The long road to Euro 2020 is well underway, but the teams that will make up the 24 competitors for next summers showpiece event of the football calendar will only be decided by the end of 2019.
However, the introduction of the UEFA Nations League has meant that teams that don’t qualify through the groups will have a second chance through a playoff in March next year.
The first group promises to be an opportunity for five teams to snatch a place in next summer’s competition. The group leaders, England will likely win the group and cement their place. Aside from the Three Lions; Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro and the Czech Republic make up the remainder of the group.
However, Kosovo and England will have at least a playoff spot as a back-up plan should they not qualify through the conventional method.
One of the most open groups in the qualifying stages so far in Group B. Portugal were expected to be the leading team in the group but they have started sluggishly and sit third behind Luxembourg and Ukraine. Meanwhile, Serbia and Lithuania make up the remainder of the group, with just three points separating fourth and first place.
The reigning European champions Portugal, Ukraine and Serbia all have the back up in the form of a playoff; with at least one of these teams guaranteed to need it.
There could be a major shock in store in Group C should the underdogs in the group sustain their form. Northern Ireland currently sit top of the group having won against Estonia and Belarus. However, the threats of Germany and the Netherlands will loom large and will finish the campaign strongly. Should Northern Ireland and the Dutch qualify then there would be no Germany in the European Championships next summer.
Meanwhile, the Dutch do have the fallback option of a playoff should they need it. Belarus will likely end the group at the bottom and could take advantage of the playoff as a route of passage.
The Mick McCarthy era with the Republic of Ireland has started fantastically in Group D, as they are currently placed ahead of Switzerland and Denmark in the table. However, both of these sides could utilize the playoff should they not make the top two in the group. Denmark will likely finish the group stages strongly, and Switzerland have shown all the qualities in reaching the semi-finals of the Nations League.
Gibraltar and Georgia make up the remainder of the group but it’s unlikely that either of these sides can produce a substantial challenge.
One of the most finely poised groups ahead of the next round of fixtures sees all teams remain in with a chance having won one fixture each. Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia all sit on three points, however, they have played two fixtures. Wales are the only team with a 100% win record and under the stewardship of Ryan Giggs will feel that they have an exciting chance.
Azerbaijan sit bottom of the group and realistically they won’t be able to compete with the better teams in the group.
The Spanish already have taken a vice-like grip of this qualifying group after winning their first two fixtures. The battle to finish second will be hotly contested between Sweden, Norway and Romania. The Faroe Islands and Malta make up the remainder of the group but it’s unlikely that they can finish about the more established teams in the group.
Sweden will likely get the second automatic spot due to the increased quality of their players and their toughness in defence.
Much like the previous group, Poland will run away with Group G due to their overriding strength in depth compared to the other teams in the group. The battle for the second spot will be a fascinating watch; with Israel, Macedonia and Slovenia likely to battle until the final game.
The preference will be for Austria. They have started very slowly despite having a good squad and will have a good chance of finishing second should they rediscover their form.
France and Turkey have started Group H with two fine wins each. The Turks have enjoyed a renaissance of late and will finish the year in the top two alongside France. They will have to hold off the resistance of Iceland; who despite playing a starring role in the 2016 Euro’s are facing the prospect of missing out next year.
Albania remains competitive and will feel that they can achieve something special should they get memorable results against the better teams in the group. Andorra and Moldova make up the group, but their only chance of points will be when they face off against each other.
Belgium will continue to run away at the top of Group I, as there are no teams in the group that could challenge their squad. The fight for second will be gripping; with Scotland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Cyprus all currently sitting on three points. The change in manager for Scotland could be a deciding factor, but the Russians are likely to be their closest challengers.
San Marino makes up the group, but if they get a single point it will be seen as an over-achievement.
Italy have looked back to their best after missing out on the recent World Cup. They have scored eight goals in two games and conceded zero. They will finish the group as winners, and may not drop a point. The battle for second will be between Greece and Bosnia & Herzegovina. The matches between the two will likely decide the team that is competing next summer.
Armenia, Liechenstein and Finland are the other teams in the group, with the latter getting a second chance through a playoff should they not qualify from Group J.