There is something feintly disorientating about the draw for the qualifying rounds of Euro 2012, coming, as it does, before the World Cup finals have even started and in the middle of the domestic season. Still, on a February Sunday afternoon in Warsaw, there it was with six groups of six teams and three groups of five and England face some tricky matches if they are to make it to Poland and Ukraine in two and a haf years time. although there may be some Premier League managers that will be breathing a sigh of relief that they are in one of the groups of five, meaning that at least the players will play two matches less than they might have had to.
So, what to make of the draw for England, then? Well, Switzerland have improved since Euro 2008 and have a seam of decent professionals such as Philipe Senderos and Alexander Frei. Considering what was being said about them in the build up to Euro 2008, their qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals is no small achievement, although they did qualify from a weak group and were beaten at home by Luxembourg on the way. Bulgaria didn’t make it as far as the European play-offs, although they did hold both Italy and Ireland to home draws in their qualifying group, and Dimitar Berbatov has scored almost fifty goals for them. Only a fool would say that a trip to Sofia will guarantee returning with three points.
These two may or may not be England’s most serious rivals for a place in the finals, but it is unlikely that Switzerland or Bulgaria will be greeted with much coverage in the English press. That dubious honour is likely to be reserved for Wales. Wales finished in fourth place in their 2010 World Cup qualifying group, and their four wins in that group came against Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein, the two teams that finished below them in their group. They have an excellent crop of young players coming through at present such as Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale of Tottenham players. It may be a tournament too soon for such a young squad, but they may well look at the group with the belief that it may not require an enormous improvement in order to leapfrog Switzerland and Bulgaria.
Finally, Montenegro, a country which will be playing in only its second tournament qualifying series. They may be the bottom seeds in England’s group, but they are not sixth seeds (in the sense that, say, San Marino or Liechtenstein are) and should be treated with caution. In the same 2010 World Cup as Italy, Ireland, Bulgaria and Cyprus, they avoided finishing bottom of their group (finishing six points above bottom-placed Georgia) and only lost three of their ten matches, drawing six and winning one. They drew in home and away against Ireland and captain Mirko Vučinić has played just over a hundred games in Italy for AS Roma. A lack of experience may cost them, but to bracket them in the same category as the also-rans of international football in Europe would be stupidity to be point of danger.
Elsewhere, there is little else that automatically sets the pulse racing. There is something of a local derby in Scandinavia, where Sweden have been drawn in the same group as Finland, and Turkey have been paired with the country with the largest Turkish immigrant population in Europe, Germany. Scotland, meanwhile take on Spain but they may fancy their chances of overhauling a Czech side that failed to qualify for the World Cup finals, while Northern Ireland face a tough group which will include Slovenia, Serbia and Italy. At this early stage, it is of course difficult to get very excited about the 2012 European Championship qualifiers. It may be over-optimistic to hope that the matches between England and Wales won’t be over-hyped by the press. The best thing to do in such circumstances is usually to place a pillow over one’s head until the matches are all set to kick off. It