There are only four spots left open in the 24-team field for Euro 2016. Eight teams – each of whom finished third in their qualifying group – will now pair off in four separate two-game, home-and-home playoff series. The winner of each series will punch its ticket to the tourney while the loser will have to wait another four years.
Only one of the eight teams in the playoffs, Denmark, has won the Euro before. But the Danes have arguably the toughest draw of the remaining sides, facing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Swedes. Elsewhere, the Ukraine will meet Slovenia, Norway will battle Hungary, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will face Ireland.
Let’s take a look at the odds for each series before the action gets underway on Nov. 12-14:
Ukraine (-187) vs. Slovenia (+150)
Ukraine and Slovenia have met four times in the past, with the smaller Slovenia a holding a surprising 2-2-0 edge. One of those two wins came during the 2000 edition of the Euro playoffs, something the Ukrainians are still sore over.
This will actually mark the third time that Slovenia has found itself in the qualification playoffs. After beating the Ukraine in 2000, they fell to Croatia in 2004. In this year’s Group Stage, the team went 5-1-4. Their 11 goals against is second-worst among the playoff teams (only better than Bosnia & Herzegovina).
The Ukraine has been in the Euro playoffs just the one time (the aforementioned loss to Slovenia), but come into this series as favorites thanks to a stronger showing in the Group Stage. They lost just three of their ten games, and two of those came against the current European Champions, Spain.
Pick: Ukraine -187.
Bosnia & Herzegovina (-125) vs. Ireland (+100)
Bosnia & Herzegovina did well to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and now look to earn a spot in their second straight major tournament. Meanwhile, Ireland haven’t qualified for a major international tournament since Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine. They did manage to beat Bosnia & Herzegovina in their only meeting, though (1-0 in a 2012 friendly).
The Bosnians lost their only previous Euro playoff series, falling 6-2 on aggregate to Portugal in 2012. They finished this year’s Group Stage with a 5-2-3 record, trailing both Belgium and Wales when all was said and done.
Ireland has a 1-2 record in European playoffs, losing to the Netherlands in 1996 and Turkey in 2000, but smashing Estonia on the road to the Euro 2012. They reached this year’s playoffs by finishing third in a very tough Group D. They couldn’t top World Cup champion Germany nor Poland, but did pip rival Scotland for third.
The Irish defended well in the round-robin portion, but only scored only eight goals, the fewest among the playoff teams; they’ll have a good chance to get the offense on track against Bosnia & Herzegovina who, as mentioned above, allowed the most goals in group play.
Pick: Ireland +100.
Norway (-175) vs. Hungary (+137)
The last time Norway participated in a major tournament was back in Euro 2000; indeed, that’s their only appearance in a European championship. Hungary has an even longer drought, failing to get to the World Cup since 1986 and the EURO since 1972.
There have been 17 all-time meetings between Norway and Hungary, with Hungary holding a 7-5-5 edge. The last time they met (a 2012 friendly in Budapest), Norway came out on top with a 2-0 victory.
Norway is 0-1 in Euro playoffs, losing to Spain in the Euro 2004 qualifiers. They finished third in Group H with a solid 6-1-3 record, trailing only powerhouses Italy and Croatia.
Hungary will be participating in a playoffs series for the first time. They managed to reach the playoffs despite only winning four games in a weak Group F (which was topped by Northern Ireland and Romania). They drew another four and lost two, ending the ten-game round robin with 11 goals for and nine against.
Norway has faced better competition, and should advance in a close series.
Pick: Norway -175.
Sweden (-125) vs. Denmark (+100)
This is arguably the best series of the four, featuring two solid squads that also happen to be neighbors. There have been 104 all-time clashes between Sweden and Denmark, with the Swedes winning 45 games and the Danes 40 (plus 19 draws).
Sweden finds itself in a Euro playoff for the first time, but aren’t strangers to the format. They lost a playoff series to Portugal for a ticket to the 2014 World Cup. They finished third in a top-heavy Group G that saw Austria and Russia nab first and second.
Denmark won their only previous Euro playoff, smashing Israel 8-0 on aggregate to clinch a spot in the 2000 tournament. They went 3-3-2 in a five-team Group I, finishing behind Portugal and an upstart Albanian side, but well ahead of a disappointing Serbia and an overmatched Armenia
Given that this is likely to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last tournament with the national team, I don’t expect him to let this chance slip away.
Pick: Sweden -125.
(Photo credit: Football.ua [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)
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