Belgium – Italy – Sweden – Republic of Ireland
When Italy were only in Pot 2 for the draw whichever top seed they were placed alongside was likely to feel aggrieved. However, this is far from a ‘Group of Death’ for Belgium, particularly with only eight teams eliminated at the group stage.
After qualifying with an unbeaten record for the last World Cup Belgium were many people’s favourites in Brazil. They reached the quarter-finals there but, after again winning their qualifying group for this summer, they will hope to go a few steps further this time. The whole squad is full of quality, with full-back the only position they are lacking world class players, and we rank them as the fourth best team in the tournament.
Italy were runners-up four years ago but they ended that tournament with a negative goal difference after being thrashed 4-0 in the final. After a disappointing World Cup where they exited at the group stage following defeats to Costa Rica and Uruguay there are question marks about this generation’s ability to compete at this level and dating back to the final four years ago they’ve won just three of 21 matches against teams in the top 20 of our rankings while losing 11 times.
The attack looks the major weakness in the squad and Italy have scored more than twice in just one of their last 34 matches going into their warm-up friendlies. With Daniele De Rossi the only player in their provisional squad with more than four international goals this is a team that is vulnerable to the sort of upset that Costa Rica performed on them two years ago.
The Republic of Ireland and Sweden round out Group E after both came through the play-offs to qualify. For the Swedes this is likely to be an international goodbye from Zlatan Ibrahimovic but with their all-time top scorer coming off a season that has seen him score more than ever before there are certainly no signs that his powers are diminishing. However, the rest of the squad is relatively weak. We still have them ranked third out of the four teams in this group but only Group A has a larger gap in our gradings between the second and third best teams.
The Irish will be the biggest underdogs in this group and it’s no doubt a tag they will relish after almost qualifying automatically from a group featuring Germany. Their tactics will be pretty obvious though, as when excluding their two games against Gibraltar they scored just eight times in eight qualifiers and it’ll be a case of getting men behind the ball and hoping to nick a goal from a set piece or counter-attack while preserving their clean sheet.
There’s very little between them and Sweden and the result of their meeting in the first group game should decide who comes third. However, they’ve lost just one of their five games against Italy since the start of 2009, with a goalless draw just before the last World Cup in their last meeting, and could be exactly the sort of side the Azzurri struggle with.
Overall, Belgium look a class above and should win this group. That would actually lead to a harder path to the final than coming second but with the crucial game against Italy coming straightaway no one should be thinking about that.