Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Road To Paris Starts Here...

You know, on the one hand while the extension of the European Championships means that it is now slightly easier to qualify, this also means that the qualification tournament does not look like an easy sell.  There are no Group’s of Death which makes Eurpoe’s big teams breath a sigh of relief at their tricky at best draws.
Pressley & Bobic tussle in the Germany V Scotland Euro 2004 qualifier

Not being one of Europe’s big teams, the fate handed out to Scotland could have pitched us into several nightmare scenarios.  None of that has happened, but the draw is an interesting one none the less as we have found ourselves in Group D alongside Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

In this new format for qualification, the fixtures will not be subject to negotiations anymore, they will be calculated by computer with dates and times allocated.  So a few short hours after the draw, it was announced that Scotland’s opening tie would be in Germany on 7 September.

The German’s record in this competition does not need repeating.  Scotland did give a decent account of themselves though during qualifying for Euro 2004, drawing 1-1 at Hampden before losing 2-1 in Dortmund. Prior to that Scotland’s last competitive meeting came in the finals of the 1992 tournament, Germany winning 2-0 in Norkopping, while one of the iconic images of Gordon Strachan’s playing career came when he scored against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup.

Following the Germany game is a double header in October.  The only Saturday tie of the campaign at home will be against Georgia.  In the near miss of qualifying for Euro 2008, it was the away tie with Georgia (rather than the games against Italy, France and Ukraine) that eventually saw us miss out - that 2-0 loss saw us needing to beat Italy at home.  Georgia were also a handful in the Hampden tie with us needing a last minute winner from Craig Beattie (to win that game 2-1, below). That game is followed up with an away trip to Poland.  While our nearest and dearest seem to be always drawn with Poland, we have not played them in a competitive tie since qualifying for the 1966 World Cup, when Poland became the first overseas team to win a World Cup qualifying tie at Hampden.

Finishing off 2014’s fixtures will be a wee Friday night date on November 14 with the Republic of Ireland.  Both sides have only met competitively during qualifying for the European Championships of 1988, a 0-0 draw in Dublin was followed up with a 1-0 win for Ireland at Hampden, Jack Charlton’s first competitive win as Ireland manager.  There is added spice to these ties with the recent appointment of Strachan’s predecessor at Celtic, Martin O’Neil as Ireland’s manager.  His assistant will be one time Strachan signing for Celtic, one Roy Keane.  Finishing off the first half of the campaign will be a Sunday afternoon meeting with Gibraltar next March.  In the return fixtures, the key matches will be the ties in Ireland (13 June), Georgia (4 September) and the two home ties against Germany (7 September) and Poland (8 October).

If Scotland’s group is interesting, the other British teams have less interesting draw’s.  Wales have been drawn for the second tournament in a row with Belgium but will also face Bosnia, Israel, Cyprus and Andorra.  Our nearest and dearest England has once again been given a group where qualification appears to be straightforward.  Twenty years on from taking Switzerland to the World Cup and European Championships, Roy Hodgson’s England will face Switzerland.  The other sides England will face during their qualifying round will be Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino.  Northern Ireland have been drawn with the last winners of the European Championships not called Spain, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland & the Faroe Islands.

Of the other groups, Spain begin their quest for a hat trick of European Championships with a home tie against Macedonia, with their group also comprising Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus & Luxembourg.  The runners up two years ago Italy travel to Norway first, with Croatia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan & Malta completing that group, while semi finalists Portugal find themselves in the five man group which will see the odd team out playing France in friendlies.  Portugal start with a home tie against Albania, with Denmark, Serbia and Armenia making up the group.

Scotland’s group is an interesting group though.  It’s neither the group of death for 2008 or the on the surface relatively easy group of four years ago.  We can finish third in this group, however at a push, I think there is the possibility that we can finish behind Germany in second and in the second automatic slot.