I remember like it was yesterday; Northern Ireland’s first away win in four years in the first game of their Euro 2016 qualifying group – an unexpected 2-1 win at Hungary. That was fourteen months ago, and even with that (seemingly) one-off result none could have written the script that would play out over the following year as the team went on a run that ultimately saw them qualify for their first major tournament in my lifetime; the last time being at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Potential banana skins were narrowly avoided along the way – ironically it was the same team we beat in that opening game that almost returned the favour in a pivotal, nervous and dramatic game back at the start of September – and in my previous comments on this qualifying campaign I refused to believe they would actually do it. But they did, even doing so in style; with a game to spare and winning their group.
This may indeed have been a ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrence in itself, but fans all around the British Isles have been spoilt with other unparalleled successes for the home nations. Wales went on a similar run, beating Belgium along the way to end an even longer wait for tournament qualification – Welsh fans haven’t enjoyed one since 1958. England won all ten games in their group (a group admittedly barren of any serious challenge) and were the first team to qualify. The Republic of Ireland qualified for their second consecutive European Championship and will be hoping for a more successful one than when they lost all three games without scoring a goal at Euro 2012.
One could say this has bred a feel-good atmosphere between fans of all these teams – it’s easier to be friends when (almost) everyone’s doing well after all – and this feeling of friendly rivalry will hopefully result in a tournament that’s memorable for all the right reasons in France next year. The draw for the groups, which will be six groups of four teams, takes place on the 12th of December and I’ll be analysing that in closer detail when the time comes.
For now, the seedings have been announced and I’d like to do the whole ‘speculation’ thing. Who would I like to see in Northern Ireland’s group? What are the best/ worse case scenarios for the home nations? Is there a potential ‘group of death’ in waiting? Let’s have a look.
Seedings are as follows:
Now even though Belgium are currently ranked top of the Fifa rankings, if I’m being honest they’re probably still the most attractive draw in pot 1 as it pertains to wanting to progress. Stick Northern Ireland against Belgium and I’d be reasonably confident. Belgium have excellent individual players for sure but questions remain over whether they truly ‘gel’ as a team – and I’m not convinced they had an overly challenging qualifying group so their recent results may be slightly deceiving.
Italy are the standout team in pot 2 and most teams in every other pot will be hoping to avoid them. Pot 3 arguably looks even more dangerous with Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland lurking, none of whom will be comfortable draws for anyone. Meanwhile the top seeds will perhaps be looking at Wales and the Republic of Ireland in pot 4 with trepidation, having seen them beat Belgium and world champions Germany in their respective qualifying groups.
I’ve had the feeling for a while that Northern Ireland are going to draw hosts France. There’s no real reason for thinking that aside from some vague superstition, but if we end up with France, Germany or Spain I think we’ll embrace it. The big occasion and memories are the main reasons for being there after all, and those fixtures would certainly leave lasting impressions whatever the result. England and Portugal lie somewhere between those teams and Belgium, in that you know they’re going to present something of a challenge but they’re not quite in the top tier either…
As a Northern Ireland fan, Portugal are probably my least preferred draw in that first pot. With the presence of a special player like Ronaldo you can never quite be confident that you’ll beat them, while at the same time they don’t present the desired ‘marquee’ fixture one would like if you’re not going to progress further. I’m confident we could beat England, but the sickening feeling it would leave if they were to beat us instead makes me wary of saying I’d be comfortable with that draw. Save it for the quarter-finals or something like that and we’ll take them to penalties if needs be.
I’d imagine Wales and Ireland fans would take a similar stance on that first pot. It’s worth pointing out that the ‘bigger’ teams will perhaps consider both of them more of a threat than we are though; to what extent that psychological edge might come into play remains to be seen.
Taking current rankings into account, there are a few possibilities for a ‘group of death’ at this tournament: Germany/ Spain (pot 1), Italy (pot 2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (pot 3), and Wales (pot 4) would be the most potent combination in my eyes.
From England’s point of view, they’ll no doubt be hoping for a decent start to this tournament after the disaster of the last one (having gone out of last year’s World Cup without winning a game). Top priority for them would likely be avoiding Italy – who were in their group in Brazil – as well as the other home nations, all of whom would be strongly motivated to inflict more tournament misery on their frequently overrated neighbours. Best scenario for England would probably look something like this: Austria/ Ukraine (pot 2), Slovakia/ Hungary (pot 3), Albania (pot 4).
Iceland represent something of an unknown quantity in pot 4, as one can’t yet say whether their recent qualifying form will reverberate in France, but I’d imagine they wouldn’t be a comfortable draw for the English – they’d definitely be full throttle in that match, this being their first-ever major tournament. Worst case scenario for England? Italy (2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (3), Ireland/ Wales (4). I’d say they’ll be sweating should that kind of combination come up.
When all’s said and done, the lineup of teams and possibilities for Euro 2016 actually looks quite intriguing. Whatever awaits for Northern Ireland, in the end no one’s really going to complain whoever comes out of the hat. Taking some time to speculate on these possibilities beforehand is all part of the experience; an experience that will take another step further next month. I’ll be back on the 13th of December, a day after the draw takes place, to reflect on the hands that have been dealt and offer my early predictions for the tournament.