“Let’s flip for it,” a member of the Three Stooges or Marx Brothers would tell an unwitting salesman. “Double or nothing. Have you got a coin? That’d make it easy.” The rube always produced a shiny silver dollar. “Now, that’ll really make it easy,” the comic would wink to the audience…before swiping the dollar.
In a sort of reverse Vaudeville script 90 years later, UEFA is making it tough for soccer handicappers to grab a dollar. Making it really tough. The Away Goals Rule and the organization’s penchant, shared regrettably by FIFA, for scheduling huge events in-midst of domestic league drama or championship women’s matches, complicate matters for a variety of scouts, pundits, and betting sharks. We get used to it. But this time, partly because of COVID-19 and partly because UEFA is a Ronaldo strike north of “diabolical,” gamblers are faced with the task of mind-reading – foretelling the unprecedented choices Europe’s managers are about to make.
If caution isn’t maintained at all times, we’ll end up hawking silver dollars at the flea market, trying to recoup gambling losses from the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League in September and October.
At least if we bet on the event’s heavy favorites.
UEFA collaborates with FIFA to insert a World Cup qualifying angle into the Nations League. Winning 1 of the 4 Group Stage tables bestows a “get out of jail” card for a national team hoping to play in Qatar. Should the squad finish 3rd, 4th, or 5th in a FIFA qualifying group after winning a UEFA Nations League group, it would be eligible for inclusion in a 12-team playoff with 10 runners-up from the round robin. The extra path to Qatar ’22 could be intriguing for managers of upstart squads across the continent. The difference between 2nd, 3rd, or 4th standing in a qualifying group would be null and void, the team granted chance after chance at success.
However, some of the shortest-odds favorites to win the Nations League already expect to finish 1st or 2nd in a qualifying group. France isn’t worried about missing out on 2022, and Belgium may not be either, though Les Diables Rouges are in a ferocious Nations League group with England, Denmark, and Iceland.
Not that all national teams won’t be gunning to win Nations League, since the foremost reason to enter any non-friendly competition is to win it. Here’s the other key caveat, though – there isn’t much room for also-rans in the tournament’s “knockout” bracket. In fact, UEFA Nations League doesn’t have a knock-out round at all, at least not in the sense supporters generally think of them. Only the 4 Group Stage winners advance, everyone else is knocked out.
The “Final Four” of Nations League (Final Four is, after all, ultimately a colloquial phrase and not the NCAA’s original patent) will compete in an old-fashioned 4-up elimination bracket, complete with a “consolation” 3rd-place fixture that managers would likely prefer to have nixed altogether, since with 3 medalists and an 0-2 team in the final round, a country will now be branded the “loser” of an event in which it has triumphed.
Not that an underdog Group Stage winner would care that much, with that underground ticket to Qatar 2022 in pocket.
But if a marquee national team slips in the opening 2 fixtures, well, this isn’t a top-half-qualify type of Group Stage. We could see 16 European squads run the gamut from highly, highly focused to 75% tuned-out. Coaches will sit pat when lineups are flying high or make crazy changes to spark a roster out of its malaise. Volatility may be the norm in gambling on the Nations League.
Seemingly obvious picks could be all over the lot. But it won’t always be wise to take them.
UEFA Nations League Futures Odds: Lines on Lifting the Trophy
Odds courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook:
Bosnia & Herzegovina +10000
We’ll get to touting some odds on the Group Stage on scroll, but it’s important to recognize the effect that the Nations League format could have on futures odds and outcomes. Making a futures bet is like waving the starting flag on an obstacle course; your team must surmount many unique opponents and adverse conditions. The #1 thing to confirm ahead of time is that the “runner” will at least go at full stride.
If the French or the English team faces a scenario in which Group Stage honors are out of its control, a discrepancy of focus and intensity on the pitch could result. Or, suppose Poland is 2 points behind Italy in Group 1 as the teams kick-off against Netherlands and Bosnia respectively on 11/18. (Let’s also say Bosnia has been outscored 0-5 in a pair of Group Stage fixtures.) Robert Lewandowski could simply score a hat trick to dust-off the Dutch himself, of course, but chances are nobody on the Polish side would imagine the match as important as it could technically turn out to be. A tragicomedy could play-out as the Poles walk through a scoreless 1st half, then frantically try to score, having learned that Bosnia & Herzegovina somehow leads Italy 2-0.
There also exists 1 more “landmine” for favored squads in Group Stage: Teams vying for group-winner may have to hold serve against countries facing a 4th-place finish and relegation to Nations League B. It goes right back to the motivational angle, since only a soccer nation desperate to notch a 1st-place finish may be set to conquer an equally-pressed relegation candidate.
France isn’t a terrible pick – Les Bleus have drawn well into a group of 3 teams with inferior speed, depth, or both. N’golo Kante is just 1 of several French attackers who exposed Croatia’s back line in Russia, and Sweden is the squad that will captivate Cinderella-seekers only to lose 1-0 in 2 out of 3 matches. Ronaldo has reservations about playing in the Nations League to begin with, but Portugal should be France’s only real threat in Group Stage.
However, the odds are least-generous when it comes to the defending World Cup champions. Nations League may turn into an upstart’s tournament, making any futures pick south of 5-to-1 a dangerous errand, unless the market specifies Group Stage Winner as the pay-off outcome.
England and Belgium will clash in London on October 11th, but the rivals are not each other’s only problems in Group 2. I do not agree with Denmark’s odds-to-win the Nations League, or Iceland’s for that matter. Even though neither side is a cracking bet to lift the hardware, each federation poses special problems for methodical teams like Three Lions and their Premiership compatriots. Iceland’s striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson is more talented than some of the forwards John Stones and Kyle Walker of Three Lions have defended against in club matches.
Premier League clubs are no longer dominating the UEFA Champions League, so we have no special reason to think 11 Premier League players will take the pitch for either side in the Nations League final of early 2021.
I’m taking Spain at 6-to-1 odds. Yes, it’s true Spanish clubs didn’t make out so well in the Champions League this time around, but any Spain National Team lineup is going to have a healthy dose of La Liga cogs on the pitch, and so it could be to Spain’s advantage for its club teams to have bowed-out. Only midfielder Thiago of La Furia Roja and Bayern Munich must concern himself with the Champions League final, and certainly not David de Gea in goal.
By contrast, Germany will have at least 4 players grabbing a short rest and training on short-order due to Bayern’s UEFA final bid, including keeper Manuel Neuer. That could help to restrain Nationalelf in Group 4, considering that the biggest match happens right away. Germany may also prove more vulnerable than Spain to a challenge from Group 4’s upstart Switzerland.
2020-21 UEFA Nations League: Group Winner Odds
WagerBop is waiting for Group Winner odds to appear in the blog’s purview of sportsbooks, and will update this page with recommended picks when Group Winner markets appear at Bovada, MyBookie, or FanDuel Sportsbook.
Update 9/6: Believe it or not there have been few if any Group Stage Winner markets for UEFA Nations League at online sportsbooks, not even “floating” odds at Bovada or FanDuel as the competition gets underway. Hope everyone is having fun with the other styles of bets – there’s plenty to go around!
For WagerBop’s coverage of the ongoing Nations League and predictions on further rounds of play, check out my colleague Nikola’s international soccer coverage and picks.
UEFA Nations League Group Stage: Matchday 1 Odds and Predictions
Betting odds for September 3rd kickoffs courtesy of MyBookie.
Germany (+133) vs Spain (+179)
Readers who checked the above know what WagerBop thinks about this match-up.
Switzerland (+146) vs Ukraine (+166)
It’s tempting to recommend MyBookie’s goal spread market of Switzerland – Pick’em (-126) since there is only about a 30% chance that the bet will lose. However, the book’s 1st-half prop odds offer generous payouts on the most-likely outcomes, like Over (1) (+100) and Draw (+100).
Picks: 1st Half Over (1) and/or 1st Half Draw (+100)
Russia (+116) vs Serbia (+216)
Don’t forget about League B! The ranks of European soccer are so deep that World Cup nations are relegated to the 2nd tier in Nations League. Russia may not have medaled in its own FIFA World Cup 2 years ago, but who can forget the photograph of Vladimir Putin shrugging at the Saudis as Russia embarrassed the Green Falcons 5-0.
Each of Serbia’s last 7 matches has tallied more goals than the (2.25) total currently offered on the Russia-Serbia contest.
(Saturday 9/5) Denmark (+245) vs Belgium (-107)
Here’s an obvious pick that makes sense. Belgium takes a brutal road trip to begin Nations League against a Denmark side led by GK Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City and attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen of Inter Milan.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.