Winners and Losers from the Euro 2016 Qualifying Draw
While fans and players alike begin to gear up to the FIFA 2014 World Cup finals later this year, managers and officials from European nations cast their eyes in a different direction on Sunday, to the draw for the qualifying stage of Euro 2016.
The competing nations have been split into nine groups, with some countries perhaps rather happier than others with their lot and the sides they must play against.
Here we take a look at who might initially be seen as the biggest winners and losers from the draw, with the qualifiers due to start September 2014.
Losers: The Usual Minnows
Despite increased calls from viewers around the game that the smallest nations should be put in their own preliminary draw to try to boost quality and ability to win games, the minnows of Europe are once more paired off against teams they have no hope of beating.
Luxembourg face the likes of Ukraine and Spain, and Malta face Italy and Croatia.
At least Moldova and Liechtenstein are in the same group; one of them will have to get points.
Gibraltar are to compete in their first qualifying stage as a UEFA member state.
They might have wanted to pair up against England in the draw, but that didn't happen—but they might have got the next best thing.
They will face both Scotland and Republic of Ireland in Group D, along with Germany, Georgia and Poland. Big teams, big coverage and a big opportunity to show what they are capable of.
Bosnia-Herzegovina have managed to qualify for their first major finals with the forthcoming World Cup and are emerging as a very good side with potential to grow further.
They would have hoped for a kind draw for the Euros, and although they only really have one major opponent in Group B, Belgium are a nation not dissimilar to themselves—except further along the path.
Indeed, many of Belgium's top talents may be hitting their peak for Euro 2016, and it is difficult to see them not topping the group, leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina to hope for second place and an automatic qualification.
Spain are still the best national side in the world for many viewers, though they had a tricky matchup against France in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
They still came through on top, but the Euro 2016 draw has given them a far easier-looking passage to the finals.
Slovakia and Ukraine are the toughest opposition they will face—both passable sides, but nowhere near the quality to stop the reigning European Championship holders.
Not many people would expect Albania to qualify for the European Championship anyway, but neither are they one of the biggest whipping-boys around.
In being drawn in Group I, though, they face four opponents who are all hovering between good and great.
Portugal will be the favourites, Denmark retain players to make an impact at finals if they can show consistency to get there, Serbia have a talented pool to pick from and Armenia went very close to making the playoffs for the World Cup.
This group could easily damage Albania's ranking significantly and thus their standing in future groups.
Winners: Scotland or Republic of Ireland
The expansion of the European Championship means the top two teams from each group automatically qualify, while third will at worst make the playoffs.
That's great news for the "nearly nations": those who are often in or around the top two or three in qualifying before falling just short.
In Group D, Germany will likely take top spot, but Ireland and Scotland will both consider themselves in with a chance of second place if they can find form and consistency. Poland will be a massive threat to them though, while points dropped against Georgia and Gibraltar will be costly.
Losers: Anybody Playing France
France are hosting Euro 2016, but they are also taking part in the qualifying round.
Also, though they take part in the games, no points from those games will count toward qualifying. Essentially, they're taking part to not have to arrange friendlies.
No confirmation on where they will play yet, but presumably they will be "in" Group I, which has only five nations.
England might not be the world-beaters their fans and media want them to be, but they have been handed a very tame-looking group, which should present no problems in finishing inside the top two—and likely top entirely.
Switzerland will present formidable opposition in that they regularly manage to qualify for tournaments and have some quality younger players in their ranks.
Straightforward group for #eng. Good luck to the FA selling out Wembley.— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) February 23, 2014
Aside from that, though, Slovenia are the biggest threat, but they are eminently beatable if England's players perform. Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino should represent a 18-point return straight away.
"I am very satisfied with the draw, especially for the fans," England boss Roy Hodgson told Sky Sports. "We have had some quite tough trips in recent years, and on this occasion they are going to go to places that are much easier to get to and some very pleasant places to visit."