For the first time in the history of the European Championships, 24 teams will play in this summer’s tournament, following the decision by UEFA’s executive committee to change the qualification format.
Specifically there were nine groups, with the top two placed teams in each and the best third placed side, qualifying automatically for the finals.
Each of the other eight teams who placed third in their qualification group formed four two legged play-offs, with the winners of those ties advancing to the finals.
Subsequently the increased number of finals places available created a greater opportunity for European football’s smaller nations to qualify for the tournament, which some of them took.
To closer specify that, after staging successful qualification campaigns, set to make their debut at a European Championships are Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia & Wales. Despite being novices in terms of playing at the highest level of international football, each of the aforementioned nations have the ability to be competitive at the final. The following previews are aimed at providing an insight of that.
Built upon the principles of discipline, organization and resoluteness, the Albanian side are a combative collective unit, who do not concede many goals. Specifically their defence was breached just five times in qualification, as they advanced from a group containing Portugal, Denmark & Serbia. After creating one of the biggest shocks of the entire qualification campaign by beating Portugal 1-0 in Lisbon in their opening game, despite only scoring six more goals, Gianni De Biasi’s side secured enough points to finish runners-up behind the Portuguese.
As an industrious and workmanlike side, Albania’s achievement of qualifying for the finals was built upon a togetherness, spearheaded by their experienced captain Lorik Cana, who plays for Nantes. Capped 90 times, Cana marshals a well drilled team, whose most technically gifted player is Taulant Xhaka. The 24-year-old Basle central midfielder, brother of new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, dictates play for the Albanians in a confident manner.
Drawn in Group A alongside France, Romania & Switzerland presents a daunting challenge for the Red Eagles but one which manager De Biasi will ensure they are prepared to embrace.
Competing for the first time at a major international tournament in France this summer are Iceland, who are jointly managed by the experienced Lars Lagerback and Heimer Halgrimmson. Following the finals Halgrimmson will assume sole charge of the team with Lagerback set to retire.
Between 2000 & 2008 the Swede led his home nation to five straight finals and since being appointed manager of Iceland in 2011, has developed an organised, spirited and youthful side, that are not only defensively strong but also a potent attacking force.
The player most instrumental in driving that is Gylfi Sigurdsson. At 26-years-old, the Swansea playmaker is renowned throughout Europe for his wonderful awareness, creativity and technical ability, which he displayed throughout Iceland’s qualifying campaign. During that Sigurdsson scored six times, including all three of Iceland’s goals in their two victories against Holland. Both results were founded upon defensive solidarity and cohesive teamwork, with those qualities also particularly evident during home wins over Turkey and the Czech Republic, to whom Strákarnir okkar (Our boys) finished runners-up.
As a well-balanced team buoyed by their remarkable qualification campaign which sent shockwaves through world football, Iceland have a realistic chance of progressing from Group F, which they will contest with Austria, Hungary & Portugal.
Set to participate at a first major international tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico are Northern Ireland. Brave, hard-working and tenacious, Michael O’Neill’s group of honest players qualified for the finals courtesy of topping a group which included Greece, Hungary & Romania.
Whilst a considered and well-coordinated team effort to deny opponents the opportunity to build meaningful attacks has contributed to Northern Ireland’s recent success under O’Neill, so too has the team’s ability to score goals from set-pieces. Specifically during qualification, nine of the team’s 16 goals arrived from dead-ball deliveries.
Whether in front of their own passionate and vociferous supporters at Windsor Park, or away from home, by playing with a togetherness and deep understanding of one another’s strengths, O’Neill’s side have embarked upon an 11 match unbeaten run. That and their qualification for the finals is a remarkable achievement, even more so given that O’Neill won only one of his first 18 matches in charge.
Since then the former Shamrock Rovers manager has developed a wonderfully spirited team, who feed off each other’s desire and determination to win. Also fuelling that are the goals of Kyle Lafferty, scorer of seven of the team’s 16 in qualification.
Despite the draw for the finals being unkind to Northern Ireland, placing them in Group C alongside Germany, Poland & Ukraine, should they be able to reproduce their qualification form they will prove a match for their technically superior opponents.
Since becoming an independent country in 1993, Slovakia have appeared at just one major finals, which was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when they reached the last 16.
Although novices in terms of competing on the elite international stage, Jan Kozak’s side performed brilliantly to qualify for their first European Championship by winning seven of their 10 games, including a 2-1 home victory over Spain which brought the tournament holders unbeaten run of 36 matches to an end. Despite the Spaniards avenging that defeat in the return game with a 2-0 win, that was Slovakia’s solitary loss during qualification. Subsequently they reached the finals by finishing runners-up to Spain in a group which also contained Ukraine.
The Slovakian squad features a fine blend of experienced players several of whom play in Europe’s top leagues. The experienced quintet of goalkeeper Jan Mucha (Slovan Bratislava), centre half Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), Juraj Kucka (Milan), Marik Hamsek (Napoli) and Adam Nemec (Willem II) form the spine of an dynamic, energetic and technically sound team, who have proved themselves capable of competing with the strongest international sides. The aforementioned qualification victory over Spain testifies that, as does the 3-1 defeat of Germany they recorded in their second pre-finals warm up game.
Given such positive results there is reason to believe Slovakia have a realistic chance of advancing from finals Group B, which they will contest with England, Russia & Wales, to reach the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Adhering to their Football Associations slogan, ‘Better Together’, Wales produced a string of disciplined, indefatigable and spirited performances to built a successful qualifying campaign, which resulted in Chris Coleman’s side reaching a first major international tournament for 58 years.
After losing a goal just six minutes into their first qualifier against Andorra, which they recovered to win 2-1, Wales conceded just three more times in their remaining qualification games, whilst playing with freedom and zestfulness.
The main driving forces powering that were the extremely gifted duo of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who between them scored nine of the team’s 11 qualifying goals. The most memorable of those was Bale’s smart finish against Belgium at the Cardiff City stadium, which earned a famous 1-0 win. That result elevated Wales to the top of Qualification Group B after six games and despite losing their last game against Bosnia, they finished as runners-up behind the Belgians to reach the finals.
Whilst Bale was ultimately instrumental in that journey - as the Real Madrid star’s seven goals and two assists meant that he either scored or set-up 82% of the team’s 11 goals during qualification - many other players were vitally important in ensuring it ended successfully. For instance, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, captain Ashley Williams and the aforementioned Ramsey performed outstandingly throughout qualification, during which the strength and togetherness of the Welsh squad was consistently evident.
Should Coleman’s players be able to carry that into the Finals then they will undoubtedly present a fine account of themselves whilst playing in Group B against England, Russia & Slovakia.