England and Italy look set to go the distance


Sunday – 7.45pm BBC One

THE 2012 European Championships have been highly entertaining so far but, going into the quarter-finals, there isn’t one team that you could say is a certainty to win it.

Germany, the only nation to emerge with a 100 per cent record from the first round, have been most impressive. But, of the other favourites, Spain haven’t blown anyone away and the Dutch players are already on their holidays after an abominable showing. England and their opponents in Sunday’s quarter-final, Italy, made the second round without setting the pulses racing.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m expecting a pretty drab encounter at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, certainly nothing as end-to-end as England’s other game here, the 3-2 victory over Sweden. It has been substance over style during Roy Hodgson’s reign so far, and after topping Group D with that approach, I can’t see him changing it now.

Joleon Lescott and John Terry will be looking to smother the Italian attacking threat and I am confident they can mostly handle whichever combination of Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale that Cesare Prandelli sends out. Ashley Young and James Milner will be tasked with protecting their full backs, while Scott Parker will undertake his Rottweiler role with relish, barking at the feet of Andrea Pirlo for 90 minutes.

England haven’t carved out many clear cut opportunities in their three games so far and Wayne Rooney is, understandably, a little rusty, so the Azzurri will not be overly worried, even in Giorgio Chiellini’s absence from the defence.

There is a difference of opinion among bookmakers as to who is favourite for this game, while some are the same price about both, and there is not much between the countries. Coral offer 9/5 on England and 17/10 the Italians, but the draw, at 2/1, is where my money is going.

No goalscorer is a tempting 6/1 with Star Sports, but I just favour the 1-1 correct score at 11/2. Since the hosts won the third-place play-off between the teams at Italia ’90, their six meetings have produced a total of nine strikes and the Sporting Index traders look to have got it spot on with their total goals spread of 1.9-2.1 for this match.

If, as I suspect, the game does go beyond regular time then it looks like being penalties all the way – I just can’t see Italy pushing for a result or allowing the game to be settled in the extra 30 minutes. And the evidence suggests that Hodgson’s England would share that mindset.

Both countries have a chequered history from 12 yards, and each is available at 10/1 to win on spot kicks, but I think the England’s in-form goalkeeper Joe Hart could be the difference if it came down to this scenario.

Draw at 2/1 with Coral
1-1 correct score at 11/2 with Star Sports
England to win on penalties at 10/1 (general)

Tomorrow – 7.45pm ITV 1

WORLD and European champions Spain eventually finished top of Group C, although Vicente del Bosque’s side did so without being anywhere near their fluid best. Aside from hammering the whipping boys of the group, Ireland, Spain found it tough work against Italy and Croatia. Both games could have easily ended in defeat with a little more composure in front of goal from their opponents.

Del Bosque is struggling to find his favoured formation, and how to solve the Fernando Torres conundrum, with the Chelsea man having little influence in the last game. Jesus Navas grabbed the winner on Monday and should the manager reward the winger with a start, then France might adopt similar tactics to those which allowed Italy to earn a draw in Group C’s opening game.

France will be kicking themselves after surrendering their grip on Group D at the crucial moment. But it would be foolish to judge Les Bleus’ chances tomorrow purely on the Sweden game as Laurent Blanc’s side were virtually assured of a place in the last eight and were quite clearly well off the pace. Before the surprise defeat in Kiev, France were unbeaten in 23 internationals and I can’t see them being as poor again.

A slight concern is that Karim Benzema has still to open his tournament account as the Real Madrid striker has tended to drop too deep and shoot from distance. However, Iker Casillas has been called upon far too many times for Spain’s liking as the centre-back pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos has not been tight enough.

It’s hard to argue against Spain being 4/5 favourites with Star Sports, but France are a more than capable outfit and looked dangerous at times in the group stages. With the talent at Blanc’s disposal, they are the value at 4/1 with Coral to cause an upset.

All of France’s group games produced fewer than three goals and two of Spain’s pool fixtures settled at under 2.5. With so much riding on this one, I expect a tight contest and would recommend selling goals at 2.05 with Sporting Index.

France at 4/1 with Coral
Sell total goals at 2.05 with Sporting Index

Today – 7.45pm ITV 1

GREECE pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise in footballing history when they ran out shock winners of this tournament in 2004. So far they have made a great effort at trying to replicate that unlikely success, somehow emerging from Group A despite largely underperforming.

They completed a Houdini-esque escape in their opening draw against Poland, having been a goal and a man down before half-time. Greece then gifted the Czech Republic a 2-1 win with some defensive howlers. But Fernando Santos’s men regrouped and, despite being outplayed by Russia, their defence stood firm and a Giorgos Karagounis goal put them through at Russia’s expense.

In the quarters they face Germany, who have assumed outright favouritism from Spain. The cold efficiency associated with past

German sides has been replaced by a youthful and energetic line-up, rich in attacking potential.

Joachim Low’s men were untroubled by the ‘Group of Death’, brushing away the challenge of Portugal, Netherlands and Denmark. In Mario Gomez they have a striker full of goals backed up by a formidable support network led by Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski.

Germany are simply in a class above their rivals and it would be astonishing if they were to get knocked out now.

That said, I doubt we will witness a rout and Germany haven’t been impenetrable at the back. They conceded one apiece to Netherlands and Denmark, while Greece scored once per match in their section and I can see them getting another here, despite star man Giorgios Karagounis’ suspension.

My advice is to take Coral’s 8/1 for Germany to win 2-1 and to buy goals at 2.9 with Sporting Index, rather than simply backing the short-priced favourites at 4/11.

Germany to win 2-1 at 8/1 with Coral
Buy total goals at 2.9 with Sporting Index