Euro 2016 kicks off on Friday and, while I don't have the arsenal of data that Geegeez Gold gives me for racing at my disposal for football, I do at least have a moderately informed enthusiast's opinion. This preview is offered in that spirit and context.
I'll be taking a look at the outright market and the top scorer market in the ubiquitous quest for a value winner. Let's start with the tournament winner...
Outright Winner, Euro 2016
There's an expanded format comprised of six groups of four teams, with the top two in each group (twelve) joined by the four best third placed teams. That makes for a forgiving group stage and, it is to be hoped, some more attacking games.
It also means a team will need to progress through seven games - one more than was the case four years ago - to win. As such, squad depth, good fortune with injuries, and a disciplined team will be required.
Favourites and hosts, France, were not required to qualify, but have played a series of friendlies as a pseudo-qualifying group. And they've performed very well, winning nine of their last ten games. That sequence includes victories against Germany, Holland, Russia, Scotland and, erm, Cameroon.
The sole defeat in ten? A 2-0 loss to Roy Hodgson's England last November.
Despite Hugo Lloris' presence in goal, France have had defensive frailties exposed, conceding two against each of England, Holland, Russia and Cameroon in their last five games. That tempers enthusiasm significantly, even given the wealth of attacking options led by Giroud and Griezmann, and home advantage, a feature of their World Cup win in 1998.
It is possible that they could swash and buckle their way to a famous triumph but the balance of probabilities is that they'll be outscored before the final. At 3/1 there is no upside to a bet on Les Bleus.
The problem for those who like their top of the market options is that neither Spain nor Germany, who round out the best fancied trio, have convinced in recent times.
This is a creaking Spain, tottering on aged limbs. Iker Casillas may finally cede the number one shirt to David de Gea, but diving hotheads like Ramos and Alba could again be unhinged as they were so completely at the World Cup two years ago. A 1-0 loss to Georgia this week was hardly the confidence-booster they were after, and a propensity to concede to small teams (they've failed to keep a clean sheet in their last three, a run comprised of South Korea and Bosnia as well as the aforementioned defeat).
Up front they are at best unproven, and at worst light weight. The likes of Nolito (12 in 29 domestically last season) and Morata (7 in 34), along with 35 year old Zubeldia, were preferred to Alcacer and Sergio Torres.
Midfield still ripples with class, led by the magician that is Andres Iniesta. I've built a forcefield around him in my loathing of Barcelona FC, such is his other-worldly ability. Still, at 32 and without his right arm, Xavi, his booted wands may finally be losing some of their potency.
Cesc Fabregas will support, with Busquets doing the donkey work, but a group including wild cards Turkey and especially Croatia might prove trickier than many envisage.
As for Germany, it is impossible to discount them stepping into cyborg mode when the hour arrives - as they have done so many times before, including when winning the World Cup two years ago - but they've been inconsistent recently. Defeats by Ireland in qualifying and to France and England in friendlies were added to by a 3-1 reverse at the hands of Slovakia in their final preparations for Euro 2016.
Yet they remain World Champions. Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. He's supported by a defence that includes World Cup winners Hummels and Howedes as well as lynchpin, Boateng; and the most attacking midfield in the world - Kroos, Gotze, Schurrle, and Ozil will all get game time but cannot all play at once... I don't think!
Up top is Tommy Muller, close to top scorer in the last World Cup (five goals) and the last Euro Championships (three). He's long odds not to hit the target here.
Of the top three, I like Germany the most - what's not to like? If they get their shape back, they'll be a threat to all and, with Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine in their group, they have a relatively straightforward passage to the last 16. 9/2 will shorten dramatically if they perform as they can in the round robin phase.
Next in is England, at 9/1. I'd not be a romantic - backing one's opinions on a regular basis is an infallible cure for such follies - but I do think England have a shot at this. Yes, defensively we're only marginally above average. But going forward, we're crammed with speed, 'tekkers', and goals.
Which European defence will relish coming up against Kane, Rooney, Vardy, Sturridge and/or Rashford? And, with further pace and potency from Delle Alli and Raheem Sterling, this is a wild card squad that might just hit the target.
In beating France and Germany (and Portugal) in recent months, Hodgson's side has proven to itself that it can prevail against the best. Sure, we have to also consider defeats to Holland and Spain, but there isn't a team in the tournament with an unblemished record against the top sides going into Euro 2016.
That attests to the openness of the competition, and to the unimaginitiveness of backing a short-priced team, regardless of whether they ultimately go on to lift the trophy.
England can be backed with a bunch of bookmakers keen to offer concessions related to their progress. It's a bet worth taking. Some of those offers are flagged in this post.
Ignoring that Wales will want with every sinew to crush England , with respect they ought not to be good enough player for player. And though Russia and Slovakia are both technically capable, the Three Lions should again have too much. Then it's three games to the final. Let's see, but they're not as wildly under-priced as has normally been the case, to my eye at any rate.
The three sides next in the list are all degrees of opposable. Belgium have a glittering array of - largely Premier League - talent. But their performances as a unit have been underwhelming. Losing to Wales in qualifying, they've also conceded against Andorra (!), lost to Portugal, drawn with Finland, and scraped home against Cyprus.
I think the sum of the Belgians' parts is greater than the whole: they have great players but they don't make a great team. Central defence could be the main problem with Vincent Kompany's latest setback meaning he misses the gig.
Further forward, they're blessed with the likes of Hazard, Fellaini, de Bruyne and Mertens. But who is doing the kicking while these are all trying to score? Dembele most likely, and we've seen how he can be wound up - he'll probably be a marked man after the gouging incident against Chelsea's Diego Costa, too.
Lukaku and Benteke promise goals up front, if they see enough service from a shot-fancying midfield. Their wild card is a young forward called Batshuayi, who scored 17 in 36 for Marseilles in the French League last term, and who already has two in five at international level. He's their Rashford, so we'll see what impact he can have.
Portugal can't win, surely. Any side that still calls on the services of Nani as a key player is going to struggle. The defence includes serial diving whingers, Pepe and Carvalho, as well as below top class Fonte and Soares. Midfield has Moutinho as its main star in a largely un-stellar constellation.
And, get this: Moutinho apart, the other nine midfielders named in Portugal's squad have collectively played just 67 times for their nation... and have failed to score between them. Even Moutinho only has four goals from 83 caps. Yikes.
Up top, they have the brilliant Ronaldo. He is essentially their team - even more so than Bale at Wales, in my opinion - and he will again be trying to single-handedly take the fight to the oppo. During the group stage, he might be able to do that. But Portugal cannot possibly win this tournament with that defence and midfield.
As for Italy, this is a moderate Azzurri, sadly. Buffon is a legend in sticks, and Chiellini and Bonucci are hard core centre halves in the classic Italian mould: a pairing around which to work a catenaccio.
But from where do the goals come? Chelsea manager-elect, Antonio Conte, has named seven forwards but I doubt he knows which are his preferred options. Southampton's Pelle is probably the go-to guy, and the smartest barnet in the division has a decent fledgling record of five scores in 13 games so far for the national team.
It's 25/1 bar, which brings in the wise guy picks of Croatia (25/1), Austria (40/1) and Poland (50/1).
Croatia have been pretty well touted, and for good reason. They are defensively solid - they've conceded more than one only once in 18 matches in the last two years, against Argentina - and they have bundles of attacking talent. Midfield maestros such as Modric, Rakitic and Perisic have the tools to unlock any side, though their tendency to overplay can be a touch frustrating.
In Mario Mandzukic they have a potential star: it's not that he's a new boy on the scene but rather that he is mercurial. Even if he fails to fire, coach Cacic has two upwardly mobile alternatives in Kalinic and Kramaric. They should have too much for the Czechs and the Turks in their group, and can gave Spain a fright, especially if the Spanish need a result going into this third rubber in the section.
Austria looked promising but have somewhat fizzled out in recent weeks. They scraped past Albania and Malta 2-1 in friendlies, and lost by the same score to Turkey and Switzerland. A 2-0 reverse against Holland was also disappointing - indeed the Dutch have the best form coming in to the tournament. Oh wait, they didn't qualify. Hahaha...
Still, Austria is in probably the easiest group, alongside Portugal, Hungary and Iceland. The likes of Arnautovic and Bayern's David Alaba offer star quality in midfield, and in Marc Janko, they have one of the potential golden boot stars. He is a massive (6'5") presence who scores goals for fun.
The Viennese, and their countrymen, could waltz through this group (laboured pun, moi?) and Janko might have three goals before the last 16 matchups. But it's unlikely they'll have enough in the rearguard to prevent classier sides from outscoring them.
Poland also possess firepower. Robert Lewandowski was the overall top scorer in qualifying, his 13 goals there usurped only by a monstrous 30 in 32 for his club, Bayern Munich, last season. Lewandowski will be well supported by both Milik and the wide man, Grosicki; and the Polish have a reliable steely midfield unit.
In goal, Fabianski will probably get the nod ahead of Szczesny and Boruc (Bournemouth's only player at Euro 2016, and unlikely to play a single minute), behind a functional but vulnerable back line.
The Poles have more than enough to escape a section including their great mates - ahem - Germany, as well as Northern Ireland and Ukraine. Thereafter, it's a matter of how far they can go, and 50/1 has a sliver of appeal.
Very few others worthy of mention, though Switzerland are almost on home soil and have plenty of goals in their ranks. Defeats in five of their six friendlies since qualifying confess to a problem at the other end, and that's obviously not group-qualifying, let alone tournament-winning, form.
But they're better than that. The likes of Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami will be ably supported by Gelson Fenandes across the middle of the park. They're a little lightweight up front, and I'm really really hoping that means game time for the 19 year old superstar-in-waiting, Breel Embolo. This lad is strong, quick and very technically gifted: he's the young player I'm most looking forward to seeing in Euro 2016, so here's hoping he scores from the bench in the opening game against Albania.
Euro 2016 Outright Pick
Accepting that any of France, Spain or Germany could win the tournament is a given. Of the three I'm least keen on Spain and slightly favour Germany over France, but this is a tournament for surprises. Remember Denmark? They were only in because Yugoslavia - remember Yugoslavia?! - were out. Remember Greece? They couldn't possibly win. They won.
So it's probably better to stake small money on a rag or two.
Croatia are a very good side. They have a weakness for overplaying, and they can self-destruct from a discipline perspective. But there's little doubting their talent, and they have goals everywhere. With a shot of qualifying top from their group, they look too big at 25/1 even if we've missed the 33's.
Backing them with Betfair (£25+) will get a free £5 bet each time they win a game. Skybet has the same offer, except it's a £3 free bet with a minimum qualifying stake of a tenner.
Bet them with Coral for money back as a free bet (up to £25) if they're knocked out on penalties. bet365 will match that 'penalty pain' offer, only they'll return stakes as cash, and there's no £25 limit.
Those offers apply to any team you fancy - not just Croatia - and all customers are eligible for them.
And I wouldn't put anybody off backing England either. Stop sniggering at the back!
Selection: Croatia 28/1 bet365, Skybet (for your pick of the above concessions, though price available generally)
Euro 2016 Top Scorer
The top scorer market at major tournaments can throw up big surprises. James Rodriguez at the last World Cup is a great example. He was 150/1 for the Golden Boot before a ball was kicked. And there was a four way tie in World Cup 2010 that included two 100/1 pokes and a 66/1.
In Euro 2012, there was a six way tie (on just three goals). That included two 100/1 shots, a 28/1, a 20/1, 14/1 and 8/1. Euro 2008 threw up a 20/1 winner and a 150/1 joint second, while back at Euro 2004, Milan Baros was an unconsidered 50/1 chance.
No wonder bookmakers are excited about this market!
Let's look at the recent history of the top scorer charts in search of any possible clues. The table below lists the top scorers from the last two Euro's and World Cups.
It shows, from left to right, tournament, player ranking, player, team, pre-tournie odds, goals scored, his team's knockout stage, team goals, team's biggest single match goal tally, player's goals in the group, and the percentage of goals scored by the player in the group.
Green rows indicate tournament top scorer winners and ties.
The first thing to note is how many ties there have been. Expect a dead heat rule to apply to your bet, as it has happened in two of the last four competitions, and been just one goal away from happening in the other two.
It is possible that the expanded format, offering both one more game and the chance to play a lesser side, might 'loosen things up' a little, but for me, this chart says one thing above all others: back a player at a price. The average odds of a Golden Boot winner and/or joint-winner has been a whopping 57.5/1 across those twelve players.
[Incidentally, the NQ in the odds column means 'not quoted'. In other words, bigger than the biggest odds in the bookmaker pre-tournament odds chart - so probably 200/1+]
With the extra match here, it may be more pertinent to look at the World Cup than the Euro data, perversely. It is more likely that the top scorer will net five or six times than three or four, and that your player will need to have struck twice or more during the group stage.
Pretty interesting is that the average number of goals that the teams of winners and ties (green rows) scored in their high scoring matches was 3.33. That means you'll need to be backing a player from a team you fancy can cut loose in at least one of their matches.
And, in the expanded format competitions, i.e. the World Cups, all winning players got to at least the quarter-finals, which means their team played at least five games.
So, we're looking for a player at a price, whose team is capable of whacking a side and who can get to at least the quarter-finals.
The weakest group, according to the betting at least, is Group F, which comprises Portugal, Austria, Hungary and Iceland. Portugal don't score enough goals as I've alluded to already, which means Austria could be interesting.
Marc Janko is a unit, and his goal scoring record for both club and country has been very good (seven in qualifying and 16 in 17 games in the Swiss League, for whatever that's worth). Austria are capable of cutting one or both of Hungary and Iceland open, and can top this group, perhaps on goal difference if they draw with Portugal.
A last 16 tie most likely with one of Belgium or Italy is a worry, but Janko is 50/1.
France are a side who figure to go deep and score goals. They may struggle to get past a defensive-minded Romania in the opening match of the tournament, but should find Albania and Switzerland more accommodating in the goals conceded department.
They will then face one of the third placed teams - assuming they top their section - which is another opportunity to ratchet up the goal tally. This has not been lost on bookmakers, who have Antoine Griezmann as their third favourite.
But Griezmann's scoring record at international level - 7 in 27 - is unspectacular. And so too is that of his co-striker, Olivier Giroud, who has 17 in 49. Giroud is 14/1 having been 20/1, and he might be more appealing if failing to find the net against what I expect to be a stubborn Romanian side in match one.
Here in Blighty we know all about Dimitri Payet, and he could be the surprise man in a team where goals ought to flow. He's the main free kick taker and could take penalties as well. With Les Bleus playing up to Giroud, and with speed on both flanks, Payet will also get open play chances from cut backs to the edge of the area. 66/1 is moderately appealing for a team who should go far.
The likes of Tommy Muller and Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane all have credible cases to be made for them; but all are priced accordingly. History has shown that going 'Hail Mary' in this market can reap a dividend.
Although Group D includes Spain, it also has the Czech Republic and Turkey, which could mean goals for the Croatians. There is a problem in identifying a standout scorer in their side, but this is the country that gave us Davor Suker and Mario Mandzukic in their short existence as an international footballing nation, so they have a fine pedigree in producing Golden Booters.
A fast start will be vital for Croats when they come up against Turkey in Paris on Sunday, and the man doing much of their recent scoring has been Ivan Perisic. He notched six times in qualifying from his wide position, against five different opponents, in nine games.
Two goals at the last World Cup, when the unlucky red-and-whites were stitched up against Brazil and failed to exit the group stage, show that Perisic is capable at the big tournaments, so odds of 100/1 (150/1 win only with bwin.com) appeal.
As well as backing this trio in the top scorer outright market, they are worth a tiny trixie to be their nations' top scorers, at 15/8 (Janko), 14/1 (Payet), and 5/1 (Perisic) with Paddy.
You can get 9/4 Janko and 11/2 Perisic for a cheeky 20/1 double with Coral.
This is a market every bit as wide open as 9/1 the field suggests, and it could pay to go 'off road' a little with players from sides expecting to score freely. The above trio are sporting wagers who could be hero or zero material, so stakes should be placed accordingly!
Euro 2016 Top Scorer Selections:
Marc Janko 50/1 1/4 1-2-3-4 general
Dimitri Payet 66/1 1/4 1-2-3-4 Coral (bet £20, get £5 free bet each time he scores - first bet on the market only)
Ivan Perisic 100/1 1/4 1-2-3-4 Boyle (bet £25, get £5 for every match in which he scores)
There are plenty of other special offers for the Top Scorer market, so do take a look at the link below, which features some of the best.
p.s. who do you fancy, and why? Leave a comment below and let us know 🙂