So the UEFA European Championships qualification process starts tonight with ten matches to open the yearlong fixture campaign with Austria against Poland (yawn) as arguably the pick of a bad bunch.
55 nations split in to ten groups of five and six with 24 of those countries qualifying for a tournament finals for the first time in its 60 year history played across the continent in no less than 12 host cities.
The top two teams in each group will qualify with the third place teams facing a playoff. The four teams that qualified for the UEFA Nations League finals have already secured a playoff place, although should they qualify for the tournament outright this place will go elsewhere…
The finals itself (played in Rome, Baku, Saint Petersburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bucharest, London, Glasgow, Bilbao, Dublin, Munich and Budapest) will include six groups of four teams with the top two of each and the four best third placed nations reaching the last sixteen before for the business end starts at the quarter finals, semi-finals and final which will be played here in England at Wembley Stadium.
The tournament spread across the continent aims to be a celebration of international football. I’m not sure if I’m skeptical about this one off UEFA pipe-dream and boy I hope it goes back to the old way soon but in any case, here are my runners and riders for qualification…
Group A (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England, Kosovo, Montenegro)
World Cup & Nations League semi-finalists England will be favourites to qualify at a canter with a best of the rest battle likely to be between the Czechs and Bulgaria. I expect England to stutter along the way perhaps but a reasonable target of 19 points should see them over the line. Harry Kane’s goals will play a part in what should be a routine qualification campaign. The Czechs who open up against England tomorrow night (don’t be surprised if they sneak a draw) have Patrick Schick of Roma and Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto as players to watch, they should finish second above Bulgaria who might be contesting a fight for third with Montenegro who are captained by Monaco striker Stefan Jovetic. Kosovo the group outsiders shouldn’t be totally written off as they are more than capable of taking points especially at home.
- Hot tip: England & Czech Rep to go through
- Player to watch: Jadon Sancho (England)
- Could it happen: England to slip up with a draw on the opening night?
Group B (Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Serbia, Ukraine)
Reigning European Champions Portugal will be favourites to go through and in Joao Felix they have the pretender to the Ronaldo throne in what is an exciting forward force that includes the likes of Bernardo Silva, Pizzi, Joao Mario, Ruben Neves and Goncalo Guedes to name a few. Coach Fernando Santos may have one eye on Serbia who should see off Ukraine in to second. Serbia impressed this week in holding Germany to a draw and have one of Europe’s most wanted strikers Luka Jovic up front with the experienced likes of Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Aleksander Kolorov all still involved. Ukraine managed by the legendary Andrey Shevchenko have a solid looking squad (enter Zinchenko, Yarmolenko, Konoplyanka) and the top three should easily avoid slip ups against Lithuania and Luxembourg if the form book goes to plan.
- Hot tip: Ronaldo to top score in qualifying
- Player to watch: Luka Jovic (Serbia)
- Could it happen: Serbia to beat Portugal at home?
Group C (Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands, Northern Ireland)
Favourites Germany will remember not just their disappointing World Cup exploits but their recent embarrassing performances in the Nations League in a group in which the Dutch topped both them and France. I feel this time Germany will get it right but things might not go all their way. Manager Jogi Loew will probably call upon the likes of youngsters Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Leroy Sane to pull them through whilst the Dutch managed by Ronald Koeman are very organised and have two of the continents hottest central defenders in Virgil van Dijk and teenager Matthijs de Ligt to rely on. Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland could be best of the rest in the race for the playoffs whilst Estonia and Belarus will have it all to do if they are to reach the finals themselves next June.
- Hot tip: Germany to win the group
- Player to watch: Kai Havertz (Germany)
- Could it happen: The Dutch go unbeaten and finish second?
Group D (Denmark, Georgia, Gibraltar, Republic of Ireland, Switzerland)
Irish fans will recall the stuffing they got in Denmark during the World Cup playoffs and in a tough looking group it may be the Danes and Switzerland who battle it out for the top two slots. Despite the Swiss reaching the Nations Finals this summer I still have Denmark as favourites with the mercurial Christian Eriksen pulling the strings and the uncapped Robert Skov one to watch out for. The Swiss have consistently enjoyed tournament football in recent years and have Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri as their main talisman buoyed usually by a solid defence and organised midfield enforced by the tactics of veteran coach Vladimir Petkovic. Ireland managed by Mick McCarthy should finish third but don’t write off Georgia who play rather pleasing football on the eye. Gibraltar will be there simply to make up the numbers.
- Hot tip: Denmark to top the group
- Player to watch: Robert Skov (Denmark)
- Could it happen: Gibraltar to take points off Ireland?
Group E (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Wales)
World cup finalists Croatia should top this group and I have a feeling they might even do so a little easier than it looks. Zlatko Dalic has an abundance of class to choose from and will rely on the ever trusted Modric, Rakitic, Brozovic combination in midfield with Perisic and Rebic waiting (literally) in the wings. I tip Slovakia to pip Wales into second (watch out for Ondrej Duda) with Ryan Giggs men edging Marco Rossi’s Hungary into the playoffs although that could improve with an automatic slot should Gareth Bale play more matches than he misses (which he probably won’t)? Azerbaijan like Gibraltar in Group D above will be simply here to make the numbers up.
- Hot tip: Croatia to win every game
- Player to watch: Ben Woodburn (Wales)
- Could it happen: Gareth Bale to inspire Wales to qualify in last day drama?
Group F (Faeroe Islands, Malta, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden)
A six team group which should go by the way of Spain who will be disappointed if they don’t win every game. Under former Barcelona Coach Luis Enrique the Spaniards will be looking to a few new names following the retirements of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, perhaps the likes of Suso, Asensio, Ceballos and Oyarzabal could lead the next generation to success. Sweden should finish second with their no frills football but the battle for third could be between Norway and Romania two nations both improving after superb eras in the 1990’s especially. Faeroe Islands and Malta will be both battling themselves not to finish bottom, a fifth place finish for either nation will be seen as a huge success.
- Hot tip: Spain & Sweden to qualify
- Player to watch: Alexander Isak (Sweden)
- Could it happen: Spain to score 30 qualifying campaign goals or more?
Group G (Austria, FYR Macedonia, Israel, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia)
Another group of six and one which should be won by Poland who’s dilemma will be very much who to play up front with Lewandoski, Milik and Piatek all showing top goalscoring form in Europe this year. Austria who have Marco Arnautovic in attack should qualify in second with the playoff spot probably going to Slovenia? Although Israel, managed by Austrian legend Andy Herzog could take points from teams whilst Macedonia and Latvia should also be competitive. The race for third could be up for grabs in what could be (behind Poland) the tightest group of all.
- Hot tip: Poland to win with 100% record
- Player to watch: Kryzstof Piatek (Poland)
- Could it happen: Israel to reach the playoffs?
Group H (Albania, Andorra, France, Iceland, Moldova, Turkey)
The world champions will be hot favourites to win this group easily with an abundance of world class attacking threat for Head Coach Didier Deschamps to choose from in the form of Mbappe, Griezmann, Pogba, Dembele to name a few. Turkey and Iceland will have an interesting battle for second spot as possibly the coldest country in Europe takes on arguably the hottest. Albania under Christian Pannucci are very organized however and might have a say whilst Moldova and Andorra should finish at the bottom of the group in that order.
- Hot tip: Iceland to qualify in second
- Player to watch: Kylian Mbappe (France)
- Could it happen: Albanian victory against the French in Tirana?
Group I (Belgium, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Russia, San Marino, Scotland)
The Red Arrows should be too strong for all the others with an attacking threat of Hazard, Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and more sure to ease Roberto Martinez men to table topping victory. Russia will fancy themselves for second slot after a successful world cup on home soil, they have the exciting Miranchuk twins to call upon whilst Scotland will be hoping they can at least reach the playoffs under Alex McCleish. Kazakhstan may take the odd point off those above but realistically shouldn’t finish any higher than 4th. Cyprus and San Marino will fight for fifth with the latter probably enduring another winless campaign.
- Hot tip: Belgium 100%
- Player to watch: Dries Mertens (Belgium)
- Could it happen: Kazakhstan finish above Scotland?
Group J (Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Finland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein)
Knowing the Italians this group probably won’t go all there own way and I can see them dropping points against Armenia and in Greece and probably Bosnia too, but with the exciting likes of Chiesa, Zaniolo and Barella Roberto Mancini’s young transitional squad should be too strong not to qualify and I imagine first place if not second at worst with the only real threat for topping the table lead by the Bosnians Eden Dzeko and co. Finland with Teemu Pukki of Norwich could have a say on how the table lies with a battle against Greece for third, Armenia should finish ahead of Liechtenstein at the foot of the group.
- Hot tip: Bosnia to qualify
- Player to watch: Nicolo Zaniolo (Italy)
- Could it happen: Armenia to take points from Italy?