As the end of Euro qualification and the dawn of the tournament itself both draw closer, no team has yet stepped forward and outlined themselves as the favourites to prevail in France next summer.
Last summer’s World Cup winners Germany found themselves trailing to a revitalised Poland side in both Group D and in Warsaw, as the world champions went down 2-0. The shocks were relived as Ireland stole a point in stoppage time in Gelsenkirchen. Joachim Löw’s side could have no excuses about their tiny four-goal win over minnows and qualifying-first-timers Gibraltar. This season will give Germany a chance to wipe the slate clean and attempt a fresh stat, after what was a below par 2014/15. Poland still lead that group with Germany far from comfortably above the Scots and Ireland. Georgia and Gibraltar are buried out of sight.
Fellow semi-finalists in Brazil, the Netherlands, have found it no easier make simple work of their medium difficulty group. Their campaign began with a surprise defeat in the Czech Republic. Former minnows Iceland created a real shockwave by making the play-offs for Brazil. They ultimately fell short by Croatia, but they would have the last laugh [of sorts]. Reykjavík watched in two-sided stunned-silence as a brace from Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson left the Netherlands ice cold. Turkey, out of sorts in Group A, are going nowhere near France, and it’s fair to say Latvia and Kazakhstan never had a look in anyway. The Czechs and Icelanders are way out ahead, with Holland sat in a dangerous play-off place.
Italy’s failure to see of Bulgaria saw Croatia take advantage, and they now lead Italy at the top of Group H. The two sides drew in Milan, but their records against the other teams couldn’t be more different. Italy’s lack of top quality forwards saw them able defeat Azerbaijan and Malta by just one goal. This was far eclipsed by the Croats however, who beat Malta 2-0 before they put a stunning six past Azerbaijan in Osijek. The Eastern Europeans followed this up with a 5-1 win over a strong yet disappointing Norway side. For now, Italy are stuck in the passenger seat, watching Croatia gobble up teams they themselves struggled greatly against.
Spain, still unsettled after their far-too-prompt exit from Brazil, have shared similar concerns to those of the other underachievers this time around. The group of the overachievers, including Iceland, Poland, the Czechs, and Croats has another addition. When handed his group, Vicente Del Bosque will have been all too aware of the challenges Ukraine may have posed him. Much less will his side have been wary of Slovakia’s threat. Yet it is the Slovaks who have been top of Group C since very early on. Their inspired 2-1 victory over the Spaniards was to be considered less of a fluke win, as they found a way to beat Ukrainians also. The plucky side, captained by Liverpool’s Martin Škrtel, found no difficulty in seeing off Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg, and to date, they remain one of only two teams across Europe, yet to drop a single.
Group G, possibly the widest open, provided Russia and Sweden with huge chances to make the finals, but yet again another surprise package, this time Austria, surged to the top group. At the other end, Liechtenstein’s ability to claim a huge five pivotal points from ties against Moldova [twice] and Montenegro saw them record their highest ever ranking. Austria look in a great place to make their first major finals since 2006.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal are yet another team to have been upset by supposedly weaker opposition. Portugal’s first qualifier, at home to tiny Albania, could not have gone worse. A world class Bekim Balaj volley saw Portugal defeated on home soil. In fairness they have turned it around since the sacking that match, but only lead the five-team group thanks to Ronaldo’s injury time winner in Copenhagen. Serbia’s docking of points and single point from their first six games, leaves them with -2 points. The 2010 FIFA World Cup finalists are the only team with the mathematical inability to qualify.
Even the seemingly unbeatable youngsters of Belgium have been left behind by a lesser side powering full steam ahead. This time the team is the principality of Wales. A 0-0 draw in Brussels was bettered for the Brits win a fantastic 1-0 win sealed by Gareth Bale in Cardiff. Belgium’s eleven goals in just two single games against Cyprus and Andorra are all very well and good, but the Belgians are yet to record victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina or the stubborn Welsh. Bosnia’s unbelievably dominant qualifying record for Brazil seems a long, long time ago now. Sat behind minnows Cyrpus in fifth, their chances of sealing a place in France can only be kept alive by four inspired performances and, crucially, results to tie up the group well for them. For Belgium, they desperately need Wales to drop points, otherwise they may have to scrape through in second place. After all, Chris Coleman’s side and Mark Wilmots’ both face the same ties to round of the campaign.
The World Rankings of all six nations in Group F are all very close. Greece are another first seed to have found themselves suffering, although unlike their cousins, they really have bombed out. Matchday One saw Finland easily able to dispatch of the Faroe Islands 3-1, whereas Greece began with defeat to Romania in Piraeus. Elsewhere, Northern Ireland were able to turn around a one goal deficit to defeat Hungary in Budapest. Hungary, Greece, Finland and Romania all drew with each other a month on. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland defeated the Faroes 2-0 at Windsor Park. Hungary and Romania beat the Faroes and Finnish next with Northern Ireland equalling their best ever start to a Euro qualifying campaign with a stunning two-goal victory away to a thoroughly out-of-sorts Greek side. Greece have since been utterly humiliated again and again – to the extreme extent that minnows the Faroe Islands have done the double over them. Northern Ireland lost and them drew to Romania, with Finland defeated by Michael O’Neill’s side and also Bernd Storck’s Hungary twice. To date, Romania lead Northern Ireland by a point. Hungary can be relatively sure to gain at least a play-off place, with surprise package the Faroes in fourth. Both Finland and rock-bottom Greece have serious work to do.
Finally comes Group E. This is the stand out group so far in that it is the only one to have panned as expected to this point. Top seed England have done what they were ‘meant’ to. Switzerland’s sticky start has been turned around. Slovenia’s erratic form leaves them, as expected, in third. Fourth seed Estonia had lost ground to their Baltic rivals Lithuania, but sit ahead of them by just a point. San Marino, Europe’s worst side, have played a blinder. Of their six games, only two [England 5-0, Slovenia 6-0] have included them conceding five goals or more. The tiny microstate’s fourth match may be considered their greatest ever achievement. Slumped at the absolute foot of the World Rankings table, without having even drawn a match in the last four years and beyond, they welcomed Estonia to Serravalle. Semi-professional goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini led his side to an historic 0-0 draw, thus claiming his teammates and nation their first ever point in European Championships qualifying history. With inspired victories away to Switzerland and Slovenia and home against the latter also, England have won every match so far. Their record is the best in Europe. Their goal difference is plus fifteen. The Three Lions have conceded just three goals so far – all against Slovenia. They will qualify, and Switzerland should follow up in second.
So England and Slovakia will qualify. Northern Ireland, Wales, Poland, Croatia and a few others look set to meet them. The big guns are sure to struggle through. The blanks will be filled in as fifty four teams play out their final three or five [play-offs] games of UEFA Euro 2016 qualification.