Overview: You might not know it because they come into the tournament with less acclaim than some other teams, but France is undefeated in its last 22 matches. Since this is soccer, there are obviously some draws in there to go along with wins, but that's still a pretty impressive number for a young team. They'll look to bounce back from the chaotic episode of the 2010 World Cup, where their veteran players revolted against the coach causing mass hysteria in the team. Their natural rival England enters the Euros in a bit of disarray. Roy Hodgson was only recently named coach, so his feel for how his players work together isn't as great as if he'd coached them through qualifying. England also has to deal with star Wayne Rooney being suspended for their first two games, injuries to midfielders Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, and a cloud looming over the squad due to the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand. (I've always though Rio has been overrated, but on talent alone he deserves to be included. The problem is starting defender John Terry is accused of racist remarks towards Ferndinand's brother, so Rio is likely being left out to preserve team chemistry.) England will need to hold the fort without Rooney and then expect to win upon his return against Ukraine. Sweden has shown they can compete with any team just below the elite level. They rely heavily on striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to create their chances as a withdrawn striker. Surprisingly, the team actually has a better track record with him out of the side than with him included. Ukraine, like Poland, is a side that wouldn’t have qualified had it not been a host country. Unlike Poland, they got a much shorter straw concerning the other opponents in their group. They’re clearly the worst team in the group, but Vegas is giving them a slightly better chance than Sweden to advance. They don’t have many names you’d know on the squad. Andriy Shevchenko has continued to play club soccer just to be able to play the Euros in his own country. The bigger storyline here is the racism concern of the Ukranian fans that was reported by the BBC. One can only hope the tournament concludes without incident.
Favorite's Chances: A full strength England side would probably be the favorite in the group, but France currently has the slight edge in Vegas given the circumstances. Some look at France as having a chance to win the tournament outright. Their attacking options are rather strong. Karim Benzema has been in form for Real Madrid and Franck Ribery is as good of a winger as exists in world football. They have a solid supporting cast around them with Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, and Marseille’s Alou Diarra. The back four has some possible cracks. Their two center backs lack speed while Patrick Evra and Adil Rami can make mistakes when they’re too focused on creating offense. While undefeated in their last 22, their qualifying group was rather easy. They’re not untested, having a nice 2-1 win over Germany in a friendly this year, but we’re not completely sure they won’t wilt under pressure. They still present a threat and have a relatively easy road to the semifinals.
Group Sleeper: Sweden’s record against England in major competitions (including qualifying) is five draws and two losses in seven games, so they obviously can compete for that second berth in the elimination round. If England loses to France and Sweden beats Ukraine in their respective first games, Sweden will have swagger entering the game against England. Should they be able to at least draw against England, something you see they’ve been able to do historically, they’ll be in good shape to advance out of the group. The team’s main concern is on defense and goalkeeping. Their best defender, Olof Mellberg, is 34 years old and the players surrounding him are injury replacements or lacking quality. Luckily England and Ukraine shouldn’t threaten their back four too much, thus allowing them the opportunity to make moves in the group standings.
Player to Watch: Steven Gerrard is a cult hero in Liverpool. He captained the Reds to a Champions League title a few years back without the best supporting cast around him. He’s never been able to translate that success at the national level, mostly due to the fact that he and Lampard never played well together. With Lampard injured, Gerrard now has free rein of the midfield, which shoot suit him. Being named team captain will also give him a boost of energy. Gerrard has a lot of pressure to generate offense with Rooney out for the first two games, but he’s historically thrived under pressure. At age 32, this is likely his last chance to play in an international competition while in his prime and England fans hope he has one more superior run of form in him.
Betting Suggestions: With three teams having a chance to win the group, you have to take your shots in other manners. Here’s what I see as the best plays:
– Sweden to beat Ukraine (+200)
– France to reach the semifinals (+190)
– Ukraine to finish fourth in Group D (+200)
Projected quarterfinal teams: Russia, Greece, Germany, Holland, Spain, Ireland, France, and England
Projected semifinal teams: Germany, Holland, Spain, and France
Projected final: Germany over Spain
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