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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

EURO 2016 QUALIFYING DRAW

The draw for the qualifying rounds of Euro 2016 was made on 23/2/14 in the opulent surroundings of the Palais de Congrès Acropolis in the French city of Nice; as hosts of the final stages of the competition, France were not included in the qualifying draw, but the rest of the 54 member associations of UEFA found their names in the hat.

The draw ushered in a new era for international football in Europe in some ways, and it was also the first time that Gibraltar have been included in a draw at senior level. Perhaps a more relevant aspect for many was the fact that the final stages of Euro 2016 shall involve 24 teams instead of the 16 who qualified last time out; whether this shall be a good thing shall become more apparent through time. 

The nine group winners plus the nine group-runners-up and the best third-placed team will qualify directly for the final stages of the tournament, which will run from 10/6/14-10/7/14; the other eight third-placed teams will enter into four two-legged play-offs.

UEFA have also made a further tweak to the international football calendar by introducing what they call the "Week of Football," which will see Euro 2016 qualifiers being played from Thursday to Tuesday instead of Tuesdays and Saturday, and which shall doubtless see yet more inconvenience for supporters as well as reams of players being absent from league action in a number of countries because of international duty. Oh, for the good old days of international fixtures being played on a Wednesday evening, which was the norm for many years..

Eight of the groups (Groups A-H) shall involve six teams each, whilst Group I shall see five teams in action. Interestingly, France, who are to host Euro 2016, shall be playing what the UEFA website describes as "centralised friendlies" against each of the teams in Group I.

Ireland, Scotland and débutants Gibraltar all feature in a very intriguing Group D alongside Poland, Georgia and red-hot favourites Germany. Gibraltar shall be playing all of their home games at the Estádio Algarve in the Portuguese town of Faro as their new Europa Point Stadium is not scheduled to be ready for action until 2016.

National team manager Allen Bula had been hoping to host England in their group, but Ireland, Scotland and Germany should bring large contingents of supporters with them to the Algarve.
It will be interesting to see how Gibraltar get on; they are, unfortunately, already attracting the same negative comments as San Marino. That is hardly fair on the Gibraltarians; after all, they have only played one UEFA-recognised international so far, a commendable 0:0 against Slovakia in Faro last November. Germany, meanwhile, should win the group, even allowing for their occasionally frail defence; the question is: Who shall finish second and qualify directly along with Joachim Löw's team?

One country who shall be hosting England is San Marino, and supporters of La Serenissima should ready themselves for the usual tiresome diatribe consisting of of articles and social media comments containing  otherworldly gems such as "pub team", "they shouldn't be in the competition" and "we can only beat what's in front of us."

England manager Roy Hodgson did at least pay them a compliment of sorts by calling them a "proper football team" and adding that "they realise that they can't compete at the highest level, but they try to play properly. That's probably why they concede so many goals, they don't play anti-football and try and stop their opponents playing." (Quote taken from the Daily Mirror.) 


Fingers crossed, then, for some improvement in San Marino's fortunes, though England should qualify from a group where their only really serious contenders for top spot are Switzerland; Slovenia, however, despite a horrendous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, should not be totally discounted.

Wales, meanwhile, have a list of tricky opponents in Group B: Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina, qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and favourites to qualify directly again this time around, Israel, who may give the aforementioned countries a run for their money. Also in the group are Cyprus, whose fortunes are once again on the wane after a period of improvement at both club and international level, and Andorra, who are right down at the bottom of the UEFA rankings alongside San Marino, but who are a bit more difficult to crack open. Wales, now under Chris Coleman's management, may struggle; Gareth Bale alone does not a team make.

Northern Ireland might have an easier time of it in Group F against Greece, Finland, Hungary, Romania and the Faroe Islands, although wins away from home - yes, even against the Faroe Islands - will most probably be the scarcest of scarce things. They should be more than capable of picking up a few wins at home in a group featuring Euro 2004 winners Greece, against who they shall probably have the most difficult time, but none of the other four teams in the group are exactly world-beaters at this moment in time.  

This group could turn out to be this qualifying tournament's fabled "Group of Death", as most of the countries involved are pretty much of the same standard. The Faroes are capable of picking up a few points at home, and may surprise Finland, Northern Ireland and Hungary.

Iceland will find it difficult to repeat their heroics during the World Cup qualifiers, where they reached the play-offs only to fall at the final hurdle, losing 2:0 on aggregate to Croatia; they will be up against Holland, Turkey and the Czech Republic, who will all be right up there for the two automatic qualification spots. Iceland are capable of beating anybody at home, and six points from their games against Kazakhstan and Latvia at the Laugardalsvöllur are a distinct possibility.

Spain, Ukraine and Slovakia will surely be unsurmountable hurdles for Luxembourg to clear in Group C, and it will be these three teams who should be occupying the top three spots in the group come late 2015, although points could be garnered by the Roude Léiw at home against Macedonia and Belarus, both of whom will have their eye on third place in the group.


Liechtenstein may well have their own troubles in a group containing Russia, Sweden, Montenegro and near-neighbours Austria; their best chance of picking up a victory may come against Moldova. Malta could find themselves steamrollered in Group H, where they will meet up once again with Italy and Bulgaria from last time out, as well as Croatia and Norway. The Maltese could pick up a point or three at home against Azerbaijan, although it must be said that the Azeris are progressing well and could themselves cause problems for the other teams in the group when they come a-calling to Baku.

Group I could prove to be the most interesting group of all; Portugal are the favourites to qualify directly for Euro 2016, though any of the other four teams in the group could conceivably join them. Both Denmark and Serbia will be looking to prove something after suffering depressing World Cup qualifying campaigns, whilst Armenia - who humiliated Denmark in Copenhagen during said World Cup campaign - and Albania, both of whom were in the same group as Denmark, are both improving and will be no pushovers. It should be a tight group, and one worth keeping an eye on.


GROUP A: Czech Republic, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Netherlands, Turkey 

GROUP B: Andorra, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Israel, WALES

GROUP C: Belarus, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Spain, Slovakia, Ukraine

GROUP D: Georgia, Germany, GIBRALTAR, IRELAND, Poland, SCOTLAND

GROUP E: ENGLAND, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino, Slovenia, Switzerland

GROUP F: Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece, Hungary, NORTHERN IRELAND, Romania

GROUP G: Austria, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Sweden

GROUP H: Azerbaijan, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Malta, Norway

GROUP I: Albania, Armenia, Denmark, Portugal, Serbia

HOSTS: France (already qualified)

The first round of matches are scheduled to take place between 7/9/14-9/9/14.

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