Scotland and 6 Surprise Teams to Reach Euro 2016 After Extended Entry List
The new season is barely a couple of games old for most European nations and top flights, but already fans are faced with turning their attentions toward the next big international tournament: Euro 2016.
For some, it will be an opportunity to make up for a disappointing 2014 World Cup or perhaps to continue good form shown in Brazil, but for others it is a goal to aspire to, a chance to play in a major finals which doesn't come often enough.
Here we take a look at six nations who could benefit from the tournament expansion in France '16, with the top two from each qualification group going through automatically, along with the best third-place team and the winners of the play-offs from the rest of the third-spot sides.
Last major tournament: They have never qualified for a World Cup or European Championships.
Standout players: Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is the goal-getter of the side and undoubtedly the player plying his trade at the highest level with his regular Champions League appearances. Alfred Finnbogason is currently injured but scored plenty in the Eredivisie and is now with Real Sociedad.
Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea City has enjoyed success in the Premier League too, giving Iceland creativity and quality in midfield, while the likes of Aron Gunnarsson, Emil Hallfredsson and Ragnar Sigurdsson also have experience in European sides.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: They came desperately close to reaching the World Cup, finishing second in their group ahead of Slovenia and Norway among others before succumbing 2-0 to Croatia in the second leg of the play-off.
Not blessed with a huge talent pool to choose from, the squad seems settled and experienced, and though Netherlands are clear favourites for Group A, Iceland could go toe-to-toe with and shock Turkey and Czech Republic for at least a third-place finish.
Last major tournament: They reached the round of 16 at World Cup 2010 in their only finals as a standalone nation.
Standout players: Marek Hamsik is the star attacking midfielder, while Martin Skrtel is the experienced central-defensive leader.
Inconsistent though technical talents Miroslav Stoch and Vladimir Weiss bring the excitement and unpredictability to the side, with Robert Vittek a proven scorer at international level—he's the nation's all-time highest scorer with 23 goals in 80 games.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: Consistency is the main aim they need to address after drawing too many times in World Cup qualifying last time out.
Assuming they can see off Luxembourg and Belarus, matches against Macedonia will be decisive for third place—and they are more than capable of beating Ukraine to second behind Spain.
Last major tournament: a group-stage exit at World Cup 1998.
Standout players: Scotland actually have three goalkeepers of a decent standard to call upon in Craig Gordon, David Marshall and Allan McGregor. Most defenders are of Championship level, but Darren Fletcher in midfield and James Morrison as an attacking force are both extremely impressive when fit and in form.
Steven Naismith has been enjoying the best spell of his career over the last 12 months and could be vital throughout qualifying if he can keep on the goal trail.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: Under Gordon Strachan they have become tougher to beat and more expansive with their attacking intent. They are unbeaten in six, including matches against the USA and Croatia.
Germany will win the group, but Scotland, Ireland and Poland can all realistically believe second place could be theirs, thus earning an automatic pass to France 2016.
Last major tournament: a group-stage exit at Euro 2008.
Standout players: Experienced defenders Razvan Rat and Gabriel Tamas are still on the scene, as is the excellent (and younger) Vlad Chiriches.
Gabriel Torje and Alexandru Maxim provide real offensive intent from the second line of attack, while Ciprian Marica's inability to hit the net has not extended to his nation—he scored six times in 2013 for Romania and has 24 goals overall.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: Romania have a more balanced squad than probably any time over the last decade, though they'd almost certainly wish for another reliable forward.
They are in an extremely open group in which they could conceivably finish first or fourth: Greece, Hungary and Finland are their main rivals, along with Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands.
Last major tournament: a group-stage exit at Euro 2008.
Standout players: Bayern Munich's David Alaba is the obvious choice, with the Bayern left-back usually playing an attacking midfield role for his country.
Aleksandar Dragovic, formerly of Basel and now of Dynamo Kyiv, is an excellent young defender, and Martin Harnik continues to impress in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: Austria pushed Sweden all the way for a play-off spot for World Cup qualification, missing out only by three points when the Swedes beat them in the penultimate match on a goal four minutes from time.
They face the same opposition now in Euro 2016 qualification—but third place this time will net them at least a play-off spot. Russia are the other big challengers, with Montenegro a dangerous outsider too.
Last major tournament: They have never qualified for a major tournament as a single nation; formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Standout players: Armenia have a number of effective stars at big European clubs, prime among them Borussia Dortmund's Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The exciting wide attacker Gevorg Ghazaryan is at Olympiacos, 40-year-old captain and goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky remains as Dynamo Moscow's No. 1 and Yura Movsisyan has long impressed at Spartak Moscow.
Why they can reach Euro 2016: Armenia finished fifth out of six in World Cup qualifying—a very misleading position, as they were just three points behind group runners-up Denmark. They fought throughout and went close to making the play-offs, beating Denmark and Czech Republic away and holding Italy to a draw in Naples.
They have the talent and no doubt the belief that a finals appearance can be theirs this time around—and with Portugal, Denmark, Serbia and Albania as group rivals, a top-three finish is certainly possible for them.
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