Mark O’Haire’s Euro Tips – Belgium v Italy
The top two seeds in Group E go head-to-head in Lyon on Monday night with Belgium fancied to take maximum points from their heavyweight contest with Italy.
Belgium v Italy, Monday 13th June 20.00, BBC1
The Red Devils ran out 3-1 winners in when the sides met during November’s friendly internationals – one of seven wins in nine outings for Marc Wilmots’ men in recent months.
Belgium – the highest-ranked FIFA side on the continent – failed to fire when well fancied at the World Cup two years ago but there’s a growing feeling the group are maturing and ready to mount a major assault on silverware this summer.
Saying that, Belgium hardly set qualification Group B alight, taking just one point from Wales in their two matches and only beating Cyprus courtesy of an 86th-minute Eden Hazard winner. Wilmots’ charges benefitted from Bosnia’s collapse and managed to survive a relatively unimpressive opening run of three wins from their first six fixtures.
But the Red Devils tended to dominate the performance data against their major rivals – their shot ratio of 63% against the top-three in their pool was a figure only bettered by England, Germany and Portugal. Their problem was putting their chances away and flittering between three strikers probably didn’t help their cause, either.
Nevertheless, Wilmots appears to have settled on Romelu Lukaku in the main striking role with Kevin De Bruyne and Edin Hazard – scorers of 10 goals en-route to France – providing a goal threat and ammunition from midfield.
The pre-match favourites have netted at least three goals in eight of their past 14 fixtures but tightened up at the World Cup, scoring only six goals in five matches despite winning all three of their group-games.
Injuries have robbed Wilmots of a number of centre-halves and one shutout in eight matches is obvious cause for concern. But Belgium are well stocked in centre-backs whilst Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan’s presence in the centre of midfield provides plenty of protection.
Italy have suffered just two European Championship defeats at the group-stage in 21 encounters (W10-D9-L2)
But Azzurri supporters are deeply concerned about a lack of depth to the midfield and attack, especially following injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio.
Antonio Conte’s men remained unbeaten (W7-D3-L0) during qualification but fans were rarely enthused by their on-field performances and it’s telling that no table-topper from a six-team qualifying group scored fewer goals than Italy’s tally of 16 – the same as Northern Ireland.
The side certainly lacks stardust but in Conte they have a coach whose motivational qualities and track record stands out. And the Italian boss is also boosted by having arguably European club football’s best defence at his disposal in Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini.
Still, the beaten finalists in 2000 and 2012 have managed just two shutouts in eight and with only one group-stage victory recorded in four of their last five ventures into this competition, the Azzurri don’t make particular appeal on Monday night.
Belgium have suffered just two competitive defeats in four years and look capable of getting their campaign off to a winning start. However, I don’t expect the Red Devils to saunter to success. Therefore, backing Wilmots’ boys to win by exactly one goal stands out as a 3/1 chance.
Excluding the Confederations Cup, Italy’s only loss by more than a one-goal margin in meaningful matches since 2008 came at the Euro 2012 final.
Convincing defeats are few and far between.
Knowing the Azzurri’s ability of grinding out a result, it may be worth splitting your stakes and having an interest in the Draw and Under 2.5 Goals at 5/2. Should the encounter end 0-0, 1-1 or Belgium win by the odd goal, we’ll be paid out for a profit.
Belgium to win by exactly one goal @ 3/1
Draw and Under 2.5 Goals @ 5/2
*Prices correct at time of publication.