14.00 Spain v Czech Republic (Group D)
Spain, in case anyone has forgotten, are the reigning European champions. They are also, you’ll be shocked to learn, one of the favourites in this tournament. Does this speak of of their enduring qualities as a team or is it as a result of the reformatted and extended 24 team tournament necessarily weakening the overall quality? As is so often the case, it’s a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B. They are certainly one of the strongest teams in the tournament but it is also true that they are no longer the team they once were. They’re good but just how good? Time will tell.
They certainly don’t have a ‘gimme’ for an opener. The Czech Republic have been described as a very flexible team, capable of playing with creativity and speed or defending in a block should the game demand it of them. In Tomas Rosicky they have a player capable of turning the meanest of defenses inside out and between the sticks, they can call on the skill and experience of Petr Cech. They will need to call on their collective resolve to steer their way through what is arguably the toughest of the six groups.
Few have forgotten what happened to Spain in their opening game of World Cup 2014 and no-one more so than Spain themselves. There is little chance that they will allow themselves to be caught cold in this match. Although there are still a number of doubts about the style and efficacy of their play, they are favourites to win here. Having said that, all prices other than the Spanish win are enticing given that the Czech’s are no mugs. Everyone and their mother have Spain to win at 1/2 but BetVictor’s 17/5 for the draw and BoyleSports 15/2 for a Czech win are worth pondering.
17.00 Republic of Ireland v Sweden (Group E)
Fairly or unfairly, many commentators have both these teams down as broadly similar insofar as they are quite average but with one crucial difference – the Big Z of Ibrahimovic. With little regard for context, it is far from an outlandish school of thought. Zlatan stands out from the respective fare like a comb in a bald man’s bathroom.
Ireland come into this tournament desperate to atone for a miserable adventure this time four years ago when they finished bottom of their group with no points and some soul-destroying defeats off the back of largely miserable performances. There seems to be a more positive vibe around their camp this time, however and if there is one thing Irish teams traditionally bring, it is heart and commitment. This summer they’ll be hoping that they can marry those strengths with skill and considered craft.
This column is willing to wager that not a single article written about this Swedish team has omitted mention of Zlatan. He towers over Sweden like a colossus and, if questions about his aptitude and commitment were at times a feature of his international career, few such accusations have been levelled of late. He is not only their main goal scorer but is also the goal creator. Most of what is good about this team flows through him.
If Zlatan really turns it on, one fears for Ireland in this game. If, however, the men in green can shackle him or if he has an off day, Ireland might well sneak it. On balance, a draw is not an unlikely outcome, not that it will do either team much good given the matches they have further down the line. Best price there is 28/13 from 888Sport.
20.00 Belgium v Italy (Group E)
Two favourites of bookies and punters alike, Sweden and Ireland must have cursed their luck to be stuck in the same group. It’s been said that for all the wealth of talent available to Belgium, coach Marc Wilmots does not know how to make the best use of the talent available to him. The Belgians come into this tournament ranked second in the world and when you consider that they can count on the likes of Hazard, de Bruyne, Lukaku, Carrasco, Origi and Benteke amongst others just up front, it is easy to understand why. It’s in defense where they have the most cause for concern. Captain and talisman, Vincent Kompany, is injured as is second-choice centre back, Nicoals Lombaerts which means Toby Alderweireld will have to switch from his customary fullback position to fill.
Italy are arguably the best tournament team around. Even with clouds of doubt circling them as they enter this tournament (injuries to key players such as Veratti and Marchisio as well as a lack of prolific goal scorers are some of the issues), they have a habit of confounding the critics by playing relatively poorly at beginning before finding their feet and performing well in the latter stages – should they get that far. What isn’t doubted is the brilliance of their defense. The Juventus back four (including ‘keeper Gigi Buffon) are replicated in full for the national side and will it take some brilliance to break them down.
On the whole, Belgium have the more dynamic player and yet the feeling persists that they are less than the sum of their parts. Italy, on the other hand, usually know what to do and you would expect them if not to excite then to consolidate themselves and be very hard to beat. This column reckons a draw might be in the offing here. Best price there comes from BoyleSports at 11/5.