The qualifying draw for Euro 2016 has afforded England what should be a straightforward campaign. Will Cafferky looks at the merits of the opposition and what points of interest the other groups could offer:
With an unenviable group awaiting England in Rio this summer, there may have been a feeling amongst Hodgson’s camp that they were due a lucky break. Indeed the result of the draw couldn’t have been much sweeter, though England will as always have to guard against complacency.
Aided by a generous 5th seeding for the draw, there were still a few teams England would have been keen to avoid. Sweden, Belgium, Croatia, Ukraine all made their way into pot 2, whilst Serbia, Turkey and Poland were arguably the teams to avoid in pot 3.
England safely dodged such hazards, and were handed one of the more generous groups of the qualifiers. Here’s my low-down on what to look out for in England’s group:
Oddly enough, despite an arguably insignificant international reputation, the Swiss team is the strongest it has been for some time. They didn’t qualify for the 2012 tournament, but surprisingly found themselves amongst the top seeds for this summer’s World Cup. An emerging roster of impressive youngsters, most notably Bayern starlet Xerdan Shaqiri, could cause England a few problems.
Despite being one of the higher ranked pot 3 teams, Slovenia undoubtedly possesses one of the weaker squads England could have drawn. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is a strong European keeper, plying his trade at Serie A strugglers Inter Milan, but he shouldn’t be enough to frustrate England’s increasingly intimidating forward line.
Once again, England can hardly complain here, they’ve avoided a repeat meeting of their irksome World Cup qualifying foes Montenegro, along with what would have been fiery match ups with the home nations. Estonia recently saw all-time leading goal-scorer Andres Oper retire from the national side, leaving behind a largely impotent strike force. Midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev is the driving force behind their attack now; having previous carried the team to the Euro 2012 knockout rounds.
I imagine the only Englishman quaking in their boots at the sight of the Lithuanians will be Andy Townsend and Adrian Chiles, who face the unenviable task of having to pronounce their names. Their side boasts a plethora of tongue-twisting verbose characters, Vytautas Andriuškevičius and Žydrūnas Karčemarskas being two of my personal favourites. They have never qualified for a major international tournament, and shouldn’t pose too much of a barrier.
San Marino recently had the proverbial “wooden spoon” of being Europe’s worst national side cruelly snatched them away by new boys on the block Gibralta. Their presence in the competition has often been subject of intense scrutiny, as their status of perennial whipping boys is consistently realised. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine Daniel Sturridge will be complaining too much.
Close to home, Wales were handed a mixed draw, with familiar foes Belgium presenting a significant obstacle. Nonetheless, the Welsh may look favourably upon their chances to battle with Israel and Bosnia for the second qualifying spot, in what should be a closely fought contest. Northern Ireland were handed a particularly favourable group, and whilst the chances for qualification may remain slim, the chance for an upset is as possible as they could have hoped.
Elsewhere, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland were handed a tough group, which included both Poland and Germany, alongside aforementioned newcomers Gibraltar. Gibraltar’s presence is the mark of a significantly politically contentious journey to UEFA recognition, and it will be interesting to see what they’re able to achieve in undoubtedly one of the toughest qualifying groups.
As well as this being the first qualifier for Gibraltar, it also signifies the first qualifiers preceding the newly expanded 24-team finals. 1st and 2nd place in each of the 6 groups will qualify, with the final spot going to the best 3rd place team. Given the disappointment surrounding the significant number of world-class Europeans who won’t be appearing on the game’s biggest stage in Rio, this to me seems a smart move.
There is still enough quality amongst European sides to ensure that this expansion isn’t to the detriment of the tournament’s competitive edge. I still remember, at the tender age of 10, watching in wonder as Greece silenced the hosts Portugal in the final of Euro 2004, to lift the trophy against all odds. It’s still surely the biggest upset in recent international football history, and if an expanded tournament means the odds of a similar surprise are increased, then that can only be a good thing.bookmark me