Omens are not great for Spain
Spain, the world's best team for the past four years, are favourites as they try to retain the European Championship but the question for punters is whether their momentum has slowed or even gone into reverse. No country has retained the Euro title since its inception in 1960 and only two reigning champions have even reached the final - the Soviet Union lost 2-1 to Spain in 1964 and West Germany were beaten on penalties by Czechoslovakia in 1976.
And only two beaten finalists have returned to take the title four years later - West Germany in 1980 and the unified Germany in 1996. That gives hope to tournament second favourites Germany, runners-up to Spain in 2008, but it also emphasises the cyclical nature of international football.
It is difficult to stay at the top, which makes Spain's status as the reigning world and European champions all the more impressive. At the same time, Barcelona have been the dominant team on the European club scene and that's no coincidence because the Catalan club has supplied the heartbeat of the national side with Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Yet there has been the sense that an era has ended for Barcelona and the same could happen to Spain, who likewise have to cope with the ageing of Xavi and David Villa's absence through injury.
Germany are more of a team on the up, having done well with their youngsters at the 2010 World Cup, and they usually give their backers a good run for their money. At the past three major tournaments (World Cup and Euros) they have finished third, second and third, and their record at the Euros is second to none.
That is especially true of the Euros when the host country has not won - as may well be the case with this year's joint hosts Ukraine and Poland. Of the 10 tournaments won by an outside country, Germany (or West Germany) have appeared in the final six times and won three.
The problem for Germany is they are drawn in the strongest group (B), which features four countries from the world's top 10. All four are higher-ranked than the teams in group A, which means the countries that come out of group B will have a good chance of going a long way in the competition because they face group A teams in the first knockout round.
The Netherlands, who qualified in great style and have a well-balanced side spearheaded by Robin van Persie, are the best-value alternative as they have a good chance to take an early grip on group B with their opening game against Denmark.
In the eight Euros with a group-stage format for the finals, six of the eventual champions won their opening match (the other two drew) - making a fast start all but essential.
Of the other major countries: England may benefit from Roy Hodgson's rigid structures; France and Italy have plenty of talent but are not the automatic leading fancies they once were; and Portugal seem too reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo. All four could struggle getting out of the group stage.
The tournament's relatively short format probably explains the surprise results of the past, with the likes of Greece, the Czechs, Denmark and Belgium making the final or even winning. Poland and Ukraine should not be ruled out, as they have decent chances of getting out of their groups and should do better than Switzerland and Austria last time.
Croatia, who could open with a win over Ireland and get a head start on Spain and Italy in group C, could be this year's surprise package. They have lost only three out of 26 since a 5-1 thrashing by England almost three years ago. Sweden could do well, too.
The picks to qualify are: Russia (winners) and Poland in group A, Germany (winners) and the Netherlands in group B, Spain (winners) and Croatia in group C and Sweden (winners) and Ukraine in group D.
Van Persie is the best choice as top goalscorer. At the last eight Euros, 12 players have been outright top scorer or shared the award, and 11 of them reached at least the semi-finals (five were on the winning team, one played for a losing finalist, five more lost in the semis and the other was on the losing side in the quarters). If the Netherlands do well, as expected, so should Van Persie. With 37 goals in 10 games, the Dutch were the highest scorers in qualification.
Punters should consider backing the draw across all eight opening group games. There are several close matches on paper, including France v England and Spain v Italy, and this would have been a successful formula in five of the eight previous tournaments based on a proper group format, with three draws out of eight necessary to return a profit to level stakes.
Per cent records for Spain and Germany in qualifying