The first semi-final is here, after months of speculation. It’s main feature being five very strong entries near the top of bookmakers’ lists for the overall prize: Armenia, Sweden, Ukraine, Hungary and Azerbaijan. As a result, it’s a tight race to win the semi. The strength of the former Soviet bloc, Hungary’s pimp slot and Sweden’s all-round professionalism means a case can be made for all five.
Those who think Hungary is a contender for the whole shebang should be looking at 5/1 for ‘Running’ to win this heat. The final two slots have an enviable record in the semi-finals, one of them always getting placed between 2008-12. Even in last year’s reversal of that trend, Romania was the televote winner from the second-heat pimp slot.
That is an enviable Soviet bloc Hungary is up against, however. The likes of Armenia and Ukraine don’t just have neighbours to rely on, but diaspora in the west too – the former in Spain, France, Netherlands and Belgium; the latter in Portugal and Spain.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has a formidable semi-final record, and can rely on the ex-USSR nations and Hungary. Even Russia is getting in on the act: expect surprise Portuguese points here because the backing singer and prop opener in the Russian act is a famous Portuguese artist.
Otherwise, I’ve been benignly sceptical of Sweden from the off, but even I have to admit that it’s a highly polished package on stage. Therefore, I’m largely leaving this semi win market alone.
Beyond the five very likely qualifiers mentioned above, I have a further three I am reasonably confident will reach the final: the Netherlands has impressed me greatly during rehearsals and is my biggest play for qualification, though the value has largely gone now; Russia benefits from that strong former Soviet representation, which should be enough; whilst Belgium’s Axel has enough of a niche that should also help him over the line.
The qualification conundrum is: who gets the other two places in the final?
I’m going to discount Latvia, Albania, San Marino and – slightly more reluctantly – Iceland, as having too much against them in the circumstances. All bar San Marino are badly drawn, and none of them offer a jury-friendly package. That leaves two from the following four: Estonia, Moldova, Portugal and Montenegro.
There’s one very good reason not to get too heavily involved in these borderliners: this heat contains the two countries who usually post a jury-only tally which can be a lot more unpredictable. In San Marino’s case, we’re guaranteed to have no televote, and it usually happens in Albania too, whose jury have come up with some maverick scores in the past. A stray, surprise 12 or 10 from either could make the difference tonight.
So, it’s a case of fingers crossed if you are going in on any of these, but here are some of the arguments you could use: if it’s the “four of the last six always qualify” rule, then that means leaving Estonia out; if you want to emphasise the acts juries would probably prefer, that’s artistically-presented Estonia and ballad-y Montenegro; if you’re thinking about televoters relatively starved of upbeat entries, Portugal and Estonia have an edge.
In terms of voting allies, Moldova comes out on top with plenty of friends in the former Soviet bloc and among diaspora in Spain and Portugal. Estonia has Latvia, and perhaps a smattering a points among the Soviet and Scandi blocs. Portugal has Spain, France and to a lesser extent Belgium.
I’ve not been impressed by Montenegro in rehearsals, but it’s worth bearing in mind that all of its 20 points in the 2012 semi-final came from the two rogues sources mentioned earlier, more predictably in the case of fellow Balkan nation Albania, more surprisingly from San Marino.
It feels like pot luck making up my final two here, but I fear that Portugal is included among my borderliners more out of hope than expectation, and I’m going for Estonia and Moldova to complete my prediction of the ten qualifiers. I’m not going to offer any bolded tip in this semi, but rest assured I have a few planned for the second heat.
That said, it is worth following the market in-running – in the past, this has tended to overestimate anything with a disco beat, or that reflects overly-British taste (camp or gimmicky entries). Either way, it’s a fascinating guide to changing opinion.
Do let us know your ten qualifiers below, as bragging rights are up for grabs. Good luck to all of you tonight, and don’t forget to stay tuned as the qualifiers draw first or second half in the final at the press conference immediately following this fascinating semi.