In just three days, most European nations including Germany will put this summer’s World Cup behind them and concentrate on a new goal, qualifying to the 2016 UEFA European Championships in France.
Of course being the hosts, perhaps France will be the only country that will have a couple of years to dwell on their performance in Brazil, having qualified to the tournament automatically.
2016 will mark the first time the European competition will see twenty-four instead of the previously sixteen teams battle it out for the European crown. And because of the expansion in qualifying teams, perhaps the smaller nations will see the tournament in two years as a great opportunity to participate in a major tournament.
With 53 nations divided into 9 groups, the winner and runner-ups of each group will automatically qualify to the tournament in France, while the remaining 5 spots will go to the five best third place nations.
Group A - Netherlands, Czech Rep., Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
An Intriguing group A where perhaps only the Dutch are a given for a spot in the 2016 tournament. This group's matches kick-off on September 9th with the marquee fixture being played in Prague, as the Czech Republic hosts Holland. The Czechs and Turks have disappointed on the international stage recently, but one of those two must surely be the one to claim the “other” automatic spot.
Who should qualify automatically: Netherlands and Turkey
As mentioned before, I strongly believe that the third place finishers in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil are already a foot in the door, and the qualifying campaign hasn’t even started yet. They could lose a couple of points and at most have a surprise loss on the road in either Turkey or Czech Republic, but even that is unlikely. After the Dutch, I believe Turkey is playing better football than the Czechs and should be able to fend off Pavel Vrba’s squad for that second spot.
Who could surprise: Iceland
Iceland were a very interesting team leading up to the last bit of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Even during the playoffs against the Croats the islanders put up a decent fight. If anyone could surprise in this group, it should be this fairly young, somewhat talented squad. One thing to keep in mind however is the fact that their 2014 World Cup qualifying group was the easiest of all in the European zone.
Who may disappoint: Czech Rep.
Czech football has been very disappointing in recent years, and even world football stars such as Chelsea FC goalkeeper Petr Čech and Arsenal’s Tomáš Rosický cannot turn around the fortunes of the nation that once was a European runner-up in 1996 and a semi-finalist in Portugal in 2004. Anything less than a spot on a plane to France will seem like a disappointment, and it very well could happen.
Group B - Bosnia & Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
Some may see Group B as a "free for all", while others will suggest that the two 2014 World Cup participants are a sure bet to occupy the first two spots. The first matches in this one get underway on September 9th with Israel and Belgium sitting out the first round of play. In the two matches that will be played Gareth Bale and his Welsh side travel to Andorra, while Bosnia & Herzegovina play at home against Cyprus.
Who should qualify automatically: Belgium and Bosnia & Herzegovina
No doubt that these two should be at the summit of the group when all matches have been played. While neither squad showed spectacular football in Brazil, Belgium's squad is just too strong to not come out of this particular draw and the Bosnians are also strong enough to be able to fend off the likes of Israel and Wales.
Who could surprise: Israel
Since moving to the UEFA confederation in 1991 for obvious reasons, Israel has not been able to qualify to any major tournament. With guys like Tal Ben-Haim, Yossi Benayoun, Ben Sahar and Bibras Natkho it's an easy argument to make that had they been still competing from the Asian confederation, the Israeli's would have attended a few of the World Cups in the last twenty years. This group seems to be one that the Israeli's could take advantage of and make their first appearance in a major tournament since their only World Cup participation in 1970. Even a second spot is not out of the question, with Bosnia & Herzegovina able to give up a few points to some of the underdogs.
Who may disappoint: Wales
Will we ever see Bale play in a major tournament? Well, while there's definitely a chance for the Welsh to qualify at least through the third place ticket, it's likely that the Dragons will disappoint their nation yet again. If they can't collect full points from Andorra (both at home and on the road) and secure at least 4 of 6 points against Cyprus, this qualifying campaign will be another letdown for the Welsh.
Group C - Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg
Group C seems to be a pretty straight up draw where the final positions of the teams should reflect their pot seeding. First matches in this one go on September 8th and the one to watch would be from Kiev, as Ukraine hosts Slovakia, the two squads in this group that are most likely to fight for that last automatic qualifying spot.
Who should qualify automatically: Spain and Ukraine
There is little reason to talk about the Spanish because in a group like this one they are surely the favorite not only to come out in first place, but to do it while winning nearly every match. Ukraine is also a favorite to come out in one of the automatic spots, but with the political instability in the Eastern European country, qualification to the 2016 Euros may not be as easy as it seems. Ukraine's main concern will be the ability to pick up full points on the road, and whether or not the players' mind is on the pitch or on events back home.
Who could surprise: Slovakia
If anyone in this group could eliminate Ukraine from the second spot it would definitively be Slovakia. Let by Napoli midfielder and the country's captain Marek Hamšík and Liverpool's Martin Škrtel in the back-line, although unlikely, the Slovak's could potentially raise a few eyebrows just as they did when they qualified to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Who may disappoint: Everyone else
Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg are just not good enough! Belarus in particular, being drawn into this group as the worst ranked team out of Pot 4 may think they have a chance at a miracle, but will be unable once more to make any real dent in their qualifying group.
Group D - Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
An exciting group D with the 2014 World Cup champions in Germany, the always entertaining Irish and Poland, and of course the first competitive appearance for newly UEFA recognized Gibraltar. The first matches in this group get underway on September 7th, with Ireland looking for a strong start away from home in Tbilisi against the Georgians.
Who should qualify automatically: Germany and Ireland
Surely this is debatable (at least the Ireland prediction that is), but the Irish have a much more stable squad than those of Poland and Scotland. They should be able to pick up crucial away points to help them in their qualifying campaign. It is highly unlikely that anyone of these teams will challenge the world champions for the first spot in the group.
Who could surprise: Scotland
If there's a team in this group that is likeliest to take an automatic spot away from Ireland, it could be Scotland. They are due for a major tournament appearance and this is their big chance, but they will have to show up when playing on the road against Poland, Ireland and even Georgia, a team that can take away a few points for those trying to actually qualify. Most of the Scottish squad is in their prime footballing age and if they are going to make a run for it, this may be the year.
Who may disappoint: Poland
Solid goalkeeping is the only thing the Polish can be proud of at the moment. With a mediocre back-line and Robert Lewandowski really being the only concern for the opposition as far as attacking goes, Poland does not look like a contender and anything less than qualifying to the tournament in France will surely be a disappointment to the nation who co-hosted the previous European championships.
Group E - England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
Possibly the most predictable group in the whole competition is this one. Even if England is at their worst, there is just no way they will not qualify out of Group E, and Switzerland should be a given as well. First matches in this group kick-off on September 8th, and we could possibly be able to crown the group winner after England's meeting with the Swiss in Basel.
Who should qualify automatically: England and Switzerland
There is no reason why Slovenia or any of the other nations should give the English and the Swiss a hard time. Both nations should be able to qualify automatically with minimal points lost, perhaps only to one another.
Who could surprise: Slovenia
This is the only other team in this group that is currently capable of a qualifying run, and although it is unlikely that they can manage to occupy one of the automatic spots, the third place is theirs for the taking. The only question will be whether they can pick up enough points from Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino to qualify as one of the five best third place finishers.
Who may disappoint: Nobody
Let's face it, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino currently have no business participating in top competitions and I don't even think their own countries will be highly disappointed when neither of these nations qualify for the tournament in France. Lithuania does sometimes show signs of footballing progress but even those moments are nothing more than a few random decent performances.
Group F - Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
A very interesting Group F where there are more than just two potential teams for the top two spots. Action in this group begins on September 7th, with Romania taking on Greece in Piraeus surely to be the key match-up on the day.
Who should qualify automatically: Greece and Romania
Although Hungary is drawn out of Pot 2, Attila Pintér's side tends to disappoint and it's very likely that Romania and Greece will be strong enough to automatically qualify out of the automatic spots. Greece is now a permanent fixture in the world of football it seems and the Romanians seem to be creeping back up to the status they achieved during the 1990's.
Who could surprise: Northern Ireland
While it is highly unlikley that Northern Ireland will be able to occupy the first two spots, out of all the teams in this particular group it is this squad that is able to produce any kind of real surprise and at least push for the third place. With moments of brilliance like the 2014 World Cup qualifier against the Russians, perhaps this is the perfect time for the Northern Irish to take their game to a new level.
Who may disappoint: Hungary
It's been a long time since the days of Ferenc Puskás and Hungary's dominant squads of the 1950's and 60's, and it seems that the Hungarians are not making any real progress back to footballing success.They haven't been able to qualify for the Euros since their appearance in Belgium in 1972 and it's likely that they will disappoint their nation yet again this time around.
Group G - Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
Another group which may seem straight-forward, but one that has underdog squads that are able to take away some important points from stronger opposition. First matches in this group begin on September 8th, with the marquee match-up of Sweden taking on Austria in Vienna.
Who should qualify automatically: Sweden and Russia
There is no doubt that the Russians and Swedes are the favorites to come out of this group as automatic qualifiers for the 2016 tournament. Fabio Capello's Russian side had an incredible 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, but were unable to match this same performance during the finals in Brazil, so they will look to redeem themselves in front of their faithful who are likely still in disbelief after an early exit earlier this summer. Sweden is also looking for some sort of redemption after their inability to qualify at all for this summer's tournament. If he decides to stay on, this will likely be captain Zlatan Ibrahimović's last major tournament with his nation, and if he is still eager to prove himself as the best footballer in the world, this would be the time to do so.
Who could surprise: Montenegro
Montenegro's football development is growing at a scary pace. Branko Brnović's side came very close to a playoff spot in just their second World Cup qualifying campaign for the 2014 tournament, and this momentum can take them a step forward this time around. Key forward Stevan Jovetić has put his injuries behind him it seems and is enjoying the start of his EPL campaign with Manchester City, and will be an integral component for his country's success.
Who may disappoint: Austria
Austria's only previous Euros appearance came in 2008 when they co-hosted the tournament with the Swiss. And if the lack of progress in their football system is any indication, the once fairly decent footballing nation will once again fail to impress and sit out yet another European championship.
Group H - Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
A mixed-bag so to speak, as far as the nations drawn into Group H. Italy is startigng fresh after the departure of head coach Cesare Prandelli and arrival of new boss Antonio Conte. The Croats are looking to forget their 2014 World Cup campaign. And Norway together with Bulgaria are looking to get back into a major tournament after missing out on either a World or Euro Cup for the past 14 and 10 years respectively. Action in Group H begins on September 9th, with Norway looking for an all important point or three when they host group favorites Italy in Oslo.
Who should qualify automatically: Italy and Croatia
Without a doubt the Italians and Croats are the heavy favorites to qualify in the first two spots in this group. But if performances over the last few years are any indications, both teams are capable of giving away points to weaker opposition every once in a while. Since their first qualification campaign as an independent nation in 1996 for the Euros in England, Croatia had only missed out on two final tournaments; the 2000 Euro and the 2010 World Cup. Italy meanwhile, was a spectator rather than a participant last during the Euros hosted by Sweden in 1993.
Who could surprise: Bulgaria
Bulgaria could be a contender for the second or third spot in the group if they can manage to string a few decent results while the higher ranked teams lose a couple of points on the way. The Bulgarian squad, while not the most talented in the group, has a very good balance of young players and experienced footballers as well and could at least see themselves fighting for a top third place finishers spot.
Who may disappoint: Norway
While coming close on many ocassions, the Norwegians had not been a part of a major tournament since the 2000 Euros in Holland and Belgium. And while often the nation fields some globally known footballers such as Morten Gamst Pedersen, John Carew or John Arne Riise, they are unable to live up to the same quality of football as they showcase in their clubs, while playing for their nation. Also, their inability to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil out of a group that included Switzerland, Iceland, Slovenia, Albania and Cyprus, shows that Norway is not currently ready to get back to "the big time".
Group F - Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania
The only 5 team group in the 2016 Euro qualifying and this one kicks-off on September 7th, with Serbia sitting out because of an odd number of teams, while the two group favorites Denmark and Portugal hosting minnows Armenia and Albania respectively.
Who should qualify automatically: Portugal and Denmark
Portugal is without a shadow of a doubt the favorite squad in this group and even though a surprise second place finish like the one in the 2014 WC qualifiers is not totally out of the question, this time around even if they did come in second, it wouldn't matter as they would qualify anyway. Denmark is stronger and more consistent than the Serbian squad and should be able to claim one of the first two spots.
Who could surprise: Serbia
Serbia is definitely able to take away one of those automatic spots from Denmark and perhaps even Portugal. The Serbs have enough talent on the pitch for new head coach Dick Advocaat to work with and if they string a few good matches particularly against Denmark and Portugal, the Serbs may see themselves back in a major tournament for the first time since the 2010 World Cup.
Who may disappoint: Serbia
That's right, this is not a typo. As much as Serbia can surprise in this group, they can also disappoint. A squad that is very well known to be inconsistent could lose points even to the weakest of teams such as Armenia and Albania. If they are unable to pick up nearly the maximum amount of points from the four meetings with those squads, it is almost guaranteed that there will be no place for them in France in 2016.