French have to be fancied to add Euro glory to world domination
THREE years on from the last major tournament, and 12 months later than planned, the Euro 2020 finals will finally get started on Friday night when Italy host Turkey in Rome.
While the ongoing pandemic means there are bigger concerns globally than sport, the Euros have huge potential to put smiles back on faces, not least because they are being held in 11 cities across Europe to celebrate 60 years since the first tournament took place.
That it is now actually 61 years matters very little, and the idea of Michel Platini's – blasted as crazy when first proposed – to share hosting duties around so widely could prove a masterstroke.
That said, with Covid still a massive concern, protocols and positive tests will be on the minds of the coaches of the 24 teams involved, in addition to the headaches that always come with navigating a path through to the latter stages of a major tournament.
The very fact there are 24 teams involved is not universally popular, and the quality of the group stages will again be diluted from the format abandoned after Euro 2012.
The expansion has allowed the likes of Finland and North Macedonia to take their bows on the big stage, but once the knock-out phase begins, we should be left with quality sides and some mouth-watering clashes.
In terms of being crowned champions of Europe at Wembley on July 11, the betting would suggest a third of those 24 teams have a realistic chance.
And it is fair to focus on the leading eight sides, even though the likes of Turkey, Ukraine and 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia will quietly harbour hopes of going deep into the tournament.
De facto hosts England are vying for favouritism with World champions France, and if all goes to plan they would have six of their seven matches at Wembley.
Gareth Southgate is a quietly impressive figure, and his credentials as a manager were boosted by a run to the last four of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The detractors would say the draw opened up for England, and it's hard to argue, while the fact they lost twice to Belgium and also to Croatia in the semis highlighted a weakness against the elite teams that appears to still exist.
England might well win Group D ahead of the Croats, Czech Republic and Scotland, but it won't be easy, and from there, one of France, Portgual or Germany lie in wait in the last 16.
Southgate has a wealth of attacking talent to choose from, spearheaded by skipper Harry Kane, but things are less impressive at the other end of the pitch, with Harry Maguire's worrying injury leaving the prospect of a back three consisting of John Stones, Tyrone Mings and Kyle Walker taking on the cream of Europe.
They might get away with it once, but surely it's unrealistic to expect them to see off at least three top teams to lift the silverware.
I can't have them at 5/1, but I can certainly have the French at the same price.
Didier Deschamps' boys flopped in their home final five years ago, losing out to Portugal in extra-time, but they made up for it by winning the World Cup at something of a canter in Russia.
The task now is to emulate the ‘class of 2000', captained by Deschamps, by adding European glory to global success.
They really do look up to that task, even if the draw has placed them in a horror group with Germany, who have three matches on home turf in Munich, and Portugal.
The other way of looking at it is that 5/1 would not be available were the French in a softer group, and they are the best of those three sides, although Portugal are not to be dismissed.
Deschamps has a vastly experienced yet fairly young squad at his disposal, with the decision to bring back Karim Benzema from his exile after a stellar personal season with Real Madrid only adding to the depth and class.
Kylian Mbappe could be the star of the show, Antoine Griezmann has plenty of craft, N'golo Kante and Paul Pogba dovetail well in midfield, and they are so well stocked in defence that Aymeric Laporte has defected to Spain in search of a game.
That opening section, Group F, does look tricky, but win it and things open up against a third-placed team and then possibly Croatia in the quarters.
A last-four spot is the very least of France's ambitions, but this proven group of winners will want the big prize and at 5/1 they are the likeliest European champions.
Behind England and France in the betting come Belgium, at a best-priced 15/2, and they do have a great deal of talent.
That said, Roberto Martinez has an ageing defence, and the 12-month delay could be more damaging to the Red Devils than any of the other leading nations.
Eden Hazard can't get a run of games at all at Real Madrid, while Kevin de Bruyne's Champions League final injury must be a concern. If that pair are struggling, it is hard to see where the service for an in-form Romelu Lukaku comes from, and the world number one-ranked team will be doing well to finally clinch silverware.
Elsewhere, the Germans look far too short at 8/1. Joachim Low is leaving after the finals, and results over the last 12 months suggest the players would like him to have moved on already.
Low has turned back to Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller to add some leadership and steel but it will take more than that to straighten the ship again.
Spain coach Luis Enrique lost a whole chunk of steel and experience when he opted to leave Sergio Ramos out of his squad, with not one Real Madrid player making the cut.
The Spanish (9/1, Bet Victor) have the look of a team in transition, although they reminded everyone of their class by hammering Germany 6-0 in November.
I can see them playing nice stuff in patches, but they are unlikely to last the most testing of courses, while the same has to be said of the Netherlands (14/1, Bet Victor), who are returning to tournament football after a seven-year lay-off.
Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Memphis Depay are fine players, but the Dutch can ill-afford to do without anyone, never mind their leader in Virgil van Dijk, while Frank de Boer was sacked from his last three club jobs and isn't the most inspiring of coaches.
Which leaves Portugal and Italy as the two biggest dangers to France.
After such a condensed club season, and with five subs allowed, squad depth will be crucial, and that may give Portugal the edge.
Italy are resurgent and much-fancied under Roberto Mancini (left), who has restored pride and passion after the embarrassment of failing to qualify for Russia 2018.
The former Manchester City boss has seen his team go 27 matches unbeaten, winning the last seven without conceding a goal.
Mancini may not have huge names in his squad, but his team are well drilled and work hard for each other, with a typical Italian spine supplemented with a high-pressing style that has been very successful.
Jorginho and Marco Verratti keep things ticking in midfield, with Ciro Immobile finally starting to translate his club form at Lazio to the international stage.
I can see the Italians winning Group A ahead of Turkey, Switzerland and Wales – three games in Rome hardly hurts – and they might well see off Belgium in a potential quarter-final.
The stumbling block may be a semi against France should both top their groups.
Italy have been nibbled into 10/1 and have decent claims, but a better bet might be the 2/1 offered by Sky Bet about them reaching the last four.
Portugal, meanwhile, open up in the same group as France and could well be opposite them again come the final, just as they were in Paris in 2016.
If anything, Fernando Santos has an even better team than he did then, with Cristiano Ronaldo still the star, but far from the only one.
From Rui Patricio in goal, thorough Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix, the Portuguese have proven performers and experienced winners.
They should come through the ‘Group of Death' and will take a fair bit of stopping from there, with second in Group F opening up a potentially mouth-watering encounter with England.
I'd be surprised if the reigning champions aren't still standing when the last four converge on Wembley, and they have everything required to go all the way to the decider.
At 9/1 (Sky Bet) they offer decent each-way value, while there are worse ideas than taking the 33/1 about the delayed 2020 decider being a re-run of 2016.
France can get the better of that, and it would be fitting to see their red, white and blue ribbons on the trophy on the evening of July 11.
RONALDO STILL HAS THE CLASS TO CLAIM GOLDEN BOOT
THE expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams in 2016 brought the number of goals required to lift the top scorer accolade more in line with the World Cup.
Antoine Griezmann walked off with all of the personal accolades five years ago, topping the charts as well as being named Player of the Tournament.
Griezmann found the net six times, which more often than not has also been enough to be the main man at the World Cup, as it was for Harry Kane at Russia 2018.
The Spurs forward is favourite to lead the way over the next month, with no bigger than 6/1 available.
There can be no doubt the England skipper is a top-class marksman, and he will also be on penalty duty, something that will take on even more significance with VAR being used in these finals.
That said, there are no Panamas or Tunisias to fill his boots against in the group stages, and I'm just not convinced England are going to go as well as expected, so Kane may only have four games.
Belgium's record scorer Romelu Lukaku will be hopeful of playing more than that, and he is next in the markets at around 7/1 on the back of two very productive seasons at Inter.
It's hard to put anyone off Lukaku, who will have his eyes on the group game with Finland to make a mark, although he will rely on service and if Kevin de Bruyne isn't quite fit it would be a blow.
It makes sense to look at the front men from teams who should be around at the business end, and it is worth remembering there is no third-place play-off in the Euros, which means only the finalists get seven outings.
I'm a big fan of Portugal, and a natural follow-on from that is expecting Cristiano Ronaldo to be amongst the goals.
There's very little he hasn't achieved in his career, but taking home a golden boot is one of them, and given Ronaldo's ego, he will want to put that right.
He only needs one goal to be the all-time European Championships top scorer, going past Michel Platini, but Ronaldo will want more, and he has been placed in the last three major tournaments.
While Juventus endured a difficult season, the 36-year-old found the net 36 times in all competitions, and he should be on the end of some top-class service from Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Diogo Jota.
At the 12/1 generally on offer, Ronaldo is a great each-way bet at the very least with most firms paying four places.
Meanwhile, Karim Benzema's return to the France fold has shaken this market up a bit, and there is a chance the goals could be shared out amongst the various attacking talents in their ranks.
Kylian Mbappe is possibly too short at around 8/1, while Benzema can be backed at double those odds.
However, it is worth taking a chance on Griezmann again at 25s.
The Barcelona man has hardly had a stellar season, but he still scored 19 goals and has proven tournament pedigree, adding to his six five years ago with four more at the World Cup.
He was on penalty duty on both occasions, and may be again with Mbappe and Benzema both missing from the spot recently.
Griezmann is definitely appealing at the price, while a potential dark horse could be Turkey captain Burak Yilmaz.
The veteran striker scored 16 times in 28 games as Lille won Ligue 1, while he has found his shooting boots at international level too, with five in his last four games.
Turkey could well be in for a decent run here, and Yilmaz offers a fair alternative to the bigger names at 40/1 generally.
EURO 2020 – PICK OF THE SPECIALS
UEFA broke with their own traditions when Antoine Griezmann won the Euro 2016 Player of the Tournament award despite not being on the winning team.
That said, the final went to extra-time and when the votes were cast the winner was still not known, so it's fair to say this summer's recipient will have to be performing in the decider on July 11.
Kylian Mbappe is the favourite at around 8/1 and there is every chance he will pick up this award.
History shows, however, that the big-wigs like a midfield fulcrum, with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Theo Zagorakis (really) all previous winners.
If France do win the tournament, N'golo Kante will probably be their key man, and he will have backers at 20/1, although he may not be glamorous enough for the voters.
Therefore, a small play on Paul Pogba (left) at 33s may just pay off.
With Kante doing the leg work, Pogba will be free to show off his undoubted talent and passing range and he has the high profile Uefa love.
The other player to consider at a price is Italy's Marco Verratti, who is apparently winning his fight to be fit.
The Italians can go deep in this event, and the PSG midfielder is their key man.
There are concerns over a knee injury, but the 60/1 available make this a risk worth taking.
WITH four of the six third-placed sides from the groups going through to the knock-out stages, backing teams to qualify is a difficult business, especially as some firms have all four teams at odds-on in certain groups.
Scotland are 11/10 with William Hill to get out of the group for the first time, and two games at Hampden Park might just be enough to see them escape from Group D.
Three points could suffice as long as any defeats are narrow ones, and Steve Clarke will surely have pin-pointed the clash with Czech Republic on Monday as the key game.
The Scots beat the Czechs 1-0 in the Nations League last October and will hope for more of the same, and with a tight defence and more ability in forward areas than most people think, a win is well within their grasp.
That might even set them up to claim at least another point against either England or Croatia, so the 11/10 is attractive enough.
Five of the six groups have clear favourites, with Group F the obvious exception given the calibre of Germany, France and Portugal.
The Germans are jollies to top the section with a lot of firms, presumably by virtue of their three games in Munich, but France are great value at 13/8 with Paddy Power.
They can assert authority against Germany in Munich on Tuesday and stride on from there.
It might be worth doing a double on them alongside Belgium (4/5) to top Group B ahead of Denmark, Russia and Finland.
The Red Devils have two away games in Copenhagen and St Petersburg to start but have swatted both opponents aside in recent times and could well do so again.
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