Euro 2016: How to back the tournament first-timers
The new European Championship format means there are 24 teams who can light up this summer’s biggest sporting event. And the expanded tournament means we’ll be seeing a host of sides enjoying their first crack at Euros glory.
So, from Belfast to Bratislava, here’s our whistle-stop tour of the new names appearing at Euro 2016 – and what you can expect from them this summer.
Albania (FIFA World Ranking: 45 / Euro 2016 Group: A)
Continuity has proved the key to success for the Shqiponjat, with coach Gianni De Biasi – in the job since 2011 – leading a hardworking, unremarkable side to second place in their qualifying group, with victory in Portugal perhaps the country’s finest footballing hour.
However, Albania struggled for goals, with no player scoring more than once for them, with the side’s only comprehensive victory coming against a poor Armenia side.
Fitness is also a concern, with De Biasi’s men having conceded four times beyond the 80-minute mark, in their eight qualifying games.
How to back them: Getting to France is likely to be Albania’s big achievement, with 2/5 for them to exit at the group stage. However, the best value looks to lie with Albania to manage one point in Group A (12/5) – with the hosts and Switzerland likely to prove too strong, but a draw with goal-shy Romania likely.
Slovakia (FIFA World Ranking: 32 / Euro 2016 Group: B)
While England are the favourites to win Group B, the other three spots look set to be hotly contested by Wales, Russia and Jan Kozak’s Slovakia.
The former Czechoslovakia won this tournament in 1976, but this was a first successful qualification for the current country, as Kozak’s side turned heads with a victory over Spain along the way. However, they were handed an otherwise uncompetitive route to the finals, facing poor opposition in Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg.
They’re not without talent – Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel are both still quality players – but the side lack a recognised goal threat, and if when the dust settles on Group B, chances are they’ll be narrowly bottom of the pile.
How to back them: With draws against Wales and Russia a strong possibility and defeat to England likely, the best value could well be with backing Slovakia to take two points from the group stage at 6/1, while 5/4 for them to finish bottom of Group B also looks solid.
Wales (FIFA World Ranking: 24 / Euro 2016 Group: B)
The FIFA World Rankings can sometimes throw up a few eyebrow-raising talking points, but while the notion of Wales landing a spot above Poland, USA and the Czech Republic might have seemed absurd a decade ago, there’s no question that it’s deserved right now.
They finished qualifying with a better defensive record than group-mates Belgium, taking four points from De Rode Duivels along the way. And the side ranked world number-two have only failed to score twice since the 2014 World Cup. The common denominator in both of those games? Wales.
A defensive powerhouse with a striker who saves his best form for the Dragons in Hal Robson-Kanu, Wales are set to go far at the Euros. Oh, and there’s the small matter of them having Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive player, who has netted 58 times in 122 games for Real Madrid. He’s not bad either.
How to back them: Likely to prove too strong for inexperienced Slovakia and a Russia side who failed to top the weakest group in qualifying, they’re worth backing at 5/1 to finish second in the group. With Bale able to produce magic against the very best, there could also be value in backing the semi-finals as their exit stage at 16/1.
Northern Ireland (FIFA World Ranking: 26 / Euro 2016 Group: C)
Top of their qualifying group and highest scorers by a full five goals, Michael O’Neill’s men breezed through to Euro 2016, notching up a number of other impressive statistics along the way – including being only the second team to win in Hungary in an 18-month period.
With Kyle Lafferty seemingly guaranteed to deliver goals – netting seven in qualifying – and an experienced defence who haven’t conceded more than once in a game in the past 12 months, opponents will underestimate Northern Ireland at their peril.
O’Neill’s provisional squad also included members of a talented new generation, including goal-machine Will Grigg and Ross County’s Liam Boyce – both of whom could provide a tricky unknown for group-mates Poland, Ukraine and Germany
How to back them: Realistically, Germany will top this group. But Ukraine struggled to make it here, while the largely average Poland are far too reliant on Robert Lewandowski. Norn Iron could prove fantastic value to finish second in Group C at 6/1 while a quarter-final exit looks worth a punt at the sizeable price of 14s.
Iceland (FIFA World Ranking: 35 / Euro 2016 Group: F)
With a population smaller than Bradford, Iceland’s spot in Group F is proof that minuscule size doesn’t have to equal minnow status.
They reached the Euros in style, qualifying ahead of Turkey and two-time World Cup finalists Netherlands, and the well-drilled islanders boasted the group’s best defence, with six clean sheets.
The side affectionately known as Strakkamir okar (‘Our boys’) are a team better than the sum of their parts.
However, they do boast serious individual talent in the form of Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Basel’s Birkir Bjarnason, while veteran Champions League winner Eidur Gudjohnsen still has a part to play.
How to back them: Iceland could well sneak through the group stage with a third-placed finish at 9/5 looking a very good bet. However, a quarter-final is also plausible – and if a favourable last-16 draw comes their way, an exit in the quarters could prove fantastic value at 13/2.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.