By Brian Homewood
SURPRISE packages Northern Ireland, Iceland and Slovakia will all attempt to chalk up their fourth straight wins in the wildly unpredictable Euro 2016 qualifiers which resume over the weekend.
Iceland, who have scored eight goals without conceding in Group A, travel to Plzen, the home of Pilsner beer, hoping to add to add the Czech Republic to their list of scalps after their improbable wins over Turkey, Latvia and the Netherlands.
Northern Ireland, who sit proudly on top of Group F after wins over Hungary, Faroe Islands and Greece, visit Romania while Group B leaders Slovakia, who have already beaten Spain, visit Macedonia.
With 23 teams out of 53 teams joining hosts France at Euro 2016, the qualifiers kicked off in September among concerns that it would be little more than a tedious formality for the traditional powers of European football.
Instead, the likes of Germany, Spain and Netherlands seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security while the greater number of places up for grabs may have inspired hope in the 26 teams who have never qualified before.
Germany were beaten by Poland last month while other upsets have included Albania’s win in Portugal and previously goal-shy Cyprus coming from behind to win 2-1 in Bosnia.
The Czechs are determined to avoid being on the wrong end of another upset on Sunday against Iceland who emerged with a 2-1 win when the teams last met, in a World Cup qualifier in 2001.
“We are going to practice things that should help us overcome an Iceland defence organised in two blocks,” said coach Pavel Vrba.
“We are going to show our players what weapons Iceland used to defeat the Netherlands, Turkey and Latvia, and how to prevent them from doing the same against us.”
Romania’s match against Northern Ireland on Friday also features two unbeaten sides who look capable of ending long absences from major tournaments.
The Romanians have not played at a major finals since Euro 2008, while Northern Ireland have been absent since the 1986 World Cup, when they twice beat Romania in the qualifying campaign.
Group C leaders Slovakia start as strong favourites to continue their run in Macedonia on Saturday, having never lost in six previous meetings to their opponents.
Spain, who have six points, look to have a straightforward task at home to Belarus who will be under interim coach Andriy Zygmantovic after Georgi Kondratiev quit last month.
Azerbaijan will also be under a caretaker coach as Makhmud Gurbanov leads them at home to Norway in Group H on Sunday following Berti Vogts’ resignation last month, the German calling it a day after six years following the 6-0 defeat to Croatia.
Arguably the most attractive match is between Italy, enjoying a new lease of life under new coach Antonio Conte, and Croatia, who clash on Sunday in Milan after each winning their first three games in Group H.
England are also hoping to make it four out of four matches when they host Slovenia in Group E on Saturday, the first meeting between the teams since the 2010 World Cup when England won by a single goal.
The struggling giants all have seem to have straightforward-looking matches.
Germany, with only four points from three games in Group D, are at home to newcomers Gibraltar on Friday while the Dutch, who have lost two out of three games in Group A, host Latvia on Sunday.
Greece, who reached the last 16 at the World Cup and have only one point so far in Group F, face the Faroe Islands.