The Republic of Ireland have been handed a very difficult group for this summer’s Euros, with two of the outside favourites and a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired Sweden their opponents in Group E. Even qualification as one of the highest ranked third placed teams - which would most likely see them face France or Spain in the second round – seems unlikely for Martin O’Neill’s side.
The group kicks off with the two most important matches; Ireland versus Sweden is essentially a play-off match, whilst Italy and Belgium battle it out for top spot and a second round match against Czech Republic or Croatia.
Antonio Conte likes to play an aggressive counter-attacking game built on speed, high pressing, and a tightly compact defensive structure. It is the perfect system for Italy to employ given that their attacking strengths are very limited; this is one of the least talented Italy squads in some time.
Their main strength is in defence, where the imperious Juventus trio of Andre Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, and Gianluigi Buffon will be very difficult to beat. Italy conceded just seven goals in qualifying whilst Juventus conceded only 20 goals in Serie A all season.
Things are more troubling higher up the pitch. Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne is their most creative attacker (12 goals, 10 assists this season) and he will have to deliver, if Italy are to win the group ahead of Belgium.
Marco Verratti’s absence is a huge blow; Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo will not be able to dominate in the same way, which is likely to make a decisive difference against the height and strength in the Belgium midfield.
Their recent 4-1 defeat to Germany and 3-1 defeat to Belgium suggest they do not have the quality to go too far, and likely will not top this group.
Italy NOT to win Group E: 1.52*
This could be the final opportunity for Belgium’s golden generation to come good, and preparations have been promising. A comfortable qualifying campaign saw them concede just five goals, whilst excellent domestic campaigns for the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele, Radja Nainggolan, and Romelu Lukaku should mean confidence is high in the camp.
Italy’s recent 4-1 defeat to Germany and 3-1 defeat to Belgium suggest they do not have the quality to go too far in Euro 2016.
Eden Hazard has returned to form at just the right time, and Kevin de Bruyne is back to full fitness; this is without doubt one of the most talented and complete nations in the tournament.
In the past, Belgium have struggled to link together their excellent central midfield with the strong but fairly immobile Christian Benteke, but Lukaku has improved greatly in a possession-centric Everton side whilst the emergence of Yannick Carrasco at Atletico offers them greater energy in the final third.
Their possession dominant style should see them grind out the wins they need to win Group E before a knock-out match against the runners-up of Group D. Belgium should reach the quarter-finals without much difficulty.
Belgium to win Group E: 2.10*
Republic of Ireland
The best thing about Republic of Ireland is their tenacity and dedication to the cause. This is a squad filled with scrappy players that have punched above their weight for years at Premier League clubs. Martin O’Neill is similarly a passionate over-achiever, which could make for an exciting tournament providing they record a victory in their opening match against Sweden.
The 1-0 win over Germany in qualifying will give fans hope of a couple of shock wins, but this Ireland team is very light in attack. Shane Long leads the line, and the support for him is limited; Aiden McGeady has been in poor form for Sheffield Wednesday and Wes Hoolahan is now 33 years of age.
James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan are arguably the two most important players in this side, but neither has shown enough this season to suggest they can stop Ibrahimovic, Insigne, and Lukaku in Group E.
Republic of Ireland NOT to advance from Group E: 1.571*
Currently ranked 36 in the world by FIFA and 29 according to Elo ratings, this is not a strong Sweden squad. They only won half of their qualifying matches despite being in one of the tamest groups and only narrowly defeated Denmark in the play-offs. This really is a one man team, and therefore we should not expect too many goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Since he is not a hard working player, opportunities to produce his magic will be few and far between.
The mean Italian defence will know how to deal with him, and Alderweireld is experienced enough to prevent the PSG striker from dominating. However, they have a good chance to squeeze past Ireland in the opening game and qualify in third.
Sweden to advance from Group E: 1.854*
Group E: What to look out for
Ireland and Sweden play each other in an opening game that should determine the whole group: if the match ends in a draw then neither side is likely to qualify in third. Italy are perhaps the most likely of the big nations to have a disastrous tournament and fall at the first hurdle, although this group is probably not tricky enough to see them finish lower than second.
Euro 2016 Group betting previews by Alex Keble
Odds to win the Euro 2016*
See the latest Euro 2016 odds, including Top Goal scorer, who will reach the semi-finals, over/under points and much more under the left-hand side menu Bet Options/Specials!
See the latest Euro 2016 odds, including Top Goal scorer, who will reach the semi-finals, over/under points and much more under the left-hand side menu Specials!
*Odds subject to change