Unusual suspects offer best bets for Euro qualifiers
The Euro 2012 qualifying groups have their final round of matches on Tuesday, more than two years after battle commenced, and there are even more pitfalls than usual for punters. International soccer is tricky enough, with so many mismatches and short-priced favourites, but now there is the added complication of some teams having everything still to play for and many having nothing at stake.
That means punters might have to look in unusual places to find a good bet and one of those places is Macedonia, who host Slovakia in Group B. Slovakia have been much the better of the two teams so far and rate a good chance to win.
For some reason Armenia have been their bogey team, but apart from that Slovakia have been tough to beat. Their notable results on the road have been a 1-0 win in Russia and a goalless draw against the Republic of Ireland, and they beat Macedonia 1-0 at home in the reverse fixture. Defence is clearly their strength and the biggest doubt about their chances is that they are a low-scoring side that may be over-reliant on a clean sheet.
Yet there is a good chance of shutting out Macedonia, who have struggled to keep a clean sheet. Macedonia scored twice in their first qualifying home game, a draw against Armenia two years ago, but then failed to break through against Russia and Ireland, and last time scored only once against Andorra.
Even without England, most of Europe's superpowers are involved in Tuesday's action and one of the more interesting bigger matches is Denmark v Portugal, who have been regular opponents in recent years. Portugal won the reverse fixture 3-1 in this campaign but in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, when the two countries were also in the same group, Denmark took four points with an away win and a home draw.
In a tight-looking match, under 2.5 goals is worth considering and so too are Denmark on the handicap. Although they are not quite in the European elite, Denmark are ranked 17th in the world by Fifa and should not be underestimated. In their last four qualifying campaigns, the Danes have lost only twice in 19 home games and have won 13.
Denmark's last six competitive home games have had under 2.5 goals and, although Portugal have been free-scoring in most of their group matches, their toughest away fixture so far ended in a 1-0 defeat by Norway, while the reverse fixture with Norway was also 1-0, this time in Portugal's favour.
Portugal's last six away games against teams ranked in Fifa's top 50 have had under 2.5 goals and they have won only two of the six, albeit with three draws.
The draw is a big factor, but Denmark's decent home-win record, even against the bigger countries, suggests they may have a slight edge as a handicap bet.
Staying in Scandinavia, Sweden are also worth backing on the handicap in their home game against the Netherlands. The Dutch sailed through qualifying, as they usually do, and booked their place at the finals even before October's final two rounds of matches.
The crucial game, as far as Sweden were concerned, was the reverse fixture in Amsterdam two years ago, when the Netherlands thrashed them 4-1. But the Swedes have been much more solid at home, winning all four qualifiers by an aggregate of 15 goals to one.
Those games were against lesser opposition but, like Denmark, Sweden are tough to beat at home and often underestimated. In their last four qualifying campaigns, Sweden have lost just twice at home in 19 games (against Croatia and Denmark) and their 14 wins include a notable 2-0 victory over Spain, although that was just before Spain started their period of world domination.
It looks more difficult for the Netherlands to win in Sweden than the odds suggest, especially if they put out a team including several second-string players, and the hosts are another decent handicap bet. This is also a match where under 2.5 goals is the way to go and the draw has to be considered too.
France v Bosnia-Herzegovina is the crunch game in Group D and it could be tight. Laurent Blanc has restored French pride after their catastrophic World Cup in South Africa but still they have made heavy weather of a group that looks far from difficult. They have been solid enough, but the goals have not come easily for most of the campaign and at home they have been beaten 1-0 by Belarus and scored only two against Luxembourg, the minnows of the group.
This match promises to be tense and low-scoring, with Bosnia-Herzegovina also a side built on strong defence. Their two away wins have been in games where they kept a clean sheet and a shutout is bound to be their first priority again. They didn't manage that in the reverse fixture against France, losing 2-0, but this is unlikely to be any more open and under 2.5 goals is an obvious bet.
Other matches to consider for under 2.5 goals are Ireland v Armenia, Switzerland v Montenegro and Slovenia v Serbia. Higher-scoring matches might be Hungary v Finland, Lithuania v Czech Republic, Georgia v Greece and Malta v Israel.
Sweden, Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Sweden on handicap
Tough to beat at home, especially if Holland put out weaker side
2 Denmark on handicap
Strong home side who are often underestimated
3 Slovakia away win
Strong defence can give them the edge
4 Ireland v Armenia under 2.5 goals
The best-value bet for a low-scoring match
5 Hungary v Finland over 2.5 goals
All of Hungary's home qualifiers have gone over that mark