summer.
The Belgian squad has been hit by a number of defensive injuries in the time leading up to the championships and the loss of their captain Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City central defender, will be their biggest loss. However, they have a very capable central defensive partnership in Tottenham and Barcelona players Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen and on top of this a top quality and creative midfield featuring players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens in midfield as well as Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi adding serious firepower up front the side certain deserves to be the favourites to top the group.
Realistically, anything less than the semi-finals in France this summer will see the Group E favourites having underperformed.
The Italians are one of the most experienced sides at the top level of international football with six World Cup Final appearances as well as three deciders in the previous iterations of this summer’s tournament, winning four and one of those nine matches respectively. Things have been hit and miss for The Azzurri in recent times though with group stage exits at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups while they were beaten in the 2012 European Championships by Spain four years ago, but they showcased some fine ability to win football matches during the qualification phase for this tournament as they topped Group H ahead of Croatia despite scoring fewer and conceding more goals than the side in second. Can they control matches in this fashion to make the avoid just their third ever group stage exit at the Euros?
If Italy are to progress in France this summer we are going to be subjected to defensively solid performances as they have omitted Andrea Pirlo from the squad and Stephan El Shaarawy is their most capped striker with just 18 appearances for the side. In total their six strikers have netted just 14 goals for the Mediterranean nation while on midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who has been capped 102 times, has scored more than six goals. They do bring a strong backline though with bags of experience in defence and, of course, Gianluigi Buffon with 157 caps captaining the side from between the goalposts. They will have a difficult time of things preventing the Belgians and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from scoring, but if they can do this then there is plenty of opportunity for progression for this solid, if not spectacular, Italian side.
The history of the Swedish national side at international competitions has a chequered past as they reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1938, 1950 and 1994 as well as making the final on home soil in 1958 where they were undone by the genius of Pelé and they also reached the final four stage on home soil at the 1992 Euros too. They have failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and three of their last four European Championship appearances have ended at the group stage, while they made the last eight stage in 2004. This tournament is likely to mark the end of the international career of 34 year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic so will the prolific striker be able to fire his country into the knockout round?
As well as seeing one international career come to a close this summer’s tournament will launch the next generation of Swedish players moving forwards as manager Erik Hamrén has drafted in six players from the U-21 side that last summer triumphed at the U-21 European Championships. If they can combine well with and learn from the players that guided the country to the European Championships via a Play Off against Denmark then the future looks bright for the former giants of the world stage. However, whether they progress this summer will depend on how their focal man and only real world class start, Zlatan, performs as their defence and midfield could easily find themselves overrun against the other sides in this group.
The pinnacle of Ireland’s career in FIFA events came very early in their lifetime as they defeated their biggest rivals England in their first match at the 1988 European Championships and although they exited that tournament at the group stage they did stay ahead of the English in the standings. Two years later the Emerald Isle was celebrating as they reached the Quarter Finals of the 1990 World Cup before exiting at the hands of the hosts, Italy. Since then things have not gone so well as they have failed to qualify for the last three World Cups and their 2012 European Championships saw them finish bottom of their group, but taking four points from the Germans during the qualification phase and seeing off the favoured Bosnians in the Play Offs will see them filled with confidence for the tournament this summer.
Their performances at Euro 2012 four years ago will certainly drive them forwards in France along with a fantastic team ethic and spirit. They’ll need both of these are they lack a truly world class player amongst the squad and the majority of the side comes from the lower reaches of the Premier League as well as the Football League in England. Up front Shane Long and Jon Walters both had good seasons for Southampton and Stoke, and are both capable of firing in goals, as is recording breaking captain Robbie Keane with his 143 caps and 67 goals. The rest of the side is functional and battling, but Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady in midfield are both capable of creating chances, but despite this apparent lack of quality they are still capable of scoring goals and winning matches. They are enigma like though as they generally will either perform excellently or terribly, so which Ireland side will we see this summer?
Having taken a look through the four sides that make up Group E of the 2016 European Championships it appears as if it’ll be the Belgians, even with their defensive injuries, who top the group with the strongest side of all. We see the Italians, despite their lack of experienced attackers, Sweden, who are a one man side, and the hit and miss Irish who battle for at least one, and potentially two, spots in the last 16 stage.
There is certainly value on Ireland to qualify and we’ll be having a small bet on them to upset the odds, and at least one of Italy and Sweden, but our main bet from Group E is for the even money favourites – Belgium – to win this group.