The qualifying campaign for the newly expanded European Championships began last autumn, and there has certainly been some shocks along the way.
Iceland and Albania have both qualified for the first major championship in their history, finishing in second place in Group A and Group I respectively. Wales, inspired by Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, have reached a major tournament for the first time in 58 years, but most surprising of all perhaps was the fate of the Netherlands; the third placed side at the last World Cup failed to even make the play-offs, finishing fourth in Group A.
Twenty teams in all, including hosts France, are already preparing for next summer. With eight nations battling for the four remaining spots, we assess who is likely to be on the plane to France next June.
NORWAY v HUNGARY Watch Highlights
Norway (FIFA World ranking: 46)
Norway finished 3rd on 19 points in Group H, behind Italy and Croatia. A win in the final group game in Italy would have seen them qualify automatically, and they led until the last 17 minutes, but goals from Alessandro Florenzi and Graziano Pelle, allied with a Croatian win in Valletta, consigned the Scandinavians to the play-off berth. They struggled for goals along the way, with only Norwich City’s Alex Tetteh (3) and Bournemouth’s Josh King (2) getting more than one of Norway’s overall total of 13.
The Norwegians have failed to qualify for a tournament since Euro 2000.
Players to watch: Stefan Johansen of Scottish champions Celtic will attempt to dictate the tempo in midfield and work tirelessly, while youngster Martin Odegaard of Real Madrid will be turned to if coach Per Mathias Hogmo needs a moment of magic to change the game.
Hungary (FIFA World ranking: 33)
The Magyars suffered a disappointing campaign, and could only finish third in what looked like the most benign group, with Northern Ireland and Romania pipping them to the automatic places in Group F. Like Norway, Hungary struggled to find the back of the net and managed only 11 goals in total, Krisztian Nemeth and Daniel Bode notching two apiece.
If Hungary make it to France, it will be their first tournament appearance in 20 years.
Players to watch: Zoltan Gera will be well known to fans of the Premier League, the creative midfielder having spent 10 years in England with West Brom and Fulham before rejoining current club, Ferencvaros. 29 year old striker Daniel Bode, who also represents the Budapest based side, scored twice against the Faroe Islands last month, and has 12 goals in 18 appearances for his club this season.
Verdict: Norway to edge a tight encounter.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA v REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Bosnia & Herzegovina (FIFA World ranking:20)
Having qualified for the 2014 World Cup, their first major tournament since becoming an independent nation in 1992, Bosnia were expected to qualify automatically from Group B. They got off to a stuttering start however, but recovered with four victories in their last five fixtures to take the play-off spot behind Belgium and Wales. Captain Edin Dzeko led the way with seven goals in seven matches, but the Bosnian’s defensive record let them down somewhat, conceding 12 along the way.
Players to watch: Dzeko is always a goal threat and great in the air. Dzeko’s Roma colleague, Miralem Pjanic, is a technical holding midfielder, and will look to create from deep lying positions. Chelsea stopper Asmir Begovic will be hoping to keep the Irish at bay over the two legged tie.
Republic of Ireland (FIFA World ranking: 42)
The Irish, with ex-Celtic boss Martin O’Neill at the helm, took four points off World Champions Germany in Group D, but it was not enough for automatic qualification in what was a closely fought group throughout. What cost Ireland was the fact they only took two points from the games with the other main competitors in the group, Poland and Scotland. Despite this, had Ireland scored one more goal to draw away in Poland, they would have sealed qualification and relegated the Poles to third place.
John O’Shea and Jon Walters, who scored crucial goals throughout the campaign will be suspended for the first leg. O’Shea, who recently injured his hamstring, could miss both games if he fails to recover. Shane Long, scorer of the winning goal against Germany, has also been ruled out of the first game, and like O’Shea, could failed to recover in time for Monday’s second leg. Veteran custodian Shay Given will miss out both games, leaving O’Neill with a dilemma over the number one jersey, with Darren Randolph and David Forde the only fit candidates after Newcastle United’s Rob Elliot was also ruled out.
Players to watch: Record goalscorer Robbie Keane, who scored five goals in two games against Gibraltar, could start in attack due to injuries, especially in Dublin where Ireland will likely start with a more attacking mindset. Seamus Coleman will look to provide width and overlaps from right back, while Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy will have to cover the hard yards in the centre of the park.
Verdict: Bosnia’s extra class to tell over the two games. If the Irish can bring a result back to the Aviva Stadium however, the fervent home crowd could get them over the line.
UKRAINE v SLOVENIA
Ukraine (FIFA World ranking: 28)
Ukraine finished third in Group C behind Spain and Slovakia, after taking only one point from the four games with their rivals. They were at Euro 2012 in their role as co-hosts with Eastern European neighbours Poland. Their only other major tournament since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 was the 2008 World Cup, where they reached the quarter-finals thanks to legendary duo Sergei Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko. One survivor from that side, Anatoliy Tymoschuk, is now captain and has 140 caps to his name. The ex-Bayern Munich and Zenit player will anchor the Ukrainian midfield.
Players to watch: Winger Yevhen Konoplyanka has been in fine form of late, scoring five times in 11 games since his summer move to Spanish side Sevilla. Fellow winger, Andriy Yarmolenko, is also a threat, having found the net on 10 occasions in 17 appearances for Ukrainian Champions Dynamo Kyiv this term.
Slovenia (FIFA World ranking: 64)
Slovenia finished third in Group E, behind England, who took maximum points winning all 10 games, and the Swiss who finished second on 21 points. In charge is Srecko Katanec, who managed Slovenia to their two major tournaments, Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002, since breaking away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Slovenia are are solid side, with Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic keeping Atletico Madrid number one Jan Oblak out of the side, while defender and captain Bostjan Cesar also plies his trade in Serie A with Chievo Verona.
Players to watch: Milivoje Novakovic, now 36 years old and playing in Japan for Nagoya Grampus, scored 6 times in 7 qualifiers and is sure to bring a physical threat despite his lack of pace. Ex-Milan midfielder Valter Birsa, now also at Chievo, is the most likely to cut open an opponent’s defence.
Verdict: Ukraine to be too strong and qualify at the expense of the Slovenes, the lowest ranked team in the play-offs.
SWEDEN v DENMARK
Sweden (FIFA World ranking: 45)
Sweden finished third in Group G, behind Russia, and a resurgent Austria who topped the group with 28 points; consecutive losses away in Russia and at home to Austria all but ending their prospects of qualifying automatically. Premier League fans will be familiar with ‘keeper Andreas Isaksson, Sebastian Larsson and Kim Kallstrom, while Turkish born winger Erkan Zengin scored three times in the group. World superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is now 34, and this could be his last chance to star at a major international competition.
Players to watch: One word: Zlatan. Ibra scored 8 goals in the eight games he played in, and will be the main man in this relatively average Swedish side. Expect the unexpected from the maverick forward.
Denmark (FIFA World ranking: 35)
The Danes surprisingly could not achieve qualification automatically in Group, failing to win or score in their last three games. Nil-nil draws with Albania and Armenia were followed by a one-nil defeat to Portugal, allowing the Portuguese to top the group and handing Albania the runners up spot. In goal they have Kasper Schmeichel, son of Denmark hero Peter, who lifted the European Championship trophy in 1992 after replacing the expelled Yugoslavia at the competition. With Simon Kjaer of Fenerbahce and ex-Liverpool man Daniel Agger in defence, Sevilla midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli, and Nicklas Bendtner of Wolfsburg in the Danes have a wealth of experience; as does their coach, Morten Olsen having been in charge of the national team for 15 years.
Players to watch: Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen has quick feet and a nice range of passing in midfield, and is excellent from dead ball situations. Andreas Cornelius, who had an unsuccessful spell at Cardiff City, offers an alternative to Nicklas Bendtner as targetman, most likely from the bench.
Verdict: Perhaps the most attractive tie of the draw, I expect these Scandinavian neighbours to battle out a close affair. Ibrahimovic, a truly world class player, should inspire Sweden to qualification.
UEFA have drawn four very even ties, and every team left competing will fancy their chances of getting through. Expect some twists and turns in the upcoming games as any small piece of luck or dodgy decision could see a side on the flight to France, or sentence them to sitting out next summer.