Thursday, July 1, 2021

EM 2020--Quarterfinals

Servus Syndicate Members,

On come the quarters, replete with the significantly larger global audience that this phase of the competition brings. 

If you happen to be just tuning've missed a fantastic show. Not to worry, however, as there's plenty of pages left to be written. 

It's been five long years since we've heralded this phase of the global game's most intense continental championship. Some may be a bit sore that upsets in the previous round robbed us of Sweden, Holland, and World Champions France. 

In the event you're curious, Germans are doing just fine. Seriously. We're all good. The book has slammed shut on one of our darkest post-war national chapters. We've got enough talent coming through the pipeline to engineer a better showing next Christmas. There's also the 2024 Euros, which we shall host. 

Meanwhile, the current journey across Europe continues. Munich, Rome, St. Petersburg, and Baku host the four fixtures this time. Regarding the musical selection for this Lines section, we travel in time rather in space. 

Journey back with your friendly bookie to the Summer of 2016 for a little "Reunion" with M85.

Everyone recall this one? American broadcaster ESPN adopted this diddy as their unofficial hype song from the quarters onwards. Ideally, you'll feel the grip of nostalgia as soon as the dulcet tones strike up. As always it's the reunions that make this time of year special. 

Under the banner of the safest possible outlet for nationalism, international football facilities unrivaled unity within countries and across the borders. In the case of this long-running sports book, we get a treasured re-union at least once a year. Okay...maybe every two years this time. 

With your bookie's customary piece of "syndicate pulpit work" out of the way, onto one of the best parts of a modestly meaningful existence. Bring on the flags!

Friday, July 2nd

Spain vs. Switzerland


Your friendly bookie's Southern Alpine kin are suddenly the darlings of everyone attempted to sniff out an upset in this round. I'll admit it's a tempting pick. Anything goes in tournament football as we reach this stage. Such a maxim is doubly true when factoring in the minutes these two teams logged. Both are coming off draining extra-time victories, with a short regeneration spell to boot.

Tactical cam observers find assessing the overall performance of a team difficult in this era of five subs. There's so much maneuvering and counter-jockeying when the pitch gets flooded with fresh-legged players. The bookie nevertheless took his time and obtained a good read on Vladimir Petkovic's last ditch 4-1-5 during Monday's improbable comeback. 

No such unorthodox frenzy shall be in place this time; at least not initially. When it comes to Switzerland, one must construct the opening XI cautiously. Some task it is without suspended captain Granit Xhaka! While the main midfield string-puller has had one total non-factor match in this tournament, he was by far his team's best player on the pitch last round. There would have been no equalizer absent his assist. 

Petkovic's round two tactics asked to much of Xhaka. The greatest mistake the Swiss trainer can now make if to pile the same burden on another player's shoulders. It's thus impossible to envision a triplicate midfield axis with Denis Zakaria or Edmilson Fernandes anchoring central. Bookie really likes the idea of moving to a back-four, but the personnel just isn't there. 

In light of Fabian Schär's poor form and Loris Benito's lack of experience, we'll stick with the back three. Kevin Mbabu replaces the ineffective Silvan Widmer at right wingback. Gladbach's Denis Zakaria replaces the captain. In principle this leaves us with a 3-4-3 not unlike the one we saw on Day Ten. I'd still be more comfortable labelling it a 5-2-1-2 given how far back Zakaria and Freuler will be stationed. 

With the midfield clogged and the wingbacks moving ahead of the halfway line, there's always a chance of unleashing lightning-quick counters. I personally feel as if we're in for a few broken ones. Breel Embolo's rotations with Shaqiri won't work this time as the ten has to track back more frequently and will be operating at some distance from the strikers. 

Luis Enrique's ramrod 4-3-3 trident is no secret. Which actors he'll ultimately pick to spearhead the flat top axis carries a bit more mystery and intrigue. There shall be some debates about the players he's rotated in shortly after the release of the team sheets. Tough call here. Dani Olmo, Pablo Sarabia, Ferran Torres, and Gerard Moreno have all done well. Mikel Oyarzabal's amazing performance means we've five contenders for two slots.

After some consideration, bookie rolls with the "if it a'int broke" maxim. Sarabia and Torres maintain their spots alongside Morata, even if the former usually does better on the opposite side. One change at the back sees Jordi Alba reprise his left-back role after (presumably) ceding it to Jose Gaya after injury. Pau Torres might also feature alongside Aymeric Laporte.  

Cinderella can dance for a bit here as the Swiss will find some pockets of space on the flanks in which to operate. With Zuber and Mbabu in more advanced positions, Petkovic's crew even maintains a slight advantage there. After some time, however, the exceedingly strong Spanish midfield triangle grinds down the Swiss double-six. 

Your friendly bookie has gotten much wrong in this competition, but do not that the back-to-back Spanish blowouts were correctly augured. I was confident in Spain before the last group stage match. I believed in them unflinchingly before the first knockout stage. I think they win again here. 

Projected Lineups:

 “La Furia Roja” (4-3-3) 

 “La Nati” (5-2-1-2) 

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 goals 

120 Minutes—2 to 1

Penalty Shootout—3 to 1


 Marco Llorente start—Straight Up

 Ferran Torres start—Straight Up

 Djibril Sow start—Straight Up 

 Breel Embolo brace—3 to 1


THE LINE: Spain +2 Goals 

Italy vs. Belgium


Thanks to all of the upsets, we've only one "clash of the heavyweights"--so to speak--in this round. It hardly qualifies as an epic struggle when one takes the Belgian injuries into account. The Red Devils of Antwerp limp into this one as one seriously bruised giant. Roberto Martinez most certainly has to to without Kevin De Bruyne and will probably lack Eden Hazard as well. 

Everyone knows how the world's #1 ranked footballing nation is supposed to look like at full strength. With two key offensive actors missing, the team faces an inability to score its own badly needed goals. The absurdly old back-line leaves them unquestionably vulnerable. One can only envision the rank-favorites remaining in the match if they can match their opponents' attack tit-for-tat. 

Bookie doesn't think that Roberto Martinez will tinker with his constellation in a foundational sense. I do think he'll flatten it out as much as possible. Either Thomas Vermaelen or Toby Alderweireld, both on yellows, will have to take a seat. Removing them both would constitutes a rather serious blow to an already shaky defense as those two have been the most consistent players in the back-three.

I'm thinking he'll leave Vermaelen on and invert the pivot. As an added layer of protection, Leander Dendonker comes on to either work a split-stagger with Axel Witsel or settle in as a semi-sweeper. It'll probably work better to keep the two holding midfielders vertically aligned as this will provide the two buttressing attackers with the best service options. 

Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens enter the XI to work directly underneath Lukaku, just as they did in the opening group stage fixture. Hazard and Meunier also move back a tick to help out defensively. The Dortmund duo will naturally have license enough to head forward, but should only operate a few paces ahead of Witsel. It's a right line of three Bundesliga teammates.

In theory, the BVB triumvirate can cause problems insofar as the Italian approach play is concerned. We witnessed how thoroughly un-compelling Roberto Mancini's 4-3-3 can look in the previous round. The mighty squadra barely squeaked past a very poorly set-up Austrian side. The lackluster performance confirmed what many of us had suspected; Italian prowess was inflated in what proved the competition's weakest group. 

The bookie still chalks this up to a ill-conceived attempt on Mancini's behalf to integrate Marco Verratti into the side. If the Azzuri trainer wished to do this, the 4-3-2-1 drawn up in the last Lines section offered a better solution. Thankfully, the solution here is much more obvious. Simply drop Verratti and give Manuel Locatelli his starting place back. Cheese also takes over for the dipping Berardi on the right.

Distribution-wise, the Italians enter the fixture with a clear plan. Belgium's prospects for effective midfield flight direction remain significantly murkier. One area that Martinez's men can hope to exploit will be the space left by Italy's two full-press-forward fullbacks. If we get an early goal in this one, this match could prove oodles of fun as both sides take more risks. 

I know that many were disappointed with the overall level of play in the Belgium-Portugal fixture. For whatever it's worth, the bookie found it offered above average entertainment value. This one should be a cracker by everyone's standards. In the end, I think the Italians just barely pull it off.

Projected Lineups:

 “Gli Azzurri” (4-3-3) 

 “De Rode Duivels” (3-4-3) 

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 goals

120 Minutes—Straight Up

Penalty Shootout—Straight Up


 Verratti start—Straight Up

 Bernadeschi start—3 to 1

 Lukaku brace—Straight Up 

 Meunier distance crusher—3 to 1


THE LINE: Italy +1 Goal

Saturday, July 3rd

Denmark vs. Czech Republic


We arrive at the team that has captivated the world. No neutral can refuse the peninsulars after the spirit and class they demonstrated on Day Eleven. The Danes literally saved this tournament after a brush with life's coldest, harshest reality threatened to de-rail it. Surely they've got their ticket to the semis punched against the lowest ranked team in the tournament?

Bookie admits it's a total mismatch. Not because of the FIFA rankings--Denmark #10, Czech Republic #40--either. That system exhibits more than its fair share of inherent flaws. Even if they did convey talent gaps more accurately, it hardly matters on this level. These remain sides comprised of elite European club level footballers. 

The real mismatch manifests itself on the tactics boards. Jaroslav Silhavy finally cracked open the playbook to unveil a formational tweak in the upset of Frank de Boer's Oranje. A speedier, silkier, 4-2-2-2 absorbed Dutch pressure, beating back the favorites with rolling counterattacks well before de Ligt's sending off left them in shambles.

Nice trick. Can it be repeated? Possibly. If Tomas Soucek, Tomas Holes, Tomas Kalas (The magnificent three Tomases for those keeping track) can do as good a job shutting down Danish distribution channels as they did completely neutralizing Georginio Wijnaldum, they stand more than a fighting chance. Silhavy gets his preferred left-back from suspension as well, further bolstering his defensive ranks. 

Danish tactics are different, of course. It's not merely a matter of man-marking one pivotal actor. The Czech trainer has to find answers for three pacey attackers in Kasper Hjulmand's 3-4-3. Furthermore, he must somehow keep quintessential "flying wingback" Joakim Maehle under control whilst also frustrating midfield general Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. 

Both Maehle and Højbjerg of these players have arguably been the best players in their respective positions across all teams in the tournament. Even in Denmark's two losses, they excelled. One can assume that, just like against heavy favored Holland, Silhavy and staff have done their homework. They will have spotted the same easily discernible tactical trends chronicled in detail by your friendly bookie in the dailies.

The problem is that it most likely won't matter. Against any other opponent, Hjulmand would have needed to come up with a novel plan to throw the opposition off. Here he can just proceed as usual. The 3-4-3 is almost specifically built to slide behind the projected Czech 4-2-3-1. After an early goal, the Danish trainer can then get Christian Nørgaard atop the 4-4-2 bolt-lock relatively early and give his reserves a chance to score.

One changes to the Danish XI then. Daniel Wass returns to take over for Jens Stryger Larsen, who himself should make an early relief appearance. Antonin Barak retains his place over the injured Vladimir Darida, but scoots back behind Patrik Schick as Silhavy returns to the 4-2-3-1. Jankto also gets his slot back. That gives the Czechs more firepower, yet hardly constitutes enough to make a difference. 

With some defensive discipline, one can envision the underdogs giving the Danes a bit of a run for their money on a sultry night in Baku. The longer the Easterners can keep the Northmen off the scoresheet, the thornier matters will become. Bookie just doesn't see it shaking out that way. Hjulmand's men have what it takes to get that early tally. 

Projected Lineups:

 “De Rød-Hvide” (3-4-3) 

 “The Czech Mates” (4-2-3-1) 

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—3 goals

120 Minutes—2 to 1

Penalty Shootout—3 to 1


 Jonas Wind start—2 to 1

 Mathias Jensen start—2 to 1

 Schick brace—2 to 1 

 Sevcik start—2 to 1


THE LINE: Denmark +1 Goal

England vs. Ukraine


No home fixtures for anyone this round. Even St. George has to leave Wembley and head down to the Stadio Olympico in Rome. This, like many other factors, work towards Gareth Southgate's advantage in this match up. The Three Lions return to full strength with both Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount in full training. Raheem Sterling is full of confidence and Harry Kane got that ever-so-important first tourney goal. 

Your friendly bookie didn't have the energy left to draw it up for the victorious Islanders after Tuesday's defeat. The home country, even in defeat, had to take precedence over England in the last post. Some discussion of Southgate's novel 3-4-3 did take place. By now, virtually everyone treats this as a one-off strategy meant to counter Löw's version of the same formation. All seem to be in agreement that we're headed back to the straight back-five from round one or the back-four sweeper set from round two.

That part of the English constellation is easy to project. In selecting his forward actors, Southgate has to take a closer look at what Andriy Shevchenko himself did to shock the Swedes. The Ukrainian trainer reverted to his own back three, and moved Oleksandar Zinchenko all the way back to a buried left-wingback position on the fifth field axis. The Manchester City attacker snagged a goal and an assist in the encounter. 

Granted, this didn't exactly count as a tactical masterstroke. Sweden were extremely unlucky not to attain what would have been a crucial lead after several hits of the post. Artem Dovbyk's last second goal came on the only noteworthy Ukrainian advance in nearly fifty minutes of open-play football. The gem of a cross from Zinchenko was quite the aberrant burst of quality in a match destined for the penalty lottery. 

The mind games nevertheless commence. Does Southgate anticipate another back-three from Shevchenko? If so, does he leave his own rearward horizontal line in place? The bookie actually thinks both managers will dispense with any thoughts of a chess match and simply return to something they believe works. 

The Zinchenko placement initially proved disappointing. For a solid hour of play, one Shevchenko's most prolific offensive weapons couldn't involve himself in the play at all. Thus, the man of the last match gets moved back up. Mykolenko and Malinovskyi return. There is a slight twist in that substitute hero Dovbyk gets to stay on as a second striker in a 4-4-2. He might move back to a short service rule for Yaremchuk.

When it comes to mother England, we're putting the front three from the first match back together. This time Declan Rice moves up to the extent that it can be appropriately called a 4-3-3. There will be some who might wish to see something akin to the 4-3-3 from Day Twelve, but few will disagree that Bukayo Saka's novelty has run its course and that Grealish is far more effective off the bench.

England being England, a catastrophe can never fully be ruled out. Don't forget that they lost to Iceland in the round before this one in 2016. Sterling and Kane were in the front three for that match too. Both managed to deliver one of their all-time crap performances in the fateful Summer of Brexit. 

Bookie doesn't think it happens here. To that we'll add the emphasis that the bookie is often wrong and that there should be at least one major upset this round. Three of Eight fixtures went to the unlikelier contestants in this year's first elimination phase.

Projected Lineups:

 “The Three Lions” (4-3-3) 

 “The Black Sea Blaugults” (4-4-2) 

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—3 goals

120 Minutes—Straight Up

Penalty Shootout—Straight Up


 Grealish start—3 to 1

 Chilwell start—2 to 1

 Stepanenko start—Straight Up 

 Serhiy Kryvtsov start—2 to 1


THE LINE: England +1 Goal