History shows backing favourites can be dangerous

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 June, 2004, 12:00am

The theory goes that group winners are favoured by the draw now that Euro 2004 has reached the knockout stages, but the reality of past tournaments suggests punters should be wary of backing the favourites.

At the last five European Championships - the only ones with a relevant knockout phase - a mere five group winners out of 16 have progressed after 90 minutes in their first knockout games. Although three more have gone through after extra-time and/or penalties, the casualty rate of group winners is still surprisingly high. In fact, the eventual finalists in those five tournaments have shown an even split of group winners and runners-up, so it would be foolish to rule out any team at this stage. Don't rule out England, who have one of the toughest draws of all against Portugal in tonight's first quarter-final. Another interesting statistic is that two of the last five European Championship finals have been contested by teams who were in the same group, so a France v England rematch on July 4 remains a live possibility.

England showed a new side to their game when they came back from a goal down in Monday's exciting 4-2 win over Croatia - their inability to recover deficits had previously looked one of their biggest weaknesses, most notably in their tame 2002 World Cup exit against Brazil. The front six are looking as good as any in the competition - Michael Owen, without scoring himself, has still played a key part in several goals - and Sol Campbell has been one of the best defenders on show. The two biggest concerns are John Terry, who has looked less steady than Ledley King did against France, and the erratic David James in goal.

England's defence will be helped tonight by Portugal's lone-striker formation, which reduces the effectiveness of their talented wingers - only Maniche breaks into the box from midfield on a regular basis. Portugal have looked much better once in front against Russia and Spain, so the first goal will be crucial. Expect a tight battle in a packed midfield, with low goals a real possibility. England on the handicap looks the best option.

Greece are massive underdogs in tomorrow night's quarter-final against favourites France, but they should not be dismissed lightly. The Greeks' limitations were exposed in a 2-1 defeat by eliminated Russia in their final group game, but before that they had shown resilience and occasional flashes of skill in taking four points off Portugal and Spain. They can be expected to sit back and make things difficult for France.

France are only marginally better odds than they were against Switzerland in their final group game and cannot be recommended. The problem with backing Greece is whether they have enough quality to score against France. With that in mind, the 0-0 looks the best value for anyone looking to oppose the favourites.

Nick's best bet: $200 England on the handicap.

Nick Pulford hit the bullseye when assessing the group stages in the South China Morning Post Euro 2004 Special Supplement, published on the eve of the tournament. Our ace tipster correctly predicted the first four quarter-finalists and backed Portugal ($200) to win Group A with Sweden ($100) to top Group C, which would have returned $975.