It’s been 56 years since Wales last qualified for a major tournament – the 1958 World Cup – but the expansion of the European Championships from 16 to 24 teams, has given many of the smaller nations across Europe a much more realistic chance of qualifying this time around. Led by a world-class player in Gareth Bale, the Welsh have every chance of booking their tickets to France 2016 after a good start to their qualifying campaign.
It was a controversial decision by UEFA to increase the size of the competition, which has been criticized in some quarters as it may lead to more ‘meaningless internationals’, but on the flip side, it adds meaning to the games for some of the nations on the periphery of of top level football, as it gives them a genuine chance of qualification. If we go back to Euro 1992, the finals consisted of just eight teams, but after the break up of the former Eastern Bloc, Europe quickly expanded from 33 to 48 nations in the space of a few short years. By Euro ’96, the tournament had been expanded to sixteen teams, and this further growth means that 24 of the 53 competing teams will qualify for the finals in France 2016.
There are nine qualifying groups from which the first two teams will automatically qualify. The best third-placed team will also qualify, while the other eight third-placed finishers will go into two-legged play-offs to determine four more qualifiers. The last place is reserved for France, who qualify automatically as hosts. This provides ultra-insurance for the top nations, who could afford a poor qualifying campaign and still qualify by virtue of a third-placed finish. It could also mean that the ‘big’ sides have the opportunity to rest players in later matches if they have already qualified. However, it also provides fresh hope for the smaller nations, and we have already seen the likes of Iceland, Scotland, Poland, and Northern Ireland achieve shock results.
Who can make the jump?
Whatever your opinion on the expansion of the competition, there will be 24 teams in the finals in France, so which teams can make the jump from ‘also-rans’ to qualifiers?
Wales are a best price of +275 with 888Sport and it looks a bet worth taking.
The Welsh have had a decent start to the campaign, beating Andorra 2-1 away, courtesy of two Bale strikes. They followed that up with a hard-fought 0-0 draw at home to Bosnia and a 2-1 home victory over Cyprus. As things stand they top the group with 7 points, ahead of Israel and Belgium (who both have a game in hand), with Bosnia back in 4th with just 2 points from their first three games.
Wales probably face their toughest game of the group, away in Belgium on Sunday night, and if they come out of that one unscathed they’ll be in a strong position to grab one of the top three places in the group. They drew 1-1 in Belgium as recently as last October in a World Cup qualifier, and look good value to take something from the game on Sunday.
The Welsh squad has a better quality to it than many a previous year, and they are not solely reliant on the wizardry of Gareth Bale. In Swansea captain Ashley Williams and West Ham defender James Collins they have a formidable pairing at the back. In midfield they can call upon the services of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool’s Joe Allen to complement Bale; and although they are short of a top striker, the whole team is set up to allow Bale the freedom to work his magic. It’s a solid spine that Chris Coleman has at his disposal, and the noises coming out of the Welsh camp about togetherness and team spirit bode well for the rest of the qualifiers.
Who can stop them?
If Wales have any intention of qualifying they must surely finish ahead of the two ‘minnows’ of the group Andorra and Cyprus. That leave a four-way fight for three places between the Welsh, Belgium, Israel and Bosnia. Despite Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ not really living up to the hype in the World Cup, they should have too much quality to lose out here, and odds of -4100 on qualification, while woefully short, will probably be justified. This means Wales will need to finish above one of Israel or Bosnia to guarantee at least a play-off place and a chance of qualification. Finish above both and they will be through. Bosnia went to the World Cup, led by Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, but returned with their tails between their legs after losses to Argentina and Nigeria. They travel to Israel in Sunday without the services of injured talisman Dzeko, and plenty of Welsh eyes will be looking at the result. Israel have won both their matches so far – against Cyprus and Andorra – so if the Bosnians can take a point off them in Haifa, all the better.
After the Belgium match on the weekend, Wales face Israel away in March, then Belgium at home in June. We will have more of a measure of how good this Welsh side is after those games, but beyond that they have a fairly good looking run-in to finish off the group. They will face Cyprus away, Israel at home, a tricky one in Bosnia away, before a perfect finish at home to Andorra. The Bosnians have already suffered a shock home defeat at the hands of Cyprus, and after drawing with both Wales and Belgium, they are already playing catch up. They are as short as -200 to qualify, but on current form aren’t that far ahead of Wales, if at all.
The increase in the number of teams to qualify for the Euro’s has given renewed enthusiasm to nations like Wales who see it as an opportunity to compete at the top table, where in the past the door has always been closed. In football, spirit and belief can take you a long way, and the Welsh look to be rolling up their sleeves and preparing to give it everything they’ve got.
Wales to qualify for Euro 2016 +275 with 888Sport
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