Top 12 Names to Watch for in Euro 2016 Qualifying
As the Euro 2016 qualifiers get underway, teams from across Europe will be desperate to impress on their first step towards the finals in France.
For some countries, such as world champions Germany, qualification looks to be a given. They'll breeze through their group and be one of the favourites to win the title, but for others, it can be the small details which make a difference.
With the finals open to 24 teams this time around, there will be ample opportunities for plenty of countries who are sometimes on the fringes of things to make an impression, but for that to happen, some talented individuals will have to step up.
So who'll be the men to watch and the men who'll make the key differences during these qualification stages? We take a look at 12.
Nemanja Matic (Serbia)
Perhaps the country who've benefited from the new qualification process the most are Serbia, who have been placed in a smaller five-team group and will be confident of securing a place either in the top two automatic positions or third place, thereby securing a play-off.
A talented and largely young group, the Serbs are led from midfield by the Chelsea powerhouse Nemanja Matic, whose strength and authority have already been on display in some of his club's matches this season. He will be crucial for his country here.
With Denmark and Portugal the other two teams who will likely be contesting those all-important top three spots, the displays of Matic through the centre of midfield are going to make the difference for his side.
Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
With Louis van Gaal gone, Guus Hiddink taking over and just three of the squad for Thursday night's friendly against Italy and Tuesday's qualifier against the Czech Republic aged 30 or over, this could be the campaign in which new heroes emerge for the Dutch.
None of those three 30-somethings—Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie—can be sure of a place at the Euro 2016 finals, and so, the likes of Memphis Depay could be seen stepping up into more crucial roles within the team.
After scoring twice at the World Cup, plenty thought that the 20-year-old would leave PSV Eindhoven for pastures new this summer, but it was the right decision to stay where he is for now, and hopefully, his game will improve accordingly.
Gareth Bale (Wales)
Stand by for one of the more obvious statements you're ever going to read, but if Wales are going to qualify for their first major tournament in 58 years then they are going to need to have Gareth Bale in good form.
The Real Madrid star is so, so vital to his nation's fortunes as they bid to make the most of a somewhat-welcoming group and the new qualification rules.
Wales boss Chris Coleman is short on striking talent, and so, the goals are more than likely going to have to come from Bale, who could be utilised in a central attacking role for his side to try and make the most of his many talents.
Diego Costa (Spain)
In many ways, Diego Costa was the image of Spain's disastrous World Cup campaign, as Vicente del Bosque's new approach with the powerful forward upfront failed so spectacularly.
The perception was that Costa wasn't fit, of course, but now restored to full health and firing in goals for Chelsea at the beginning of the Premier League season, he'll be crucial to his adopted nation's fortunes as they try to recapture former glories without plenty of those who achieved them previously.
Macedonia are Spain's first opponents on Monday night in Valencia, and in a group that they really should dominate, Costa can fire the Spanish team forward and back towards feeling good about themselves.
Darren Fletcher (Scotland)
Thankfully back happy and healthy, Darren Fletcher might not continue to start every Manchester United game like he has done for their three Premier League matches this season, but he'll unquestionably be a key figure in Scotland's challenge to qualify for France.
The 30-year-old's 62 caps to date would have been added to were it not for illness and injury, and his experience of both domestic and Champions League battles are sure to prove crucial for the Scots as they vie with Poland and the Republic of Ireland for Group D's second automatic qualification spot behind Germany.
Gordon Strachan's side might not have the individual talent that we've seen from Scottish sides in the past, but Fletcher's work ethic and his mobility in the centre of the pitch will be crucial to them.
Raheem Sterling (England)
There is always one more great hope for the England team; a player that will wipe away the mediocrity and take them towards glory.
The latest one is Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, the man of the match in the friendly win over Norway and probably the brightest spark of his country's brief summer fling with the World Cup.
Sterling has started Liverpool's season on fire, too, and as he approaches his Champions League debut, he is undoubtedly maturing at a remarkable rate. He'll be vital for his country in what looks a fairly comfortable group, which starts in Switzerland on Monday.
Kostas Mitroglou (Greece)
The missing man as Fulham were relegated from the Premier League last season, £11 million forward Kostas Mitroglou is now back on loan with Olympiakos in his homeland, where he's no doubt breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Prolific when he's on his best form, the 26-year-old will doubtless be looking to slip back into the sort of displays that we all know he's capable of at club level, especially given that the Greek side have been handed a tough Champions League group including Atletico Madrid and Juventus.
Greece have things somewhat easier in Euro 2016 qualifying though, and with Group F looking tough to predict as the Greeks line up alongside Finland, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Romania and the Faroe Islands, Mitroglou's goals could be decisive.
Stevan Jovetic (Montenegro)
After seeing two of his last four seasons pretty much entirely wiped out through injury, this feels like a new beginning for the supremely talented Stevan Jovetic.
He hit the ground running with Manchester City this season when he scored two goals in a win over Liverpool in the Premier League, and he'll be the main man as Montenegro seek to gain qualification from a group in which they are very capable of impressing in.
Russia and Sweden will doubtless be the toughest sides to get the better of in Group G, but if Jovetic hits form, he can trouble any defence, including theirs.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
There's no doubt that Jovetic isn't the star man in Group G though, as that honour goes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he isn't going to give it away to anyone.
Sweden's newly crowned record goalscorer will have all the sides in his section in his sights, especially after missing out on the World Cup when Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal beat the Swedes in a two-legged play-off.
At the age of 32, there won't be many more international tournaments in the forward's future, and he'll be desperate to make a mark in the qualifiers and then in the tournament in France itself.
Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
As mentioned in the Bale slide, this is a great chance for Wales to reach their first international tournament since the 1958 World Cup, but of course, Bale cannot do it all on his own.
In Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, Bale has team-mate who has quickly matured into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, with his goalscoring prowess proving vital for Arsene Wenger's side as they challenge for both domestic and Champions League glory.
Ramsey's goals from midfield are likely to help Wales stand or fall in their group, and along with Bale, there are few players who will be more important to their teams throughout the qualifying process.
Luka Modric (Croatia)
On paper, Group H looks as though it is Italy's to lose, but you shouldn't be surprised if Croatia make a decent run at the top spot.
The Croatians were somewhat unfortunate to exit the World Cup at the group stages after an unlucky defeat to Brazil and a mauling of Cameroon was followed by them falling apart against Mexico. They will be led from midfield by the mercurial talent of Real Madrid's Luka Modric, who has improved throughout his time at the Spanish giants.
Modric's creativity and flair should at least ensure that Croatia take second spot, although Bulgaria and Norway might feel as though they have a good chance.
Lazar Markovic (Serbia)
As we mentioned when discussing Matic, this really is a great chance for Serbia to reach what would be just a second major tournament as a singular nation.
While Matic will lead from the middle of the park, the pace and dynamism in attack could well be provided by Lazar Markovic, who signed for Liverpool from Benfica this summer and has so far featured in two Premier League games for the Reds.
There will undoubtedly be more, and there will be plenty of exciting displays for a vibrant Serbian side which will expect to finish in one of the top three positions in Group I.
If they are third, no one will want to face them in the play-offs.
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