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Friday, 24 June 2016

Euro 2016 Second Round Picks (June 25-27)

Euro 2016 Second Round Picks
The expanded format of the Euro 2016 tournament might not have been to everyone's taste, but I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised with how it has worked. There simply hasn't been a dead rubber in the tournament so far with so many of the teams knowing the importance of Group positions, while only one team were eliminated before the final round of games.

I also think there has been an encouraging trend towards attacking football and most teams have looked to win games rather than settling for draws that might have been the most convenient result.

And there have been some surprises.

The failure of Spain and England to win their Groups means they join the likes of Italy, Germany and France in the bottom half of the draw which has opened the door for a potential surprise Finalist.

Or it has opened the door for a team like Belgium to show why so many have put them down as a potential 'golden generation', but it won't be an easy run to the Final for them either. Croatia, as long as the fans behave, have the talent to beat any team in their half of the draw, while the likes of Poland and Wales may feel they can surprise in the summer of a season in which Leicester City shook up the Premier League.

The most disappointed teams have to be those I have mentioned that failed to win their Group- Spain and England should have been in the so called 'weaker' half of the draw, but failing to win their last game has left them in this spot. Both can be rightly criticised as Spain missed a penalty and then conceded late in a game they could have drawn to win the Group, while Roy Hodgson will have some explaining to do after changing more than half of his starting line up for the final Group game against Slovakia which ended in a goalless draw.

The short straw has obviously been drawn by Spain and Italy who will meet in a huge game on Monday, but England are also left in a situation where they will likely have to beat France and then Germany/Spain/Italy simply to get to the Final. With the pressure on Hodgson to at least reach a Semi Final, perhaps the England manager's office could be looking to be filled by a new occupant in time for the World Cup Qualifiers at the beginning of September.

There are some big Second Round matches to be played in the coming three days as we prepare for the final few days of multiple games being played on the same day. After this we will have one game per day, at best, and the withdrawal symptoms from the missing Premier League may begin to settle in.

Thankfully there isn't so long to wait one this tournament is over though.

Saturday 25th June
Switzerland v Poland PickFor many of the fans watching Euro 2016, the feeling was that the tournament wouldn't really start until the Knock Out Stages. With only eight of twenty-four teams going out in the Group Stage, that is an understandable reaction but now we have gotten to the time where one mistake can cost a team a place in the Quarter Finals.

The natural inclination is to move towards thinking these games will be a lot more cautious with so much on the line and that can make it tough to pick the way they will go.

Both Switzerland and Poland have been in good form in the tournament so far and both have to think they won't have too many better chances to get into a major international tournament Quarter Final. That can create its own pressure on players and I am not that surprised that the layers are not expecting a lot of goals.

This Stadium in Saint-Etienne has seen six goals scored in the three games here in the Group and one of those was the Slovakia-England goalless draw. The pitch is playing well compared with some of the others in France and I can see both Switzerland and Poland being able to play some very strong football in this one.

Goals have been an issue for both teams in the tournament so far though and both defences have combined for five clean sheets in six games. That is a contrast to the form they were displaying going into Euro 2016, but has to be respected and instead I believe backing Poland to progress is the right call.

Poland have just looked a little better all around than Switzerland and have a player in Robert Lewandowski who looks to be the star turn on the field. There is quality in the squad and I think Poland will have enough to move through in this match, although I will back them on the level ball Asian Handicap which will return stakes if the match does go into extra time.

Wales v Northern Ireland PickWhen England and Wales played each other in the Group, the match very much took on the feel of an English club game and I think this Second Round is going to have a similar feel.

Both Northern Ireland and Wales have to be looking at the other as an ideal Second Round opponent and there will be some familiarity having played in March. Northern Ireland were moments away from winning that friendly played in Cardiff and ending their poor run through recent years against Wales, but they were denied at the death.

You have to consider that neither Aaron Ramsey nor Gareth Bale played in that match while many of those Northern Ireland players that started that game will likely be in the starting eleven in this one. It is hard to ignore the quality that Ramsey and Bale will offer Wales in this one and I think that will give them an edge in a match where both teams will set out in similar ways.

The defensive units being compact is the key for both Wales and Northern Ireland, although the former will look for Bale and Ramsey to use their speed and quality whole Northern Ireland may look to take advantage of set pieces. I really liked the way Northern Ireland played against Ukraine and I don't think they will be overawed in facing Wales so I can see more attacking play than the layers who have again left some tempting numbers when backing goals.

And I don't mean backing at least three goals to be shared out, I mean backing at least two goals to be scored which can be found at 1.70 which does look appealing. All of the Wales Group games would have seen that number hit and Northern Ireland created enough in their win over Ukraine, while also giving up plenty of chances to Poland and Germany, to think that can come in.

Games at the Parc des Princes have not featured a lot of goals which might concern, but I was more tempted in simply backing Wales to win at odds against anyway and won't put off anyone in suggesting there will be at least two goals. I like Wales with the likes of Bale and Ramsey being able to unlock the Northern Ireland defence and I think they can prove to be very dangerous on the counter attack through the ninety minutes.

While I have a lot of respect for the way Northern Ireland have conducted themselves on the field and in the stands, I think those two players mentioned are the best on the field. In the Knock Out Stages of these major international tournaments, those players can come to the fore and I like a moment of magic from one, or both, to beat Northern Ireland and move into the nosebleed area of a Quarter Final here in France.

Croatia v Portugal PickYou can't have been anything but impressed with the way Croatia came from behind to beat Spain in their final Group game which has put them in the 'weaker' half of the draw to the Final on July 10th. Spain missing a penalty at 1-1 was the key moment in the match, but Croatia showed why so many have tipped them as a potential winner here.

Having won the Group, Croatia would have hoped for better than a clash with Portugal in the Second Round and this does look like one of the better Second Round matches. The latter have put themselves in this spot having failed to win a Group game against limited opposition, but Portugal will feel beating Croatia opens up the path to playing in the Final in two weeks time.

I can imagine Croatia earning plenty of backers and the layers have placed them as the favourite in this match, but Cristiano Ronaldo will be a constant threat in this game. His two goals against Hungary may have seen him come alive in the tournament at just the right time for Portugal who may also feel they can peak in the Knock Out Stage of the Finals.

Personally I am finding it hard to separate these teams and the prospects of extra time and perhaps even penalties does loom large. Both teams have looked a little vulnerable defensively which could make this an entertaining game to watch for the neutrals, although I do think a returning Luka Modric might give Croatia more control and thus the edge.

However I want to go with that vulnerability we have seen in both defences with one clean sheet kept in their Group games by both teams. They have also shown enough in front of goal to suggest both Croatia and Portugal score in this one and I will back that, although I wouldn't put off anyone backing a draw and seeing this as the first game to go into extra time in the tournament.

Sunday 26th June
France v Republic of Ireland PickAfter all the emotions of the win over Italy which has put the Republic of Ireland through to the Second Round we can expect that happiness to have turned to thoughts of revenge. No one will have forgotten the way France beat the Republic of Ireland in the 2010 World Cup Play Off as Thierry Henry deliberately used his hand to help guide the football into his path before setting up William Gallas' equaliser that saw France go through and Ireland go out.

It would be fitting for the Republic of Ireland to get ultimate revenge in this one by beating France in the tournament they are hosting, but it might be a big ask for them. There have been suggestions they will play the same eleven that beat Italy in the final Group Stage, but that might leave them a little too open against a France team that can create chances and score goals.

We have yet to see the best of France, which isn't a bad thing as they would want to peak on July 10th rather than June 10th. There is so much quality in the squad that even when they are struggling they have players that can create a moment of magic and create something out of nothing.

The Republic of Ireland can look to frustrate France in a similar manner that Romania, Albania and Switzerland have all done. However they will know that the former two nations were undone, while the latter escaped thanks to the woodwork and a couple of top saves from the goalkeeper.

I think it will be tough for the Republic of Ireland to pick themselves up again after the emotional win over Italy. They might have 'nothing to lose' in this Second Round match where there is little expectation on their shoulders, but I think Ireland may struggle with their balance if they do fall behind in a similar way they did when Belgium got the better of them in the Group Stage.

After keeping France at a distance for some time, I expect the hosts to find the breakthrough and I expect they will be able to finish off an Ireland team chasing an equaliser down the stretch. Backing the hosts to cover the one goal Asian Handicap looks to be the best way to get onto this game.

Germany v Slovakia PickThis looks like being another one of the Second Round matches that should capture the imagination as I think Slovakia are anything other than an 'easy' game for Germany. Slovakia simply haven't lost too many games since Qualifying for the Euro 2016 Finals and they have to take some confidence out of their 1-3 win over Germany prior to the tournament.

That was a victory in Germany against a much changed team, but Slovakia will believe they can get forward and cause some problems. Good performances through the Group Stage suggests Slovakia have the quality to surprise and they have a player in Marek Hamsik who is capable of the magical at any given moment.

There are some injuries in the Germany defensive positions which may also make them vulnerable, but I am encouraged by Joachim Low's decision to move away from the 'false nine' system. I have to expect he will stick with Mario Gomez leading the line after seeing Germany create many chances in their 1-0 win over Northern Ireland and the all around performance was encouraging after earlier matches had been a little more inconsistent.

Germany certainly have the quality to find room against this Slovakia team who generally don't defend as well as they did against England. I also think Germany are a lot cleverer in the final third than England when it comes to breaking down teams that will sit back and I think the World Champions will prove a little too good.

Slovakia can play their part, but I can see them in a position to chase an equaliser which sees them caught on the counter as Ukraine were in their 2-0 loss to Germany in the Group Stage. I did consider backing at least three goals to be shared out between the teams at odds against, but instead will stick with Germany to win by a couple of goals and cover the Asian Handicap.

Hungary v Belgium PickThe top half of the Euro 2016 draw looks an open one and any of the eight teams in that half have to believe they can go all the way to the European Championship Final next month.

There are some surprising nations in the mix, but I think none more so than Hungary who were the absolute outsiders in Group F. Not many would have picked Hungary to get into the Second Round and outside of the team I don't imagine too many picked them to win the Group.

It has given Hungary some confidence to take into the Second Round, although I do wonder if they have just taken advantage of slack play from others in the Group. They were moments away from losing to Iceland and all three goals scored against Portugal had their fortunes about them while Hungary looked significantly second best in that game.

Failing to win a Group they were expected to has helped Belgium join the top half of the draw and they would be ecstatic with the draw. Italy won Group E and have to face Spain, while Belgium finished second and get to play Hungary and I do think they are going to be too good for them on the day.

Belgium have looked solid in their wins over the Republic of Ireland and Sweden and they have been flowing when going forward. There are still some question marks as to whether they score enough goals, but Belgium will have their chances against Hungary and going ahead in this one could see them run away with this Second Round match.

I have been impressed with some of the Hungary play in their first three games, but I think they might have looked better against poorer teams than Belgium. The one quality team they have played is Portugal and Hungary needed two deflections and a special strike from Zoltan Gera to come away with a draw and you can't rely on those bounces of the ball in two games in a row.

There is still some room for improvement in the Belgium play, but I think they might be picking up some momentum and I will back them to score a late goal to put this one away and win by at least two goals.

Monday 27th June
Italy v Spain PickThere is no doubting what match is considered the best of the Second Round and it is fitting that Italy and Spain will be meeting in the biggest football Stadium in France.

The winner of the match might feel they have some real momentum behind them to win the Euro 2016 tournament although whoever gets through likely has to face Germany in the Quarter Final and France in the Semi Final to simply have a chance to play for all the marbles.

I think it is fairly obvious what we are going to see on Monday- Italy will look for their Juventus backline to defend as they have and set Italy up with a clean sheet while they will look to hit Spain on the counter attack against a vulnerable defence.

Spain will likely dominate possession and hope to pull the Italian defence around and eventually wear them down, while also protecting the defence by keeping the ball for long periods.

I have no doubt that Vicente del Bosque and Antonio Conte are well aware of this too and the game will come down to which of the teams can impose themselves on the other more effectively. They have met five times since the Group Stage of Euro 2012 and three of those games have ended in draws with one another seeing a single goal being enough for Spain to win.

Of course the exception is the Euro 2012 Final but Spain scored twice in the last ten minutes against a chasing and tired Italy side to put a gloss on that scoreline and generally games between these teams are tight.

I think Spain are the more likely winners in regulation time with Alvaro Morata likely to provide them with some inside information on his Juventus team-mates who make up the Italy defence. Morata has scored three times in his last couple of Spanish games and he might be the big threat, but Italy have been strong defensively and this looks like being another tight game between these nations.

It would not surprise me at all if this is one of those Second Round matches that does need extra time and perhaps penalties to separate them. I'm going to have a small interest in the draw at full time in this one, even if the layers aren't taking any chances with the prices.

England v Iceland PickEngland and Iceland have both got through to the Euro 2016 Second Round with different attitudes and there are also different expectations on their shoulders. For England anything less than a place in the Quarter Final would likely be the end of Roy Hodgson as manager and see the team come home with plenty of criticism to face.

For Iceland they have already achieved more than their fans possibly could dream and going out in the Second Round would be no disgrace. That means the team have nothing to lose in this match and they have shown by holding Portugal that Iceland are able to load the box and make life difficult for any team that face.

Breaking down teams has been a problem for this England team, but the selection for the Slovakia game didn't really suit the game plan. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane are likely to be restored with both full backs and England will feel they have enough in their locker to break down Iceland.

The latter will defend deep and look to counter, while Iceland can be a threat from set pieces against a vulnerable England backline that will offer some chances if teams go at them.

I think one issue for Iceland is they have put a lot into their Group games with the way they defend and work hard through a game. That has to mean there is a chance for some fatigue in the team, while they haven't really had to chase a game for long periods at any point. That is what England have to make them do and see what Iceland have in the locker when they are forced to come out.

Can England do that? They have created enough chances early on in their last three games to think they can and a more familiar line up might just be what Roy Hodgson needs. I have a lot of respect for Iceland, but it has taken a few last ditch tackles to keep them from conceding more goals than they have and Iceland had conceded a fair few goals in the friendlies leading up to Euro 2016.

England should be too strong and if they can take their chances early on in this Second Round game like they've created through the tournament, I can see England picking off Iceland. This is a much improved Iceland than the one that lost 6-1 to England in June 2004, but I can see a situation where Iceland are chasing the game and England pick them off for an impressive win and likely a Quarter Final against the hosts next Sunday.

MY PICKS: Poland 0 Asian Handicap @ 1.80 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Wales @ 2.05 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Croatia-Portugal Both Teams to Score @ 2.20 Sky Bet (2 Units)
France - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.83 Bet365 (2 Units)
Germany - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.15 Bet365 (2 Units)
Belgium - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.20 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Italy-Spain Draw @ 3.10 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
England - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.05 Bet365 (2 Units)

Second Round Update: 3-3-2, + 1.80 Units
Group Stage Final: 16-21, - 5.30 Units

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