They may not have wanted the European Championship finals expanded to 24 teams but England could not complain about any aspect of the draw for the qualifying rounds made in Nice on Sunday. The other home countries, much keener on a new format that enhances their prospects, were equally pleased, even with the group that throws Scotland in with the Republic of Ireland and Germany.
The three things England were keen to avoid were meeting Belgium, the most dangerous of the second seeds; “local derbies” against those other home countries; and any long journeys to places like Kazakhstan, Armenia and Georgia. “I’m very satisfied, in particular for the fans,” Roy Hodgson said of a group that includes his former team Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania [for the first time] and San Marino. “Getting to some of the places where we’ve played in the past has not been easy,” he added.
Getting to the finals in 2016 in France should be easy enough too for Hodgson, who suggested that Wayne Rooney would be his captain for the campaign if Steven Gerrard retires, as expected, from international football after this summer’s World Cup finals.
As if determined to find something to worry about, Hodgson expressed concern that his team may have to play games on a Thursday after some players had been involved in a Sunday Premier League match, under changes to Uefa scheduling. “It will mean basically we’ll get no preparation,” he claimed. In fact, the only Thursday game is set to be at home to San Marino on 9 October this year.
Under the new arrangements for the qualifying tournament Uefa will schedule matches every day from Thursday to Tuesday, allowing supporters to watch more of them live. The most important change, however, is that 23 of the 53 competing teams make the finals, so that countries finishing even third will be guaranteed at least a play-off place. France, the hosts, will also take part in qualifying, although no points will be awarded for their fixtures.
Hodgson is always pleased to meet Switzerland, whom he took charge of from 1992 to 95. They have occasionally held England at Wembley, notably 1-1 in the opening game of Euro ’96 and 2-2 in European Championship qualifying three years ago, but have beaten them only once in the last 66 years.
The Republic of Ireland’s Martin O’Neill and Scotland’s Gordon Strachan sounded excited by the prospect of meeting each other and Germany in Group D, which also includes Poland, Georgia and debutants Gibraltar. One of them ought to make third and Wales could do so by finishing above Israel in Group B, headed by Bosnia and Belgium.
Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill was also “happy with the draw” and wants to avoid the seeded team in Group F, Greece, early on. He said his aim was “to pick up points at home, which against the likes of Finland, Hungary and Romania and the Faroe Islands we’re well capable of doing”.
Spain, unbeaten in the competition since 2006, will play Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg.
England's Euro 2016 qualifying fixtures
Monday, September 8, 2014, Switzerland (a)
Thursday, October 9, 2014, San Marino (h)
Sunday, October 12, 2014, Estonia (a)
Saturday, November 15, 2014, Slovenia (h)
Friday, March 27, 2015, Lithuania (h)
Sunday, June 14, 2015, Slovenia (a) 5pm
Saturday, September 5, 2015, San Marino (a)
Tuesday, September 8, 2015, Switzerland (h)
Friday, October 9, 2015, Estonia (h)
Monday, October 12, Lithuania (a)Reuse content