This one is billed as a two-horse race between Spain and Italy. Croatia will surprise and come out of the group at Italy's expense.SPAIN
FIFA world ranking: No. 1
Odds: +275 to win Euros; -170 to win group; -700 to make knockouts.
Defending Euro and World Cup champion Spain is this tournament's best team on paper. Here's why you need to stay away from them at such short prices:
Spain's leading scorer at both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, David Villa, is out with a broken leg. Barcelona captain Carles Puyol and Andoni Iraola are missing from the back line through injury. Cesc Fabregas' hamstring is racing the clock. Selection politics saw manager Vicente del Bosque name his team three times: in the end Chelsea sub Fernando Torres bumped out an everyday player up front.
This is still a great team. While I'm sure that +275 is just too short to-win-it-all, if you still want Spain, here's how to bet it: Lay the -700 to get them out of the group. Then bet them to advance match-by-match. You should be able to find Spain -200 in the quarters, -175 in the semis, and -150 in the final. That's nearly +350 on a do-it-yourself parlay, and gives you a juice-free way to bail out at any step if you get spooked (just don't bet).
Player to Watch: Xavi runs the midfield both for Spain and Barcelona. Let's see if his distribution trusts clubmates Iniesta, Cesc, Pedro & co. more than men playing abroad like Torres and David Silva. ITALY
FIFA world ranking: No. 12
Odds: +1400 to win Euros; +325 to win group; -150 to make knockouts.
Italy's been hit by another match-fixing scandal. The last one didn't stop them from winning World Cup 2006, but the here-we-go-again storyline has frayed nerves this time. Manager Cesare Prandelli has picked defender Leonardo Bonucci, a target of the latest probe, for this team. Left back Domenico Criscito, another suspect, was unceremoniously dumped.
The mature midfield features bruiser Daniele De Rossi, long-range weapon Thiago Motta, playmaker Riccardo Montolivo and dead-ball specialist Andrea Pirlo. Claudio Marchisio can do it all, but may struggle for playing time (he should play ahead of Motta). If the group can control possession, Italy can beat Spain or anybody else. Italy edged Spain 2-1 in an August friendly.
Since qualifying easily, Italy has gone 1-3 in friendly matches: a 2-0 away win over Poland has been followed by 1-0 home losses to the USA and Uruguay. On Friday, Italy dropped a 3-0 decision to Russia in Zurich.
Player to watch: 34-year-old striker Antonio Di Natale led all Italians in Serie A goals this year. At some point his old head will be needed to babysit problem children Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up front. Since all three will rarely see the field together, it's Di Natale's job as much as the coaching staff's to try to get the forwards playing as a unit--not bickering over who starts. Good luck.
[Related: Group A preview, Group B preview]CROATIA
FIFA world ranking: No. 8
Odds: 50/1 to win Euros; 7/1 to win group; +160 to make knockouts.
This is Croatia's sixth successive trip to a major tournament. Results at the big show have been lukewarm, but there's always value betting this team against more glamorous opposition.
Injuries to central defender Dejan Lovren and striker Nikola Kilinic have seen them miss out. Depth is always going to be an issue for Croatia. Josip Simunic and Vedran Corliuka will run the back line. Ivica Olic and Eduardo will look to carry the load up front.
Player to watch: Everything will flow through Luka Modric in midfield. If the other team opts to blanket Modric, captain Darijo Srna will have a very easy time scoring a few goals and setting up a boatload. The opposition will pick its poison.IRELAND
FIFA world ranking: No. 18
Odds: 100/1 to win Euros; 20/1 to win group; +400 to make knockouts.
A gutsy September draw in Moscow laid the foundation to get this team here. The group stage looks like the end of the road. Eighteen of the Republic's squad play in England, but none play for a top team. Six look to be playing in lower divisions next season.
There's lots of familiarity here: Shay Given, John O'Shea, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, and Robbie Keane each have at least 50 caps for Ireland. Aiden McGeady should reach the milestone during the tournament. But all these players are past their prime. Most were never world-class to begin with.
Player to watch: Keane is already in the MLS, that home for European burnouts, at the ripe old age of 31. If a player is world-class, that's five years too early. Does Keane still have his A-game? If yes, Ireland can get a result or two. If not, this defensively-minded set-up may not score a goal the whole trip.
Finishing order: 1. Spain 2. Croatia 3. Italy 4. Ireland.
Value bet: Croatia to make the knockouts at better than +150.
Poison bets: I can't get excited about either Spain or Italy. Spain's odds are too short. As to Italy, in every major tournament there's one team that gets ripped apart by internal friction. Italy's as good a guess as any this time around. If you're looking for a beer bet on a team at 10/1 or bigger, France looks better for sure. For risk/reward, if Portugal or Denmark can somehow find a way out of Group B, they can play with anybody.