Scandinavians are well worth backing, especially at big odds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 June, 2004, 12:00am

The Scandinavians, having combined to knock out Italy at the group stage, are still being underestimated for this weekend's quarter-finals.

Sweden and Denmark are underdogs for their respective clashes with the Czech Republic and Holland - only Greece, in last night's match against France, were offered at longer odds among the eight quarter-finalists - and both should be backed to reach the last four.

The odds on the two Scandinavian sides do not reflect their performances to date. Both are unbeaten and have in-form forwards, and their emergence from Group C was a tremendous achievement. Much comment centred on Italy's failings but they, like Sweden and Denmark, were unbeaten and their elimination was down to the Scandinavians' strength as much as their own weakness.

There is a good case for rating Group C as the strongest in the tournament (it was the only one that contained four qualifying group winners) and, if that is correct, then Sweden and Denmark will be hard to stop.

Denmark, in particular, have been a revelation. They ranked only 13th of 15 on qualifying form but are fully entitled to their place in the last eight after playing some of the most attractive football so far. Their wingers have posed a big threat in every game and Jon Dahl Tomasson has been one of the top strikers on show.

They face a tough task tomorrow night against the Czech Republic, who have lived up to their high ranking with some exhilarating displays - even from the virtual reserve side they put out against Germany in their final group game. The Czechs have come from behind in every game so far and, while that is a sign of their quality, it is also a trait that reduces confidence in them.

This has all the makings of an open, attacking game and Denmark can be expected to play a full part. Take them for the win, with high goals another bet to consider.

Sweden have been less impressive than the Danes since their opening 5-0 demolition of Bulgaria, but they still look good value against Holland. The worry with the Swedes, as with the Czechs, is that they have made things difficult by conceding the lead and arguably they were lucky to salvage draws against Italy and Denmark, having been helped by poor refereeing and bad defending.

Nevertheless, they should not be such big underdogs against the Dutch tonight. For a start, Sweden are group winners, which entitles them to plenty of respect, and they have looked a much more solid unit than Holland.

Dick Advocaat still seems unsure of his best side or formation and, although the Dutch have played well in patches, their only points came against Germany and Latvia, who both lacked the threat of the Swedes.

Holland are the only quarter-finalists to come from the ranks of qualifying playoff winners - the others were Spain, Russia, Croatia and Latvia - but history is not on their side.

No playoff winners have gone beyond the last eight - the Dutch were in the same situation at Euro '96, when they went out on penalties to France in the quarters. Having said that, it was Holland's bad luck to be in the same qualifying group as the Czech Republic and their qualifying form does rank highly - as good as Denmark's before they won the 1992 tournament after a last-minute call-up - so they cannot be written off.

Nick's best bets: $100 win Sweden. $100 win Denmark.