Euro 2016 Qualifiers Come to a Close

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THERE was a shock in Group A as 1988 champions Netherlands slumped to a dismal fourth place. Surprisingly Iceland will be going to France for their first ever major international tournament, and will be joined by 1996 finalists and group leaders Czech Republic. As the best placed third team Turkey will also be going directly to the group stage without the need for a play­-off.

Out of Group B come Belgium and Wales. For Belgium it is the next tournament for their ‘golden generation’ as they look to give legitamize the claim that they have one of the best international squads in the world. A Gareth Bale inspired Wales have qualified for their first international tournament since the 1958 World Cup, and in fact this is arguably their first ‘proper’ qualification ­ in 1958 they finished second in their qualifying group and only went to the World Cup thanks to a special play­off.

Three­time winners Spain have progressed from Group C, winning eight of their nine games and conceding just three goals along the way. They were poor in the World Cup in Brazil, but the team has been reinvigorated and they will be a major threat in France. Slovakia will be going to their first ever Euros thanks largely to the efforts of their stand out player Marek Hamsik, whose five goals were the most in the squad.

Germany edged out Poland to top Group D thanks to a final game 2­1 victory over Georgia. The defending world champions will most likely be the pre­-tournament favourites. For their part, Poland have the game’s in­form striker in Robert Lewandowski who equalled the record for goals in a European Championships qualifying campaign with 13. The man he equalled? Northern Ireland’s David Healy, obviously.

Ten games. Ten wins. England were the only team to record a flawless qualifying campaign, although Group E was one of the easier to navigate. Still though, it’s pleasing for England fans that they’ve seemingly figured out how to win the games. Joining the three lions are Switzerland, as you would have predicted before qualifying got underway.

Northern Ireland will be going to their first ever European Championships thanks to a brilliant top place finish in Group F. They were the ranked fifth in their six-­team group when the draw was made, but with six wins they have taken everyone by surprise. Romania’s sturdy defense was enough for them to get through, they conceded just two goals in their ten fixtures which was the lowest amount of any nation.

Austria’s 28 points was second only to England’s thirty was they strolled through Group E. They will be ones to watch out for as potential giant-killers when the finals get underway in 2016, with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba pulling the strings. Russia finished second and will be looking for a repeat of their Euro 2008 performance where they impressively reached the semi-finals.

Italy struggled at times to play great football but in typical Italian fashion they were able to get the results needed to top the group. They are a side who always seem to fare better in the finals of tournaments as opposed to the qualifying stages, but this will be one of the poorest Italian squads to go to a major international tournament. It says a lot when Giorgio Chiellini is your joint­-top scorer, and it says even more that he only scored twice. Croatia just clinched second ahead of Norway despite their one point deduction after a swastika was drawn on their pitch.

Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, Portugal have gone out three times in the semi-finals and also suffered a shock defeat to Greece in the final of the 2004 edition of the tournament. With most of their key players reaching the latter stages of their respective careers, this will be the last chance for this generation to right previous wrongs. Minnows Albania are also one of the nations for whom Euro 2016 will be their first ever major tournament as they surprisingly finished above the likes of Denmark and Serbia.

France, as they are hosting the tournament, automatically qualified. Bosnia, Ukraine, the Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark will need to progress from the play­offs if they are to take part next summer.

Ryan Kirkman

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