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European Under 21 Championships: Spain look the full package

European Under 21 Championships: Spain look the full package

The stars of tomorrow

The European Under 21 Championships provide an excellent chance to watch tomorrow’s stars ‘before they were famous’. Players to have graced this tournament in the past include Luis Figo, Francesco Totti, Iker Casillas, Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil and Andrea Pirlo, who by the way is the official Ambassador of the tournament. There’s also the advantage of the matches being played at a far more sociable hour than the vast majority of those Copa America games.

Twelve teams are in it, divided into three groups of four. The three group winners progress to the semis, as does the best runner-up from across the three groups. So, let’s cut to the chase? Who’s the value bet to win it?

France far too short

The odds-compilers are finding four teams pretty hard to split. Spain and England are both 4/1, hosts Italy are 10/3 and France are the favourites at 3/1. Germany, defending champions no less, are out at 11/2.

We’re not keen on France at that price. They didn’t even qualify for any of the last six editions and even though past performance isn’t the be-all-and-end all, it certainly counts for quite a lot. They were good in qualifying with nine wins a and a draw from ten matches with a strong goal difference of +18 but then again, plenty of other teams had that sort of record in qualifying.

A European ranking of seventh (admittedly based on previous performances in qualifying to the last three European Championships and results once there) backs up the idea this isn’t a team who has had good results and with a squad where thee aren’t really any names that catch the eye, it’s hard to see exactly why they’re favourites. Maybe just a case of their World Cup win at senior level having an influence on their perceived chances here.

England and Italy very tempting

Italy could be dangerous. Home advantage always counts for a lot and a runner-up spot, a group stage exit and a place in the semi-finals in their last three appearances suggest they’re strong at this level. No-one has won it more times than them in the tournament’s history (five), they have a good coach in former Italy international Luigi di Biagio and he can count on six players who are full internationals, including the highly impressive Juventus forward Moises Kean. Tempting but not quite enough.

As are England, semi-finalists last time out and winners of the Under 20 World Cup back in 2017; the likes of Dominic Solanke, Dean Henderson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jonjoe Kenny were all part of that side who two years ago and are in the quad for this one. So are Premier League regulars James Maddison, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Phil Foden and Demarai Gray plus the highly-rated Tammy Abraham. It looks a strong team.

Spain tick the most boxes

But our money is going to go on Spain. A runner-up spot last time out and back-to-back wins in 2011 and 2013 is the best recent form of anyone and they were another side who showed little mercy in qualifying, winning nine out of 10 matches and scoring more than three times as many goals as they conceded (31 scored, 10 conceded).

It certainly helps when you have three Real Madrid players on board. Midfielder Dani Ceballos, Player of the Tournament in 2017, is still eligible. Already capped six times by Spain at senior level, he’s the sort of central midfielder who can boss a game in the U21s and will be their key man.

They also have Jesus Vallejo, the Real central defender who has played just short of 100 club matches at senior level. He didn’t play much at Real last season but also has the class and experience to make a big difference here. Completing the trio is Borja Mayoral, who was on loan at Levante last season and should be their main man in attack. His 25 appearances in U21 internationals have yielded 14 goals. Mikel Oyarzabal and Pablo Fornals are also full internationals.

It won’t be a walk in a park to top their group because Italy as we’ve seen, are strong. Or will it? Spain have beaten them in each of the last four times they’ve played them so hold the upper hand in that regard.

Serbia can defy their odds

The other side worthy of a bet are Serbia. Past performances weren’t great but there are three things we like about them in particular.

The first is that they’re in the easiest of the three groups with Germany, Denmark and Austria for company.
Not only could they top the group but thy also have a good chance of being the best runners-up given they should beat both Denmark and Austria while in other groups the second-favourites might not get two wins.

The second thing we like is the presence of Andrija Zivkovic and Luka Jovic in the side. The former had an excellent season with Benfica, playing 42 games and scoring seven goals. Jovic, bought by Real Madrid last week no less for 60 million, had an even better one. He scored 30 goals in 53 appearances last season and became the youngest-ever Bundesliga player to score five goals in one game. Those two alone could make a big difference.

But what we really like is their price. 12/1 is a great one for an each-way interest. If they do make the semis, it’s essentially a 6/1 shot that they make the final…

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