The road to France 2016 has got under way with the start of the qualifiers to see which sides will make the journey to the newly expanded showpiece in two years’ time.
Scotland’s campaign started with, as was expected, a defeat to Germany but the circumstances of the defeat were far from disheartening. After the Germans took the lead 17 minutes in following some solid possession play the game opened up a little, with Scotland being able to carve out some opportunities on the counter attack. Charlie Mulgrew managed to hit the post after a deft ball over the German defence to him, but he was caught offside. After the break Scotland were the better side and were rewarded as Steven Fletcher played through winger Ikechi Anya who ran past the thin German defence to slot home and equalise. Some poor defending from a corner allowed Thomas Muller the opportunity to restore the lead, which he duly took, and the game finished 2-1 despite some good Scotland chances – falling particularly to Steven Naismith. Even though the table will show a defeat, the performance showed that Scotland are a force to be reckoned with in the group – with a slender defeat to the World champions on their own patch an achievement rather than a disappointment.
Elsewhere in the group, the Republic of Ireland pulled off a good win away to the group’s bogey team Georgia. Former Celtic winger Aiden McGeady was the hero, with two great goals either side of a Tornike Okriashvili strike giving them three crucial points. Poland also got off to a winning start in Group C, thrashing Gibraltar 7-0 in their first ever competitive international to take the top spot.
Scotland face two big games in October as they take on Georgia at Ibrox and then Poland away in Warsaw. We’ve seen from recent campaigns how important it is to get off to a good start, and these games provide us the opportunity to do just that and set ourselves up for a good attempt at qualification. Based on the way we played on Sunday night, we should beat Georgia at home and could pull off a draw or even a win away to Poland which would be a fantastic result.
In other qualifying groups, England won their opening game away to Switzerland with Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck hitting a second-half brace. Northern Ireland had a great win away to Hungary with Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn and former Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty getting the goals to give them their first win on the continent in four years. Wales needed a Gareth Bale double late in the game to save them from potential embarrassment in losing to one of Europe’s perennial whipping boys, Andorra.
Spain returned to winning ways after their dismal defence of the World Cup with a 5-1 win over Macedonia, with all five goals coming from different scorers. Holland, after finishing 3rd in Brazil this summer, were humbled as they lost 2-1 away to the Czech Republic. The runners-up of the last Euros, Italy, started off with a comfortable 2-0 win away to Norway.
In perhaps the biggest shock of the qualifiers, Portugal were humiliated at home as they lost 1-0 to minnows Albania. The home side were lacking some of their star men, particularly captain Cristiano Ronaldo, but to lose against a side who have only ever picked up two wins away in competitive fixtures is particularly embarrassing.
It’s early days yet, as all teams have another nine matches to face before they can dream of a trip to France, face the nervy play-offs or get ready to watch the action on telly – but having a good start is crucial to maintaining momentum going into next month’s double-header. Luckily, I think Scotland have got off to a good start and will manage to really kick their campaign into gear in October.