With the 2016 European Championship Finals accommodating 24 countries for the first time, there is more chance than ever to qualify for the tournament, and the Home Nations are hitting top form at exactly the right time.
The qualification process works like this:
- The 53 teams in nine qualifying groups of six will be reduced to 24 teams in the finals.
- All first and second-placed teams go through, plus the best third-placed team.
- All other third-placed teams go into two-legged play-offs with the winners to progress.
- Hosts France qualify automatically.
So with qualifying for the tournament not returning until March 2015, I check up on how all the countries within these Isles (+ The Republic of Ireland) are doing in their respective groups.
Group B – Wales
Wales have never qualified for a European Championship, whilst their only ever major tournament appearance was at the 1958 Sweden World Cup, when they reached the quarter-finals. History means nothing however, and the Welsh fans are being given hope for a seemingly very bright future.
Chris Coleman’s side of course have Gareth Bale as their superstar saviour to lead them to the promised lands – the most expensive player in the world assuming the kind of role which David Beckham, another Galactico of his time, so studiously took on in the early 2000’s for England.
When Bale was not saving his team from embarrassment in Andorra with a match-winning free-kick, he was popping up at left-back against the likes of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus, covering every blade of grass in pursuit of his and his country’s dreams of long overdue qualification.
Other key players are Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, whilst captain Ashley Williams has kept things steady at the back – the Welsh have conceded just two goals so far.
After four games played, Wales sit second in Group B, with only Israel above them. They have won two and drawn two, including a very respectable 0-0 in Belgium on Sunday. I think their target should be at least getting a play-off place, but there’s nothing stopping them from finishing in the top two.
Qualifying chances: 7/10
Group D – Scotland
In Gordon Strachan, Scotland have a manager with first-hand experience of major tournament showdowns, having played at two World Cups as a player in 1982 and 1986.
He has the desire to take the national team to the European Championships as a manager, something that his predecessors have not achieved since Craig Brown in 1996. Brown also led the Scots to their last major tournament – the World Cup in France in 1998 when they were knocked out at the group stage.
Unlike Wales, there is no stand-out player that opponents look out for, but the squad as a whole is surprisingly strong, and England should be in for a tough test tonight when they travel to Celtic Park for a friendly.
Shaun Maloney of Wigan Athletic is their top scorer in qualifying with two goals, including a lovely finish in the 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland on Friday evening.
That win put Scotland third in Group D with four games played, as they have now won two, drawn one and lost one. The games they dropped points in were away to world champions Germany, and to increasingly strong Poland side, whilst they are yet to play the group’s whipping boys Gibraltar.
It could well come down to the Scots and the Republic of Ireland for third place in the group, with the top two already assumed, and Friday night’s victory could be crucial in Gordon Strachan’s men winning the battle.
Qualifying chances: 6/10
Group D – Republic of Ireland
The country that could be classed as the Home Nations’ second most successful team, the Republic of Ireland lost for the first time in qualifying in Glasgow on Friday, having previously beaten Georgia and Gibraltar and drawing to Germany.
They qualified for the 2012 European Championships but went out in the Group Stages after losing all three games. It could also be argued they should have been at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, had it not been for Thierry Henry’s blatant handball in the play-off against France.
Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane seem to have a set plan to get Ireland to the 2016 Championships, and with the players they’ve got it is entirely possibly. The fact that Germany and Poland are in their group is the problem.
The managerial duo need to learn from errors such as leaving out record goal scorer and appearance maker Robbie Keane for the clash against Scotland, and the Irish should just beat them to third place in Group D, providing they win in the return game in Dublin in
Wingers Aiden McGeady and James McClean have also chipped in with a couple of goals in qualifying, and a 7-0 win over Gibraltar showed that the Republic really do mean business. As with the Scots though, automatic qualification appears beyond them.
Qualifying chances: 6/10
Group E – England
Being placed in an incredibly easy qualifying group has meant that games have been a breeze so far for England, as the Three Lions have won four out of four, conceding just the once.
After their dismal showing at the World Cup, there were calls for Roy Hodgson to be sacked, but the former West Brom boss has turned it around with a new captain and the faith in youth.
The aforementioned new skipper Wayne Rooney is leading by example, with three goals so far, but it is his former Manchester United strike partner Danny Welbeck who is grabbing the headlines with his excellent form. The Arsenal man has five goals in four games – the joint most across the whole of Europe.
Even what on paper looked to be England’s hardest game – their first fixture away to Switzerland – turned out to be a comfortable 2-0 win.
Second place is changing all the time in Group E, but it will take a big shock to knock England off the top of the table, and qualification should be a dead certainty. A more challenging aim is to remain unbeaten, or even better, win all 10 games.
Qualifying chances: 10/10
Group F – Northern Ireland
Out of the Home Nations, only Wales have not tasted tournament football for a longer amount of time than Northern Ireland, who played in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Furthermore, they have never even qualified for a European Championship, but the new format gives them their best chance yet, and much like Wales they are making the most of it.
Before a 2-0 loss to Romania on Friday, ‘The Green and White Army’ had won their first three qualifying games for the first time in their history. This means that they sit second in a relatively easy Group F, containing a broken Greece team who aren’t fulfilling their top seeds title.
Like the Republic, Northern Ireland have an O’Neill in charge, with Michael setting a target of 16 points before the start of qualifying, a target that they are well on course to beat.
Striker Kyle Lafferty has had a big influence on the good start, scoring three times. If he can carry on hitting the back of the net, don’t be surprised to see Northern Ireland qualify – maybe even automatically.
Qualifying chances: 7/10