European Qualifiers: Five games to watch
Just two months after Germany were crowned World Cup winners in Brazil, the journey to Euro 2016 begins with the first round of European Qualifiers. Here we pick five games to look out for starting this weekend...
By Adam Bate
Last Updated: 05/09/14 11:26am
There are some difficult away trips facing the home nations in the coming days but none trickier than Scotland's game against the World Cup winners in Dortmund.
Elsewhere, there is a first competitive international for Gibraltar and the fascination of whether Spain can start to turn things around as they begin the defence of their European crown...
Germany v Scotland
Gordon Strachan surely hoped that the new qualification structure for Euro 2016 offered strong possibilities for Scotland to return to major tournament action for the first time since the 1998 World Cup. After all, there are at least two automatic qualification spots available in each group. So he might have afforded himself a chuckle at the thought of facing World Cup winners Germany first up... Make that one spot available.
Spoiling Germany’s party might be too much to ask. Indeed, Argentina already did that with a 4-2 revenge win in Dusseldorf on Wednesday. But as well as a showpiece fixture for the players, this will be a good test of how organised Scotland can be ahead of the key games against Georgia, Poland and Ireland later in the year. Scotland fans might settle for avoiding a morale-sapping backlash in the wonderful Westfalenstadion.
Hungary v Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s home win over Russia in August 2013 was sweet revenge after their chances were dismissed by Fabio Capello, but efforts since have only underlined the fact that the Italian had a point. Michael O’Neill’s side are on a run of eight games without a win – a miserable sequence that has included defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan as well as a goalless draw against Cyprus.
Hungary might be the not-so-magnificent Magyars these days but they are still likely to represent a rather stiffer test than those aforementioned opponents, having only missed out on a World Cup playoff place by just two points. It will take a huge effort from O’Neill’s team if they are to get anything from Sunday’s trip to Budapest.
Georgia v Republic of Ireland
It seemed something of a dream team appointment after things turned sour under Giovanni Trapattoni, but the popular duo of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have endured a difficult start at the helm of this Republic of Ireland team as they try to turn things around. It started with a win over Latvia but things have not gone well since.
Wednesday’s underwhelming 2-0 triumph over Oman in front of a crowd of below 15,000 people ended a six-game winless streak and the focus must now be on making a positive start in the European Qualifiers. A trip to Georgia is precisely the sort of fixture they need to be getting something from if they are to be among the 24 teams in France in 2016.
Gibraltar v Poland
When Gibraltar lost 4-1 to the Faroe Islands in March, it seemed European international football had found its new minnows. But the apparent certainty that the new boys would embarrass themselves has been called into serious doubt in the subsequent matches as Gibraltar have shown a remarkable ability to mix it.
A creditable draw with Estonia in May was followed up with a first victory over Malta and coach Allen Bula clearly has his team well organised. Up against Poland's Robert Lewandowski they may need rather more than that if they are to avoid a heavy defeat at the weekend, but for Gibraltar just being in this competition is a success story.
Spain v Macedonia
After years of dominance of the international game, Spain were humbled at the World Cup in Brazil. Vicente del Bosque has managed to cling on to start the rebuilding job that is necessary following the retirements of Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso, and with Andres Iniesta also out injured, the squad features the likes of Mikel San Jose, Kiko Casilla, Raul Garcia and Paco Alcacer in a new-look group.
Any hope of an instant return to the winning ways of old ended with Thursday’s defeat to France, but this is the defending champions’ first competitive game since the World Cup and, after the tired efforts of the summer, Spanish supporters will want to see evidence of fresh purpose in the Bernabeu on Monday evening.