The Euro 2016 trial is officially underway. With Sunday’s draw revealing to us exactly who would be facing who in search of a berth in the finals, the journey of living up to expectations or crumbling under their weight begins anew for Europe’s titans.
Among the top seeds, it’s Russia more than the rest of the favourites who face the most difficult task in shouldering the burden of high hopes.
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Germany, Spain, Netherlands, England, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Portugal and Greece were the other inhabitants lumped into the draw’s Pot One according to their UEFA coefficient, each now with challenges of their own lying ahead.
However, it’s Fabio Capello’s men who will find their run to France proving the most difficult of the lot.
Of course, the most pertinent factor in any qualification campaign is the level of competition that one faces—those sides that stand between you and your goal.
For Russia, those nations are Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova and Liechtenstein, a strong crop of teams that could pose a threat to any side’s qualification hopes in the right setting.
In terms of cumulative UEFA coefficient, only groups A and C—those pools housing holders Spain and fellow giants the Netherlands—boast a higher ratio than Russia’s Group G.
Of course, this alone isn’t enough to suggest that Russia find themselves in the third-toughest pool of the lot per se, but one could suggest that the competition is most evenly spread among their six teams.
This is especially worth noting when one considers the individual advantage that Spain and the Netherlands hold over Russia in their coefficients, Capello’s outfit being the second-lowest-ranked of the top-seeded teams while the other two both find themselves in the top three of the continental ranking system.
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At first glance, Sweden, Montenegro and Austria would be the most obvious candidates to challenge Russia for one of the two qualifying spots—three including best third-place qualifiers—while Moldova and Liechtenstein would be considered lesser threats.
Sweden took Portugal to the knife in their race to booking a spot at this summer’s World Cup, while Montenegro found themselves in the mix for a place in Rio right until the end, giving England a run for their money.
Austria are a burgeoning power boasting several individual stars of varying worth, but could be a shock package should the next 18 months unveil yet more potential.
Looking at the other groups, one could very easily argue that no other pool boasts four teams so tight in terms of their credentials to advance to the Euro 2016 Finals, putting a tough picture in the frame for Russia.
Any qualifying pursuit is a marathon, not a sprint, and so it’s vital for any team hoping to become a part of the tournament finals to stretch good form over not just time, but on both home soil and away.
Who will top Euro 2016 Qualifying Group G?
It’s something Russia could do with improving if their run to the 2014 World Cup was anything to go by.
The Eastern Europeans managed to come through the UEFA ranks, beating Group F runners-up Portugal by just a single point, making their pursuit of a berth in Brazil all the tougher thanks to a lack of consistent form away from Moscow.
Granted, trips to Israel and Luxembourg provided healthy statements of intent, each match being won 4-0 by the visiting Russians, but it wasn't a tempo they could maintain throughout.
More clinical fixtures in Northern Ireland and Portugal each resulted in 1-0 defeats for the away team, and a 1-1 draw in Azerbaijan certainly wasn't the kind of profligacy that Capello will have enjoyed seeing from his team either.
For Euro 2016, Russia are better off in that they don't have another giant of Portugal's stature in their qualification race, but as aforementioned, the competition is more finely tuned across the spectrum instead.
Sweden showed the ability to duke it out with Germany in their 2014 World Cup qualification while Austria failed to win just one of their five home fixtures in the same group, showing just how difficult the road games are to be for Russia and their need to improve that aspect of their assault.
Examining Other Top-Seed ‘Minnows’
It's difficult to look at the truly world-class top seeds as being anything other than likely to qualify for Euro 2016, as it's just something that's in their nature and DNA.
Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Italy will always be strong candidates to perform ahead of a major tournament, as well as in it, but what of the qualification chances of those on Russia's par?
Given that it took them beating Sweden in the playoffs to seal their spot in Brazil, Portugal might be looked upon as a shaky possibility once again, pitted against Denmark, Serbia, Armenia and Albania in the only five-team qualifying group.
Greece, still benefiting from their Euro 2004 triumph, may not be bottom of the coefficient standings, but Fernando Santos' side are still fortunate to be in the Pot One draw at all.
That being said, the Greeks have come up relatively lucky in the draw, with no unbeatable-looking opposition among the sample of Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland or Faroe Islands.
Finally, one might argue that England or Bosnia and Herzegovina have trials as hard as Russia to overcome on their road to Euro 2016, but there honestly stand only two teams in either of their respective pools who should pose a genuine challenge compared to Capello's three.
Russia proved at Euro 2012 that they're capable of rubbing shoulders with the continental big guns when playing the fast and furious football they do so love, but finding that stride for great stretches has been an arduous affair for periods in the last few years.
Of the nine top seeds heading into Euro 2016 qualification, it's they who face an uphill task in not only beating those around them, but also escaping any demons they have resting within and proving once more that they can be a part of that international cream of the crop.