March 31st concluded the fifth match day for all but seven of the 53 teams competing for a place in next summer’s Euro 2016 Championship to be played in France. Essentially we are at the halfway point of the qualification campaign and the picture is starting to come into focus.
While France has already qualified as the host nation, a total of 23 spots remain open—the Euros have been a 16-team tournament since 1996. Group winners and runners-up automatically qualify along with the top third-place team among all groups. The remaining third-place teams will square off in two-legged ties to determine the remaining qualifiers. The expanded field should make for more excitement, so let’s take a look at the teams that are in good shape heading into the next round of fixtures starting on June 12.
In Group A, the Czech Republic are way ahead of the curve with 13 points from five matches. The Czechs could only manage a disappointing 1-1 draw with Latvia in Prague, but they are still one point clear of Iceland who secured a 3-0 home win over Kazakhstan. KSI looks poised to qualify for their first-ever major international competition as they are five points clear of the Netherlands who were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Turkey who sit in the fourth spot on five points.
In Group B, Belgium and Wales are tied for the top spot on 11 points. The Welsh took care of third-place Israel 3-0 while the Red Devils pulled off a double-dip with a 5-0 home mauling of Cyprus followed by a gutty 1-0 win away to Israel. The Israelis hold down the third spot on nine points while Cyprus follows with six.
In Group C, surprising Slovakia (15 points) maintained their one hundred percent record with a 3-nil dispatch of Luxembourg. Second-place Spain (12 points) did the business with a 1-0 result over third-place Ukraine (nine points) at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Group D leaders Poland (11 points) could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Ireland. In the so-called qualifying Group of Death, Germany bested Georgia 2-0 at the Lokomotiv Stadium while Scotland demolished Gibraltar 6-1. The Scottish trail Germany by just one on goal differential with both teams having secured 10 points from five matches. The Irish sit in fourth on eight points.
In Group E, England have all but booked their place in France after a 4-0 dismantling of Lithuania at Wembley. The English are perfect through five matches followed by Slovenia and Switzerland on nine points. Slovenia plundered San Marino 6-0 while the Swiss saw off Estonia 3-0. The Lithuanians sit in the fourth position on six points.
Group F leaders Romania eked out a 1-0 result over traditional minnows the Faroe Islands while second-place Northern Ireland rose to 12 points after a 2-1 victory over Finland. The Northern Irish appear poised for their first-ever Euro qualification—they haven’t appeared at a major international tournament since the 1982 World Cup. Hungary is in third place in the group on eight points.
In Group G, things are a little more muddled with both Russia and Montenegro with a game to make up. Group leaders Austria (13 points) extended their lead over Sweden (9 points) with a 5-nil destruction of Liechtenstein while the Swedes handled Moldova 2-0. Both Russia and Montenegro have five points through four matches.
Croatia (13 points) also have one foot in the Euro finals after their 5-1 gashing of Norway in Group H. Second-place Italy (11 points) faltered away to Bulgaria with a 2-2 draw. Norway is in the third spot on nine points.
Finally in Group I, the only group with five participants, leaders Portugal (nine points) bested Serbia 2-1. Denmark and Albania are tied for second on seven points with the Danes three goals to the good on goal differential.
Scotland, Hungary and Albania lead the race for the best third-place record (and automatic qualification) with results against sixth-placed teams being thrown out.
Zach is a sports writer at sportswriters.us