Spotlight on Paris ahead of Euro draw

Iceland, Slovakia, Albania, Wales and Northern Ireland will be making their Championship debuts while Euro 2016 also sees the return of fallen giants Hungary.

Spain are the first team to win two consecutive European Championships, and three straight major tournaments (Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012).   -  REUTERS

A little more than six months from now on, France will play host to the biggest international football carnival in Europe as they welcome their 23 competitors to the 2016 European Championships. But before that, they will find out who will face whom when Ruud Gullit and Bixente Lizarazu conduct the draw on Saturday evening.

The conclusion of the play-offs last month filled up the four remaining places to complete the lineup for the first ever 24-team European Championships. The main objective for the expansion of the tournament was to give chances to the lower ranked teams in the continent to compete at a major international tournament and that seems to have worked out very well.

Iceland, Slovakia, Albania, Wales and Northern Ireland will be making their Championship debuts while Euro 2016 also sees the return of fallen giants Hungary. The Magyars will return to the fold for the first time since 1972 courtesy of their play-off win over Norway.

The biggest shock was definitely the Netherlands’ failure to qualify in a relatively easy group which saw the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey pipping them to a place in the main draw. The other notable absentees from the tournament will be 1992 winners Denmark and 2004 winners Greece who had a horrendous campaign as they finished bottom of a group losing even to the Faroe Islands along the way.

Pot 1: France, Spain, Germany, England, Portugal, Belgium

Pot 2: Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Ukraine

Pot 3: Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary

Pot 4: Turkey, Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Wales, Albania, Northern Ireland

The teams have been divided into four pots based on their UEFA National team co-efficient ranking. The draw will see the teams picked pot by pot and placed into six groups. Being hosts, France will be the top seeded team in Group A. The other top-seeded teams in Pot 1 are defending champions Spain, world champions Germany, England, Portugal and Belgium.

All the teams in Pot 1 qualified without much sweat (France qualify automatically as hosts) and will be looking for a favourable draw to enter the knockout stages. England were the only team to win all their matches en route to qualifying while Belgium’s form has put them on top of the FIFA World rankings. Spain, Germany and Portugal also topped their respective groups to ensure untroubled qualification.

Pot 2 contains 2012 runners-up Italy, a rejuvenated Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia and Ukraine. The Azzuri will be the team the top seeds will be looking to avoid as they have proven their quality time and again at major tournaments despite never having the best of qualifying campaigns. Croatia and Ukraine are always awkward customers and will be looking to upset one or two of the big guns.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland have been put in Pot 3 along with the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. Lewandowski will be hoping to make his name on the international stage having been in red-hot form for Bayern Munich this season. As for Zlatan, this will most be definitely be his swansong and he will hope to go out with a bang.

The lowest seeded teams of the draw are in Pot 4 but they have been quite impressive in qualifying and will not be taken lightly by any of the powerhouses. Gareth Bale’s Wales will be hoping to bring some joy to the British Isles along with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as they look to outshine their English counterparts. Albania and Iceland are also among the first-timers on the big stage and will be looking to leave a mark. Turkey qualified as the best third-placed team in the qualifiers and already possess some international pedigree which they will hope to enhance.

After the FIFA corruption scandal which also got UEFA president Michel Platini into a tangle, there is hope they can start putting things right again and that will start on the field, in France. With more teams, and more exciting players to look out for, the draw is the just the beginning.

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