Last Sunday saw the sounding of the starting gun in the quest for the European Championship. The qualifying draw for Euro 2020 took place in Dublin, the finals of which unusually don’t have a single host nation. That is because to mark the 60th anniversary of the tournament, UEFA has decided to spread the tournament across 12 countries, with the final taking place at Wembley Stadium on July 12th, 2020.
This means no nation is gifted entry to the finals as host and all 55 European National teams will compete in qualifying, although no more than 2 of the 12 hosts can be drawn in a single qualifying group. The Nations were divided into 10 groups, with the winners and runners-up from each group qualifying for the finals. The final 4 places will be decided via the playoffs entry to which was decided in the recent UEFA Nations League Group games.
Much has been made of the complex playoff system, so here’s how it works: The winners of the 4 Nations League groups from each League (listed below) go into the playoffs. In other words, 1 of the 4 teams from each league will qualify for Euro 2020.
|Nations League Group Winners|
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4|
|League B||Ukraine||Sweden||Bosnia & Herz.||Denmark|
However, if any of these 16 teams qualify via their Euro 2020 qualifying group, their redundant playoff place is given to the runner-up from their Nations League Group. If they have also already qualified for Euro 2020, the playoff birth goes down to the third-placed team from that Nations League Group.
England’s great year got even better when they drew Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo. England has lost only 1 of their last 50 qualifiers and should extend that run against three teams currently ranked in the mid-forties. Kosovo provides a wildcard and will be making their debut in this tournament. They are guaranteed a playoff spot after they won their Nations League group, albeit in League D. Ultimately, England should run away while the rest engage in a tight battle for second spot, for which the Czech’s young side will be slight favorites.
Prediction: 1. England 2. Czech Republic 3. Kosovo 4. Bulgaria, 5. Montenegro
Defending champions Portugal face a tough draw, but one from which they are favorites to progress. Ukraine had a strong Nations League campaign and won promotion to League A, but star man Andriy Yarmalenko faces a race against time to be fit for the start of qualifying in March. Serbia always looked the most dangerous side in pot 3, and having won Nations League promotion will be confident of finishing in the top 2. Lithuania endured a torrid Nations League campaign and will battle it out with Luxembourg to avoid the wooden spoon.
Prediction: 1. Portugal 2. Serbia 3. Ukraine 4. Luxembourg 5. Lithuania
European football’s most epic rivalry will be renewed in qualifying as Germany faces Holland. Last month, a late Virgil Van Dijk goal secured the Netherlands a 2-2 draw in Kelsenkirchen and took them to the Nations League finals the next summer. This rivalry is usually played out in tournament football, and there’s no doubt the double-header between these local rivals will be the showpiece of the qualifying tournament.
Ultimately, there are two qualifying spots available and the big two will both likely progress making this draw tough on the rest. Northern Ireland will feel particularly aggrieved, given their neighbors at the Republic of Ireland originally got this draw, but were pushed on under the “two hosts per group” rule. Qualification is surely beyond Michael O’Neill’s ageing side, who will be hoping the trickle down playoff system does them a favor. Belarus has already secured a playoff berth after winning promotion to League C, where they replace Estonia, who seem unlikely to break their qualifying duck here
Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Netherlands 3. Norther Ireland 4. Belarus 5. Estonia
Switzerland is on a roll after their stunning 5-goal salvo against Belgium, and enter this group as hot favorites. Denmark is also going well after a positive World Cup and promotion to Nations League A. The Republic of Ireland has reappointed former manager Mick McCarthy to arrest a drastic slide, and McCarthy’s task wasn’t made easier by being paired with a Denmark team they’ve faced 4 times in the last year and failed to beat once. Georgia is guaranteed a playoff spot from the Nations League, but along with Gibraltar, are unlikely to make a big impact in a top-heavy group.
Prediction: 1. Switzerland 2. Denmark 3. Rep. Ireland 4. Georgia 5. Gibraltar
Group D pits Real Madrid superstars Luka Modric and Gareth Bale against each other as Croatia faces Wales. Ryan Giggs’ young side are a curious match for the World Cup runners-up. Slovakia has their own superstar in Marek Hamsik, but remain a maddeningly inconsistent team. Hungary and Azerbaijan meanwhile are among the 12 host nations for the finals, but face an uphill battle to qualify.
Croatia and Wales have high quality, but small squads that could give the others a chance, given the tight windows in which qualifiers are played.
Prediction: 1. Croatia 2. Wales 3. Slovakia 4. Hungary 5. Azerbaijan
Spain heads a tough looking Group F, and Sweden is on a high after a positive year. There will be a pair of Scandinavian derbies in the group with Norway also involved, and the Norwegians are also coming off a solid Nations League campaign. Romania made it to Euro 2016 and showed enough in the Nations League to suggest they could make this group tight. However, Malta and Faroe Islands look unlikely to offer much resistance. Spain should have too much quality for the others with Sweden likely to edge into second place.
Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Sweden 3. Norway 4. Romania 5. Faroe Islands 6. Malta
Poland will be relieved to have drawn a lightweight group after a poor year. Austria will also be confident after a solid Nations League campaign. Of the other teams, Israel has never qualified for a major tournament, while Slovenia suffered the abject humiliation of relegation to Nations League D. Macedonia has a playoff berth after winning Nations League promotion and look like a dark horse to qualify from the group. Finally there’s Latvia, who shocked the world by qualifying for Euro 2004, but remain a long-shot to repeat the trick in 2020.
Prediction: 1. Austria 2. Poland 3. Macedonia 4. Israel 5. Slovenia 6. Latvia
World Champions France should have few problems qualifying from a weak group. Second seed Iceland has endured a miserable 2018 in which they lost 6 consecutive competitive internationals, while Turkey also had a poor year culminating in Nations League relegation. Of the lesser lights, Albania surprised everyone by making it to Euro 2016, but have since regressed while neither Moldova or Andorra look like providing much more than cannon fodder. France will win this at a canter, but the fight for second should be a tight three-horse race.
Prediction: 1. France 2. Iceland 3. Turkey 4. Albania 5. Moldova 6. Andorra
The end of the year will include Belgium as #1, as they should cruise to the finals in 2020. However, there could be a close contest behind them, as Russia is rediscovering their confidence after a better than expected World Cup. Scotland is another side on the up after a strong Nations League campaign, but haven’t qualified for a major tournament in 20 years. The battle between the Scots and Russians for second place should be close and will probably be settled by how many points they drop away to lower seeds Cyprus and Kazakhstan. San Marino meanwhile will simply be looking to keep the goal difference down.
Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. Scotland 3. Russia 4. Cyprus 5. Kazakhstan 6. San Marino
Roberto Mancini’s Italy is still struggling to find their way after the humiliation of missing their first World Cup since 1958. Italy is also struggling to score goals, and they’re not helped by a group filled with potential pitfalls. Bosnia won promotion to join Italy in Nations League A and offer a familiar threat in Roma striker Edin Dzeko. Finland won promotion from League C and are a tough defensive side who concede few goals. Then there’s 2004 European Champions Greece, who is another side synonymous with defensive football. With Armenia and Liechestein making up the last places, this is likely to be close group filled with tight low scoring games.
Prediction: 1. Italy 2. Bosnia and Herzegovina 3. Finland 4. Greece 5. Armenia 6. Liechtenstein
Photo Credits: Sky Sports, Campaign Live, Belfast Newsletter