17.00 Hungary v Portugal (Group F)
Few could have imagined that Hungary would be leading this group as it swung into the final games, especially as two of the tournaments dark horses are stabled within. But lead it they do and deservedly so. Theirs is a squad with few household names but true to their illustrious history, they are technically proficient and, crucially for tournament play, understand how to work as a team.
Portugal have, rightly or wrongly, become something of a laughing stock this summer thanks in no small part to Cristiano Ronaldo’s mean-spirited words about Iceland and his subsequently hapless display for Portugal in their goalless draw with Austria. In German, this reaction falls broadly beneath the term ‘schadenfreude’, which is to derive pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. In many other countries, the image of the Simpson’s character, Nelson Muntz, pointing and shouting “ha, ha” does the same job.
Which is not to say that Portugal are a busted flush. Lest it be forgotten, although they have scored just once, they have taken a total of 52 shots on goal over two matches. The law of averages suggests that they should begin to go in at some stage, especially when you have a variable of Ronaldo’s ability in the fabled locker. Hungary have likely done enough secure qualification to the next round but will not look to roll over and have their belly tickled.
Portugal are strong favourites with the bookies to win this match with a price of 4/9 being widely quoted. Odds of 11/1 for a Hungary win seem quite generous in light of their form so far but a win is probably beyond them. A draw, however, isn’t altogether unlikely and PaddyPower have a price of 7/2 for that result.
17.00 Iceland v Austria (Group F)
Iceland will consider themselves to have been dreadfully unlucky in their round 2 game against Hungary. Leading 1-0 coming into the final stretch, they conspired to score an own goal in the 88th minute of an uneventful game and shared the spoils with their opponents. Had they have held on, their progress to the knock-out stages would likely have been secured. As it stands, they have done better than most had expected and yet, are still close to the edge.
Luckily for them, they get to face an Austria team that has been one of the most lackluster around (Russia win the overall prize in that category). Star man, David Alaba, has been ineffective & inaccurate in both thought & deed and given that so much of their play depends on him, Austria have found the going very tough indeed. Still, the way the group has panned out means that should they beat Iceland, it will be them and not their northern opponents who will progress.
Having said that, Austria have been so poor, it is difficult to imagine them finding a performance good enough to beat Iceland. A draw, certainly but they have been so utterly lacking in guile and game management, that a win is arguably beyond them. Best price for a draw is 5/2 and comes by way of Bet365.
20.00 Italy v Republic of Ireland (Group E)
The Italians have taken six points from their opening two games and thus have secured top place in group E, regardless of what transpires in round 3. Italy boss, Antonio Conte, will look to make sweeping changes to his team in order to avoid injury and yellow cards to his senior men. This is unlikely to signal a change in approach, however, and these players will be doing their utmost to impress the boss.
Ireland have taken a solitary point from their opening games and are now in do-or-die territory. Anything other than a win here will Martin O’Neill’s men trudge home in dejection. Whilst they were unfortunate in terms of some poor refereeing in their match against Belgium (they were denied a stonewall penalty with the score at 0-0; Belgium scored seconds after), they were ultimately outplayed and can only blame themselves for not using the ball better.
Ireland beat Germany 1-0 in their qualifying campaign and with victory over the world champions lodged in their collective memories, they will know that they can beat Italy, too. However, in order to do this, they will have to play with an intensity and quality that their performances so far have failed to show and with key players like James McCarthy playing below par, it will be a tough task.
For some reason, many bookmakers still have England at shorter odds to win outright than Italy but the Italians won’t mind that. They are going about their business in classic Italian style and will probably be there or thereabouts come the shake up. They are favourites to win here but a fight-to-the-death Ireland team will make a game of it so for the third preview in a row, this column will go for a draw at 41/18 from MarathonBet, meaning you should probably put your money elsewhere.
20.00 Sweden v Belgium (Group E)
Sweden are alongside Ireland at the bottom of this group on one point. Their talismanic quote machine, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has failed to fire as his country expected and not surprisingly, the team has floundered as a result. As noted on these pages previously, the problem with having a player of Zlatan’s talent and will is that if he ineffective, the other players don’t always have the wherewithal to emerge from the shadow cast and the claim the game as their own.
Belgium will have been very pleased with their afternoon’s work against the Republic of Ireland last Saturday. The much-criticised manager, Marc Wilmots, made a host of changes from the first game and reaped the rewards as his team ran out comfortable winners. The question is then, can they kick on from here?
Certainly the win will have given them a reminder of what they are capable of, especially against weaker teams. Play like they did against Ireland and they really should account for Sweden tonight. And after that, who knows?
There is one aspect that we have failed to mention. The situation exists whereby Belgium could be dumped out of the competition if Sweden were to beat them and Ireland were to beat Italy. Granted, it’s unlikely but they cannot afford to lose concentration in this match. Zlatan will do his very best to mount some type of persona-defining performance but if they can resist him, Belgium should take all three points. 5/6 is probably the best price that result and BetFred amongst a host of others are offering just that.