UEFA Euro 2016, being held in France, is under a year away now, and the qualifying tournament has started to heat up. A few months ago I wrote an article suggesting that it might be the first tournament to feature all the home nation sides since 1950. It was always my intention to keep you up to date with how all are doing, however I’ve decided to extend that to include updates on how all the sides are doing. The reason for this is because there are a number of fascinating qualification stories which do not always directly involve a nation in the British Isles. International football doesn’t always attract the attention that domestic football does however I think you’ll agree with me that this qualifying tournament is the definition of intriguing.
In theory, the qualification process should be simple. There are 53 teams competing in it, split into 8 groups of 6 and 1 of 5. The Euro’s used to be contested between 16 teams however UEFA have increased it to 24 for 2016 meaning that the top 2 from each of the 9 groups will qualify along with the best third placed side and the remaining 4 spots decided by play-offs between the other 3rd placers. France have qualified automatically as hosts. Simple right? Yes, however there are a few little complications. For a start, given the odd number of teams competing the third place ranking isn’t as simple as who has the most points. It’s the most points against every team except who finishes sixth, which means that we won’t have an idea who the best third placed side is until the qualifying finishes. Secondly, UEFA’s out-dated coefficient ranking system has thrown up some really hard groups (ie Group B) and some really easy ones (ie Group F). Finally, the problem of recent tournaments has been lack of competitive matches for hosts so UEFA have stuck France in Group I with their matches being no more than friendlies organised against the 5 teams in that group.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Europe were represented by Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Switzerland. Most of these were expected to qualify for France, and while they still all might you will see that some are making it harder than it needs to be. This qualification process has been the most unpredictable I can remember for a long time and we could see some new names at a major international tournament, which is great for everyone concerned. Having said that, UEFA qualification processes can seem unpredictable before the big nations pull it back and qualify easily so we’ll see what happens.
To date, 6 games have been played with 4 remaining in the first 8 groups. For Group I, it’s 5 played with 3 left (except for Albania). These matches will be played in September and October later this year, and by 17th November (when the play-offs finish) we will have the completed line up. In the tables, a bracketed Y means that team can’t qualify automatically but might make the play-offs while an X means they are guaranteed at least a play-off spot.
How it stands: Iceland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Turkey, Latvia, Kazakhstan
On paper, this group seemed fairly straightforward. Netherlands would win easily; Czech Republic would be second and leave Iceland/Turkey fighting out for third place. Following the first set of matches, that theory was already looked wrong. Czech Republic beat Holland and Iceland thrashed Turkey 3-0. Since then, Iceland have only lost once (away to Czech Republic) and deservedly lead the group. Netherlands appear to be struggling, but will take heart from the fact they entertain both Iceland and Czech Republic at home as well as travelling to Kazakhstan and Turkey. Assuming they get a maximum 12 points from those, they will easily win the group.
With no disrespect to Czech Republic, I hope Iceland hold onto second place. Most will be surprised to see Iceland at a major international tournament however it’s been coming for a little while. They qualified for the 2011 U21 euros, missed out on away goals this year and reached the play-offs for the 2014 senior World Cup. They are a relatively young side on the rise and it’ll be nice to see that rewarded with a spot in France.
As it stands: Belgium, Wales, Israel, Cyprus, Bosnia, Andorra
I wouldn’t go as far as saying Bosnia were expected to qualify from a group boasting Belgium, Wales and the dangerous Israel however few expected them to sit one place away from the bottom of the table. The writing appeared on the wall as early as the first match when they lost at home to Cyprus. Draws with Belgium and Wales were respectable, but a 3-0 loss in Haifa damaged their campaign. Hope was provided by a 3-1 victory in the return fixture over Israel. Unfortunately, they have to travel to Belgium and Cyprus, as well as hosting the in-form Wales. Third is probably the best they can hope for.
Wales and Belgium look likely to get to France now. They’ve played each other twice already (1 draw, 1 Welsh victory) and so both have favourable fixtures remaining. With the quality in both of their midfields, it would be a huge shock to see them choke, although you can never rule out a Welsh collapse. Both of them add a lot to world football and so neutrals will be hoping they can qualify. If Bosnia continue to falter, Israel or Cyprus could find themselves with at least a play-off spot.
As it stands: Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine, Macedonia, Belarus, Luxembourg
Before any of the matches kicked off, Group C seemed to be incredibly open to me. Assuming Spain would win the group, any 2 of Slovakia, Ukraine and Belarus could have realistically claimed 2nd and 3rd while Macedonia can always produce a shock at their ground. What’s happened is that the other 3 sides have blown Belarus and Macedonia away. Slovakia have been outstanding, winning all 6 of their matches and will finish in the top 3. Even though they might concede top spot to Spain when they travel there, Ukraine and Belarus at home and Luxembourg away means they should still qualify.
Ukraine look set to at least feature in the play-offs with a third place finish. They’ve already played Luxembourg (who will almost certainly finish sixth) twice and hence these next four games are crucial for them to push them into the best third place slot and qualify without the play-offs. Ukrainian fans have bad memories of play-offs and I’m sure they won’t want another one.
As it stands: Poland, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Georgia, Gibraltar
One of the toughest groups to call who would come in second, it’s also the group to feature a UEFA debutant, in Gibraltar who have sadly lost all their 6 matches. For me, Group D is possibly the most fascinating of the lot of them. Poland currently lead the group, from Germany, but they could realistically finish as low as fourth. All of Poland, Germany, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland remain competitive, although Ireland’s hopes are fading. Poland travel to Germany and Scotland, in amongst hosting Gibraltar and Ireland. If we assume they’ll beat Gibraltar and lose to Germany, the other two fixtures are huge.
Scotland will be feeling relatively positive about their chances to progress. In their last four matches, they get to play Gibraltar and Georgia as well as hosting Poland and Germany. Two easier fixtures away from home and two harder with home advantage – that’s probably the run in you want! Ireland play the same sides, but have to travel to Poland and can’t really afford to lose to Germany whereas Poland and Scotland can.
As it stands: England, Slovenia, Switzerland, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
E is for England. It’s been a perfect start to the qualifying campaign for England, banishing the demons of the World Cup and looking to start a new era with exciting players and positive play. That being said, it’s important not to get carried away as besides trips to Switzerland and Slovenia (both games we’ve already won) this group really is lacking in quality. Given the two harder games are out of the way, England should make it a perfect 10. E is also for Estonia, who would probably be in the top 2 if they were consistent. Beating Slovenia in the first match, they then gave San Marino their point by not being able to find a way past the San Marino defence. Trips to England and Switzerland to come means they’ve missed their chance.
Switzerland and Slovenia will probably finish in 2nd and 3rd respectively, as they are placed at this stage, however it would be wrong to rule out the Baltic States. Lithuania could sneak into the play-off spots, as they have the fixtures to be able to shape their own qualification. Traveling to Estonia and Slovenia, results there and a presumed three points at home to San Marino could mean that by the time they host England they’ll be guaranteed 3rd.
As it stands: Romania, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece
I keep staring at Group F and thinking it’ll all make sense eventually, but it never seems to get any clearer. Firstly, how on earth did these six teams get placed together? Only one of them has qualified for a major tournament in this millennium, with two never appearing at one. Secondly, the highest seeds, Greece, remain rooted to the foot of the table and have lost all their matches played at home. They could still qualify, but it would take something remarkable from here and rather than getting better, at the moment it’s just getting worse. Last week they lost to the Faroe Islands, the Island nation’s second win in this group (with the first coming in Greece). The Greeks are in dire straights.
Northern Ireland are in dreamland. With Romania now out of the way, trips to the Faroes and Finland with hosting Greece and the crunch match against Hungary, there is genuine and deserved optimism that N.Ireland could book their place in France. Romania should win the group from here, but beyond that the group is difficult to call. The order probably won’t change much from what it is now, although we would all love the Faroes to sneak into the play-offs! Given what’s happened already, you wouldn’t bet against it.
As it stands: Austria, Sweden, Russia, Montenegro, Liechtenstein, Moldova
Group G highlights the lack of depth in quality in European football. Sweden have international pedigree but have failed to replace the golden side of the early 2000’s, Russia are a growing force however lack the quality of other fringe European sides (Bosnia, Wales, Poland etc), Austria have only qualified for a major tournament recently because they hosted it and the other 3 have never made it as independent countries.
In terms of the group, it’s a surprise to see Austria leading Sweden and Russia. They might well stay top for they have relatively easy fixtures remaining, aside from the visit to Sweden. Which of Russia or Sweden takes the second place could be determined as early as the next round when Russia host the Swedes. Russia will be grateful to have 8 points; it could quite easily be 6 as they got given a 3-0 victory over Montenegro following crowd trouble, which got stopped when they tied at 0-0. Those extra 2 points could be crucial in overtaking Sweden, as the Scandinavian country have the harder run in.
As it stands: Croatia, Italy, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
The difference between Groups F and G compared to Group H highlight exactly why the coefficient system is out of date. The biggest teams in those groups were Greece and Russia, neither of which have the quality (and pedigree) that Croatia and Italy boast and yet both of the latter are in the same group. Italy, in second, only have a 2 point cushion between them and Norway, and a 4 point one to Bulgaria and will play both of them in the run-in (in Italy). With 3 home games out of 4, Italy will fancy their chances of winning the group.
Croatia’s run-in is considerably harder than Italy’s, so it’s good for them that they’ve laid the groundwork and have a four-point cushion in the automatic qualification spots. They have to travel to Azerbaijan and Norway, hosting Bulgaria in between. A nice trip to dead weights Malta will round off their campaign, although it might be too late. Watch out for Norway, their fixtures (Bulgaria (A), Croatia (H), Malta (H), Italy (A)) will either mean they fall away or secure qualification, essentially they won’t be relying on other results.
As it stands: Portugal, Denmark, Albania, Serbia, Armenia
Group I is the last group, the only one with 5 sides and the easiest to predict. Portugal and Denmark will qualify automatically, with Albania contesting the play-offs (or having an outside chance of best third place). Albania have four matches left, starting with 2 against Denmark and Portugal but ending with easier fixtures against the sides with only 1 point from 5 games. While qualification is far from assured, the gulf in class between Denmark and Portugal and the rest will be too much and they will qualify in style.
In fact, the most interesting (and upsetting) aspect from Group I was the match between Serbia and Albania in Serbia. Political tensions run high in the two countries, and violence had been expected. The match was stopped twice, and eventually abandoned before the half time whistle. Following this, a pro-Albanian flag on a drone was flown across the stadium and the Serbian fans reacted by invading the pitch and attacking the Albanian players. UEFA awarded the match as a 3-0 Serbian victory before docking them 3 points and forcing them to play their next 2 home matches behind closed doors, essentially making the result mute. For more information, visit this page. From that, it seems ridiculous that UEFA allowed them to be drawn in the same group.
With 4 games left for most teams, the qualification tournament is entering the home straight. Some established footballing nations, such as Netherlands, Russia and especially Greece, have work to do to secure their place in France. Only two sides have a 100% record left, England and Slovakia, with Wales, Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia and Italy all unbeaten. There is a genuine chance of having more than one side at next years Championships who have never qualified before, I for one sincerely hope that this materialises. The next matches take place in September, with the groups finishing in October. Following those matches, I will produce another article with the finished tables and preview the play-offs.