MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses the odds for Euro 2016’s crunch Group E clash between Belgium and Italy on Monday night.
Belgium v Italy | Monday 20.00 | BBC1
The top two seeds in Group E go head-to-head in Lyon on Monday night with Belgium favourites to overcome 2012 runners-up Italy. This looks a cracker!
The Belgians beat Italy 3-1 when the sides clashed in a friendly back in November of last year. Indeed Marc Wilmots’ men have been in good form with seven wins from their last nine.
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.
Let’s be honest though, their qualification campaign hardly set hearts aflutter as they failed to beat Wales in their two matches against them and struggled to get past tiny Cyprus.
But the Red Devils tended to dominate the stats in qualifying – their shot ratio of 63% against the top-three in their section was a figure only bettered by England, Germany and Portugal. Their problem was putting their chances away and filtering 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 Eden Hazard providing a goal threat and ammunition from midfield.
The Red Devils have scored Over 2.5 Goals in eight of their last 14 matches but netted just six in the World Cup in 2014 despite taking nine points out of nine in their group.
On the flip side it’s just one clean sheet in eight for Belgium and Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan’s will need to be at their best in midfield to protect this suspect defence.
No one really fancies Italy this summer but they’ve suffered just two European Championship defeats at the group-stage in 21 encounters (W10-D9-L2) but there’s a clear concern over the lack of depth to the midfield and attack, especially with injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio.
Antonio Conte’s men were unbeaten (W7-D3-L0) in qualifying 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 5/2 chance with NetBet.
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.
Belgium v Italy – Belgium to win by one goal (5/2 NetBet)