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Now Only The Play-Offs Remain

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In Hope For The Home Nations? I analysed the chances of all the home nations had of qualifying for the European Championships in France next summer. I expanded upon that with Who Will We Be Watching This Time Next Year?, by not only isolating the home nations but overviewing the whole of Europe and how they are getting on. By the time Update: Euro 2016 qualifying came along there were only 2 matches left for each team and qualifying was getting closer. Now, as the title suggests, the group stage is finished – 20 qualifiers have been decided and only the play-offs remain.

Fifty-three nations entered the race to qualify for the Euros, ranging from Portugal in the west to Kazakhstan in the east. France qualified automatically as hosts, and have since been joined by the 9 winners and 9 runners-up of the group stage as well as the 1 best third placed side. The remaining 8 third placed sides have gone into the play-off draw.

I think my favourite aspect of this qualification campaign is the number of debutants that it has thrown up. Iceland were the first, and were then followed by Northern Ireland, Wales, Albania and Slovakia. You could reasonably add Austria to that list, as 2016 will be their second Euros but first they’ve successfully qualified for. I’m a huge fan of the underdog, and I can’t wait to see all of them grace our screens next summer.

Below is a list of all the qualifiers, what date they achieved it on and how many Euros they have competed at. The letters are merely referring to nations who used to compete under a different name (Czechoslovakia, USSR, West Germany) or bold print to indicate champions of that year and italics to indicate hosts.

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So, how did each group finish? From now, I will include a screenshot of each group as well as the final round of fixtures and a brief summary of how each team fared. I will finish with information on the sides who finished third.

Group A:
Qualifiers: Czech Republic, Iceland, Turkey

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I’ll discuss the elephant in the group in a minute, but it would be unfair on Iceland, Czech Republic and Turkey not to mention what a fantastic achievement it is for all of those teams to qualify first. Czech Republic have a rich footballing history however aren’t anywhere near the team they were a few years ago, and the same could be said on a lesser extent for Turkey. The Czechs reached the final in England 96, semi in Portugal 04, have qualified for every Euros since they gained independence but only one World Cup. Turkey finished third in the 2002 World Cup, reached the 08 Euros semi-final but that side has broken up and they haven’t qualified for anything since. It’s good to see them back.

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Iceland have even less football pedigree, and qualification for that small nation sent shockwaves across Europe. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, after all they reached the play-offs for the World Cup in Brazil and in Lars Lagerback have a very successful international manager. Even if it isn’t as surprising as we thought, it’s still a wonderful story. The best story from this group is definitely the Netherlands failing to qualify. And, if I may be so bold, I think that is absolutely fantastic! I’m fed up of the same teams qualifying all the time, the big teams always making the qualification system look easy and I’m so glad that the Netherlands have failed while Iceland and Turkey succeeded. Maybe we are gaining a competitive Europe? Or maybe not as Kazakhstan and Latvia only gained 5 points each! Turkey went through as the best third placed side thanks to Kazakhstan’s victory over Latvia in the last match.

Group B:
Qualifiers: Belgium, Wales
Play-offs: Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Unsurprisingly, Belgium, Wales and Bosnia are the three teams advancing from this group. The only real question before the stage started was which order Wales and Bosnia would finish it. In the end, Wales finished a comfortable 4 points above them and will compete at their first Euros. Belgium only lost once as their golden generation continued to make qualifying for major tournaments look easy. Hopefully they look better at the actual tournament now! Bosnia will have to settle with the play-offs.

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In fact, I make it sound easier than it was. Despite finishing 5 points behind Bosnia, Cyprus were very close to squeezing into the play-offs. At one point during the last set of matches, Israel were drawing 0-0 with Belgium and Cyprus were beating Bosnia. If Cyprus had held on as Israel lost, then it would be Cyprus rather than Bosnia in the play-offs. What a story that would have been! While Cyprus excelled, it was the same old story for Andorra, who once again failed to pick up a point.

Group C:
Qualifiers: Spain, Slovakia
Play-offs: Ukraine

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After 6 matches, Slovakia were top of this group, with a 100% record. They wouldn’t win again until the final match, which ended up being a must win against Luxembourg. Even then, following a shock home defeat to Belarus at the weekend, they weren’t able to seal qualification easily, almost letting a 3 goal lead slip. However, Marek Hamsik kept his cool to guarantee qualification with a 91st minute consolidator. They will be competing at their first ever European Championship this summer.

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There was no surprise that they were joined by Spain, who looked in ominous form as they comfortably navigated a potentially difficult group. Ukraine never seem to do well in play-offs, so their fans won’t be looking forward to those two matches! In the rest of the group, there were promising signs for Luxembourg and Belarus, while Macedonia appear to have gone backwards from where they were a few years ago.

Group D:
Qualifiers: Germany, Poland
Play-offs: Republic of Ireland

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This was actually a more enjoyable group than most assumed it would be when it was drawn. At that point, everyone assumed it was going to be a 3-way battle for the second automatic qualification spot however it ended up being a genuine 4-team assault on the top spot. Germany sealed qualification as group winners eventually, but it wasn’t before they dropped points home and away to Ireland, lost in Poland and very nearly drew with Georgia in Leipzig.

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Going into the final two matches, Scotland needed to win both to scrape into play-off contention. Up until the last kick of their first match against Poland, they were on course to do exactly that (although Ireland’s shock win over Germany wasn’t helping anything). That pain then passed onto Ireland, who had all of a half to score a goal against Poland yet they couldn’t manage it and so now have to rely on the lottery of the play-offs to book their place in France. No points and a goal difference of -54 is nothing to be pleased about however Gibraltar’s first qualification campaign has been completed without many mishaps. Georgia looked good in patches, but lacked the quality needed to permanently trouble the top 4.

Group E:
Qualifiers: England, Switzerland
Play-offs: Slovenia

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While the qualifiers from this group are no surprise, the ease with which England managed it will raise an eyebrow or two across the continent. The only team to complete qualification with a 100% record is something to be proud of, despite the level of the opposition. While this qualification was essentially sealed in Switzerland on the 8th September 2014, the 3 Lions still needed to finish the job, which they did with 9 more impressive victories. The most encouraging stat from this campaign is the lack of goals conceded, 3 in total of which 2 occurred in one match.

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Switzerland were always favourites to go through with England, although it took them until the penultimate round of matches to confirm it. That was mainly due to Slovenia’s impressive form throughout, who pressed Switzerland all the way and only stumbled with a disappointing home draw with Lithuania on the 9th October 2015. Given Switzerland only just beat Estonia (94th minute winner), should Slovenia have managed to hold on against Lithuania there would have been a nervy few minutes for Switzerland in Tallinn. Neither Estonia nor Lithuania looked out of their depth, and San Marino both scored a goal and picked up a point, which will please them no end.

Group F:
Qualifiers: Northern Ireland, Romania
Play-offs: Hungary

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I’ve been very critical of this group in the past, however I’m truly delighted to see Northern Ireland top it and qualify for their first ever European Championships. This is a qualification few, myself included, thought impossible a few years ago. Back then, they were guaranteed to have a tough group and not challenge anyone except for the odd night at Windsor Park. This time, they made the most of the easy group they were drawn in and will gain a ranking boost from an appearance in a major tournament, hopefully making qualifying for another one easier in the future. Even if they don’t, it will be great to see them participating at at least one in my lifetime.

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Romania have a relatively successful record in qualifying for major tournaments since the 1990’s, and they’ve qualified again. Hungary were looking like qualifying through being the best third placed team until the events in Group A unfolded so will have to settle for a play-off spot. Finland and Faroe Islands will be pleased with their respective campaigns, whereas Greece will be bitterly disappointed. 12 years ago they were conquering Europe, now they are finishing bottom of a group containing the likes of the Faroes!

Group G:
Qualifiers: Austria, Russia
Play-offs: Sweden

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When Austria co-hosted the Euro’s in 2008, few thought they would be gracing the 2016 edition. Congratulations to them, for it’s the first European Championship they have successfully qualified for, and they did it in some style! A group containing Russia and Sweden as well as the dangerous Montenegro was never going to be easy and yet they blew the opposition away and finished unbeaten.

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Sweden went into the final two games knowing they needed to win both and hoping Russia slipped up. The Swedes did their side of the bargain, but unfortunately for them, Russia didn’t. Russia deserve to qualify while Ibrahimovic and co will be dangerous opponents for anyone in the play-offs. Montenegro continue their tags as the nearly men of European football – never quite doing enough to qualify but always having a chance going into the final few matches. Moldova and Liechtenstein were always going to be the whipping boys, and that proved to be true.

Group H:
Qualifiers: Italy, Croatia
Play-offs: Norway

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While it’s no surprise that Italy and Croatia qualified, Norway were very close to spoiling their party. In fact, Norway have valid grounds for disgruntlement given that Croatia were deducted one point for racist behaviour – a number which seems strangely low. But none of that matters, what’s done is done and Norway will have to fight through the play-offs. This group was a three-way race almost from the moment it started, with Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta not doing much other than making up the numbers.

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Italy continued their impressive record of qualifying for major tournaments with an unbeaten campaign and will go into France next summer as, rightly, one of the favourites. Croatia have a seriously impressive qualification record for Euro’s – only failing to reach one (in 2000) but a modest tournament record, with only two quarter final appearances. They’ll feel next summer is a chance to change that.

The a in this group is a reference to a note about Croatia’s racism punishment. 

Group I:
Qualifiers: Portugal, Albania
Play-offs: Denmark

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I made a horrendous call on this group back in June, when I said that the group was all but wrapped up with Portugal and Denmark qualifying. Obviously, that has proven to be incorrect! Denmark’s despair is Albania’s delight, who are another side making their European Championship debut in France. In fact, for the Albanian’s, it’s their first appearance at any international tournament. How wonderful it is that we will be seeing so many sides for the first time at major tournaments in one summer.

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Portugal were always going to qualify from this group, despite losing their first match at home to the aforementioned Albania. They won every match following that, and with a strong side will be amongst the favourites in France. Denmark have a decent side, but with so many good sides entering the play-offs, they might find it a step too far. This was a group marred by crowd trouble and so UEFA will no doubt be glad to see it finished. Serbia and Armenia exit without 10 points between them.

For the a in this group, see notes on Who will we be watching this time next year

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The Third Placed Sides:

Below is a table that shows why Turkey gained automatic qualification for the finals while the other 8 have to go through the play-off system. The way this table is calculated is the results against sides placed 1st,2nd,4th and 5th in the group, ignoring results against the 6th in groups A – H. That becomes crucial when examining why Turkey went through instead of Hungary. Turkey had 2 draws against Latvia, but 2 wins against Kazakhstan meaning if the former finished 6th their third placed record would be four points lighter (and 6/7 if they hadn’t beaten Iceland in their last match). Kazakhstan’s victory over Latvia in their last match meant Hungary would have to take part in the play-offs.

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All that leaves us with is the final round of qualifying, the dreaded play-offs. The remaining 8 sides have been split into two groups of four based upon their UEFA coefficient. Seeded are Bosnia, Ukraine, Sweden and Hungary and, on the 18th October, each will be drawn against one of Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Slovenia. They will then play a two-legged tie in November to decide the remaining four places in France.

Keep an eye on this blog for that, and then the draw, which will take place on the 12th December.

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Author: GHardman42

Mancunian. Main passions are Sport and Mus(e)ic. Huge Everton, AM, Lancashire, JB and England fan! I play tennis like Dolgopolov (except nowhere near as good). Josh has said "You just don't know what will come next"

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