As a result of the expansion of the Euro from a 16 team tournament to a 24 team one, new teams had the opportunity to actually challenge for a place in the competition. With more teams from each qualifying group getting through, motivational levels rose for the often called “smaller” teams while some of the clear favourites got laid-back and quite lackadaisical. The outcome? Certain teams getting qualified after years without participating in such an important event, others qualifying for the first time ever and some exciting matches waiting for us in the playoffs. As this article is being written we don’t know which ones are going to be the play off matches and we evidently do not know the full list of teams that are participating in the final part of the tournament in France. With all of that said, we do know about the four teams that are sure to be making their debuts in this competition next summer: Albania, Wales, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Slovakia. In this piece I’ll take a look at each of the debutants, their qualifying campaign and what we can expect from them in France 2016 – All of this having in account that things like groups aren’t decided until months from now, so it’s a really early reassessment of each national team.
Coming out as one of the qualified sides from a group that contained Portugal, Serbia and Denmark – not to mention it was only a 5 team group – makes this team the biggest surprise out of the four squads we’re analysing today. Shaped as the classic small team who defends – and does so well – with most of their players during the majority of the matches, the Albanians are proof that a great start to the qualifiers can be crucial to end these in a position above expectations. With a shocking win in Portugal to kick off their way to the Euro, motivational levels rose and they ended the qualifying stage just behind the Portuguese side. Many would argue how important was UEFA’s decision (to give the Albanians the three points against Serbia) for their campaign. I do agree with this statement to a certain extent since this win against a direct opponent was massive, but that doesn’t take the qualifying merit from what’s possibly the best Albanian side in history and their campaign. With a squad of players who are getting more and more play time in some of Europe’s finest leagues and with an Italian coach in De Biasi who knows how to build a team from the back, Albania is extremely difficult to beat. With that said, Albania’s much less threatening up front (as much as I appreciate Gashi’s qualities as a forward) having scored only 10 goals in the qualifying stage of the competition – less than any other team who went through in the first two positions of any group. With the team falling in the 4th Pot of the draw, the chances of an outstanding campaign don’t seem high… a couple of ties maybe?
Unlike most of the other relatively small sides that are getting into the competition for the first time, Wales aren’t the typical defensive team with 11 players who favour physicality over technical ability. Not that the team from the UK isn’t aggressive and solid defensively which they are, but the squad has a clear backbone of world class players who evidently contrast with all the other somewhat average players. The captain Ashley Williams, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and the obvious Gareth Bale are the stars of the team. The team lives through them and that’s exactly the reason why I consider Wales the most difficult team evaluate and predict out of this early review. One of the factors that’s crucial to the team’s success is the necessity for both Bale and Ramsey to have a great season, injury-free season, team-wise to be able to get to the Euros both motivated and fit. With both of them being quite injury-prone you never know if that will happen, and if any of those athletes were to miss the tournament the team would be deeply affected. In addition to that, a tournament isn’t really what most players hope for in the start of the summer after the lengthy English leagues are over – with everyone, excluding Bale, playing in England fatigue might be an issue. The dependence to a short set of players and the fact that they are in 4th pot for the draw, diminishes their chances of a great EURO campaign.
Out of all the debutants, the Icelander Vikings are from my point of view the ones with the highest chances of DOING WELL. Playing fluid offensive football, Iceland ended on top of a group with Turkey, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. An almost unexplainable phenomenon – a team with such capabilities from a country with less than a third of Birmingham’s population. And although most of their players do play in major European leagues, there’s no one we’d recognize as a world star. Of course that no one can argue against Sigurdsson and Finnbogason’s qualities, but they don’t have the dimension that Bale has for Wales – for example. With that said, these athletes play for the national team better than what they do for any other side. You can see how much they feel their country and you just know they are going to make their nation proud.
In the qualifiers, the Nordic’s managed to get the three points twice over the Netherlands (who are out of the EURO) and once against both the Czech Republic and Turkey. So even though they are – like most debutants – in the 4th drawing pot, they have the capacities to fight with any team for the two first places of the group. I legitimately believe in the chances of a great campaign for the Icelanders.
In what’s a bit of the reverse of the Albanian situation – Slovakia has a good squad with it’s highlights upfront. Unlike the Albanian team which has its focal point on its defence, the Slovaks are offensively really strong – having scored 17 goals in the qualifying group, the most (tied with Iceland) out of the five teams making their debut in France. Players such as Mak, Weiss and Stock can be an hassle for any defence to deal with, even more so when they are supported by Hamsik and Milan’s Kucka in the midfield.
With that said, Slovakia didn’t have the most difficult group. Spain had an almost guaranteed 1st place and the other teams being of mediocre quality, they only had to go one-on-one against Ukraine for the other spot that would give them direct qualification. I don’t see it being a team that can “steal” results from any of the title contenders, but I’m sure they’ll make any of their matches exciting to watch. In addition to that, they bring to the competition one of the talented European youngsters that has been flying under the radar, Ondrej Duda. If he gets his deserved playtime, a breakthrough might be on the cards for the Legia player.
In what appeared to be the most balanced qualifying group, any of the five teams could get their tickets to France (excluding the Faroe Islands). Northern Ireland ended 1st of the group which is obviously impressive, even more so when you consider that there were no apparent “easy matches” except for the ones against the previously mentioned Faore Islands. This made the team fight for the result in every single fixture. But looking at it from a “EURO preview” perspective, the Northern Irish are yet to play a team above their standards which will undoubtedly happen in the tournament next summer. In addition to this, the team might – just like Wales – suffer from the problem of the tournament being held at the end of the lengthy English season. Furthermore, the most important athletes of the squad are in their 30’s or getting close to them – which will most likely enhance the effects of the fatigue.
But looking at everything from a more positive viewpoint, the Northern Irish do have a competent squad, that’s really aggressive in and off the ball and that’s solid defensively. Up front Kyle Lafferty has always been prolific for the national team – no matter what state he was in club-wise – having scored 7 goals in the qualifiers. The hopes are on the Norwich man to the deliver next summer. I can see them troubling any team in the competition but being in in 4th pot of the draw, will they ever get through to the quarters?