Euro 2016’s first ‘clash of the titans’ takes place when Belgium face Italy in a highly-competitive looking Group E, with Republic of Ireland and Sweden kicking off a few hours prior.
Italy have finished runners-up twice in the past four runnings of the European Championships, including last time out in Poland and Ukraine, while Belgium haven’t even made it to this stage since the turn of the 20th Century, but that doesn’t tell anything like the whole picture…
Win, Lose or Draw?
Having gone into the last World Cup as the brightest of dark horses and failing to get beyond the quarter-finals, Belgium look a much more interesting prospect at 10/1 to take the ultimate laurels in France and can overcome a patchy Italy outfit at 8/5.
Marc Wilmots’ side were as short as 14/1 in places for World Cup glory two years ago, despite not appearing in a major tournament during the previous 12 years, with Belgium going down 1-0 to eventual finalists Argentina in the last eight.
In a much, much easier tournament that often throws up shock winners and finalists, and with Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, to name but a few, arguably in the form of their lives, Belgium look too big a price to lift the ultimate prize.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to make a case for Italy on current form (they were blown away 4-1 by Germany in late March) nor in qualifying for the tournament.
A 2-0 victory first time out away to Norway, all the way back in September 2014, and a 3-1 win in Azerbaijan last October were Antonio Conte’s men’s only such triumphs by more than one goal, with 1-0 wins home and away against Malta, 166th in the world, included.
Belgium outscored them by 24 to 16, while conceding two fewer goals.
There doesn’t appear to be enough class in the Italy ranks either, with much expected from old hands Danielle De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini now Andrea Pirlo is no longer around.
Belgium are favourites, and they deserve to be.
Obviously Italy don’t concede many if they can top a qualifying group also containing Croatia (who they drew 1-1 with twice) despite racking up a paltry tally of just 16 goals in 10 games, so don’t expect a deluge in Lyon, but they have troubled the scoresheet in each of their past 10 outings.
With that in mind, Belgium seem likely to need at least a couple to finish them off.
Who will do the damage?
After bagging in each of his country’s past four matches, including the first after three minutes last time out in the 3-2 friendly win against Norway, Everton hitman Lukaku must still be value at clear 5/1 favourite to break the deadlock.
Italy’s Antonio Candreva will appeal for Conte’s men at 10/1, after the Lazio winger broke the deadlock from the spot in their last warm up against Finland.
Belgian winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco’s awesome contribution from the bench in the Champions League final, dragging Atletico Madrid back into the match with an equaliser, only for neighbours Real Madrid to eventually win on penalties, makes the 22-year-old a fine prospect for last goal here.
Clearly a player for the big occasion, Ferreira Carrasco could get a chance to make an impact off the sidelines if the likes of Eden Hazard can’t find a way through. If he doesn’t get on, you’ll get a refund.