By Brian Homewood
TWO wins in 10 matches could be enough to reach Euro 2016 following UEFA’s decision to expand the final tournament to 24 teams while keeping the same format for the qualifying competition.
Nearly half of UEFA’s 54 teams will take part at the finals in France, turning the qualifying competition, which kicks off on Sunday amid almost complete indifference, into of a matter of who will not qualify rather than who will.
The World Cup, with its attacking football and endless drama was a timely boost for international football, sometimes seen as a poor relation to the Champions League and the top domestic leagues.
But if Brazil represented a step forwards for the international game, then Euro 2016 qualifying could well be two steps back with the focus largely on who gets second and third place in the five or six team groups.
Top sides such as Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Spain, who qualified easily for the World Cup even when only 13 European places were up for grabs, should stroll through without barely raising a sweat.
There will be eight groups of six teams and one of five, with the top two teams in each group qualifying directly with the best of the third-placed teams and hosts France.
The remaining eight third-placed teams are involved in two-leg playoffs for the remaining four places.
It means that teams could qualify for France by winning only two matches, or despite losing five.
Of the teams who finished third in the 2014 World Cup qualifying groups, Finland had a record of two wins, three draws and three defeats while Slovenia won five and lost five of their ten games and Slovakia had three wins, four draws and three defeats.
That would earn them a playoff under the Euro 2016 format, where two draws could be enough to take them to France if they win on away goals or via a penalty shootout.
The new format will at least give some hope to the 26 teams who have never qualified before: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, Georgia, Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Northern Ireland, San Marino, Slovakia and Wales.
Europe’s performance at the last two World Cups suggests that, while the continent has three or four very strong teams, it lacks strength in depth. On both occasions, seven out of the 13 European teams failed to make it past the group stage.
By comparison, all five South American sides progressed in 2010 and five out of six went through in 2014.
World champions Germany kick off their campaign on Sunday with a moderately testing match at home to Scotland while Portugal have a gentle start at home to Albania, an excellent chance to put their World Cup woes behind them.
Spain, looking to recover from a nightmare in Brazil, will also be grateful to be kicking off at home to Macedonia on Monday in a group that also features Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and Luxemburg.
Meanwhile, Gibraltar play their first-ever competitive international when they host Poland, in Faro, Portugal on Sunday.
In the context of who will secure second and third places, Austria’s match at home to Sweden stands out, as well as Denmark-Armenia, Georgia-Ireland, Hungary-Northern Ireland, Montenegro-Moldova, Ukraine-Slovakia andEstonia-Slovenia.
Even UEFA president Michel Platini, who promised to make national team football his priority when he was re-elected in 2011, has admitted the format lacks spark.
“I think we have 24 good teams in Europe, more or less of the same calibre, so the quality (of the finals) won’t be affected,” he said. “The only small difficulty will be with the qualifiers, because there will be some less interesting matches at that level as the national associations wanted the same system.”
“We will have two or three teams qualifying from groups of six, so matches will be less decisive, but the tournament itself will be just as interesting.”