The Euro 2016 bandwagon has begun to roll with the draw for the qualifiers on Sunday in Nice, and it is a new-look competition , with 24 countries taking part in the finals instead of the 16 previously qualified.
Ties will be spread over a week, and even the host country, France, has to play.
UEFA hopes these innovations will make the tournament, held from the 10th of June to the 10th of July in two year’s time, even more successful.
At first glance Group A looks like a group of death: The Dutch will start favourites to top the group, but will face stiff tests from Turkey and the Czech Republic. One slip-up could mean disaster, although even the best third-placed finisher could make it through to the knockout eliminator.
Or maybe it is Germany who should beware. In Group D the favourites, who were never keen on a 24-nation competition, will have the Poles, Ireland and Scotland to contend with. Gibraltar, in their first appearance, will be looking to impress, but their ambitions may be limited to keeping goal difference down to double figures.
Holders Spain have been dealt a far easier hand, with Slovakia and the improving FYR of Macedonia to lead the opposition, which also includes Belarus and Georgia. Expect the world champions to pull out a healthy early group lead and keep it until the end. Second place could provide an entertaining dogfight.
France know they are going to make it to the finals, as it is their party, but they are still going to have to play Group I’s matches, as UEFA has decided it will be better than playing meaningless friendlies. But their matches against Portugal, Serbia, Denmark, Armenia and Moldova will not count, points-wise,
for either side.
The calendar for the finals themselves has yet to be established but UEFA should be publishing it in the coming weeks, and in any case no later than the organisation’s next executive committee meeting in Astana at the end of March.
And now for a look at the other groups.
Group B looks likely to be topped by Belgium but Wales may fancy their chances of making it through to a rare international tournament, although Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus and Andorra stand in their way.
Group E looks to be a lucky one for England with only the Swiss looking to be a challenge on paper. Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino make up the numbers.
Group F looks competitive, with Greece, Romania and Finland seemingly evenly matched. Northern Ireland may seek to crash the party, along with Hungary and the Faroe Islands.
Russia may be forgiven for being a little anxious in Group G, as Sweden, Austria and Montenegro will be no pushovers. Moldova and Liechtenstein present less of a challenge.
Finally Group H is likely to be topped by Italy, but expect a right royal dust-up for second between Croatia and Norway, with Bulgaria outsiders. Malta and Azerbaijan are likely contenders for the wooden spoon.
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