Spain has comfortable draw for Euro 2016 qualifiers
Spain's Xabi Alonso, left, is flanked by Alvaro Arbeloa as he holds up the trophy at the end of during the Euro 2012 soccer championship final between Spain and Italy in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP / Jon Super)
The Associated Press
Published Sunday, February 23, 2014 10:59AM EST
NICE, France -- Two-time defending European champion Spain faces a seemingly comfortable road to defend its title at Euro 2016 after being drawn Sunday with Luxembourg, Macedonia, Belarus, Slovakia and Ukraine for the qualifiers.
"It's not as easy a group as it might appear to some. We are facing emerging teams who are young and strong," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said of the Group C draw. "The cold conditions could play a role in the group because many of the trips will be to teams from the east."
The Netherlands was drawn in a tougher-looking Group A and faces the Czech Republic, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Iceland and Latvia.
"The Dutch are the favourites. Together with them, it will be us, Turkey and Iceland fighting to advance," Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech said. "We have to cope with it if we want to go to France."
There will be eight groups of six teams and one of five, each playing home and away. The top two teams from the nine groups qualify, along with the best third-placed side. The eight remaining third-placed sides will contest play-offs with four spots at stake.
Host France is the 24th team and automatically qualified. It will play matches in Group I, but no points will be awarded for their matches.
UEFA made the change because host nations can struggle to arrange suitable friendlies while others focus on qualification.
Germany, the runner-up to Spain at Euro 2008, is in Group D and has potentially awkward matches against the Republic of Ireland and Poland -- led by Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski -- with Gibraltar, Georgia and Scotland also in the group.
"The matches against Scotland will be great occasions," Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill said. "It looks like a group, Germany apart, where teams might take points off each other."
England will be pleased with what looks like a winnable Group E featuring Switzerland, San Marino, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia.
"I'm very satisfied, in particular for the fans. We've had some quite tough trips to get to in recent years, but there's some good places to visit," England coach Roy Hodgson said. "The name Switzerland always brings a smile to my face because they were four fantastic years (as national team coach)."
But Wales' bid to qualify might mean going through the playoffs as Group B contains Eden Hazard's Belgium and the attacking strength of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is completed by Andorra, Cyprus and Israel.
"I'm happy, positive," Wales coach Chris Coleman said. "We managed to get a point in Belgium (in World Cup qualifying) and were unlucky at home."
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was happy overall.
"I am not going to say it is a beautiful draw, because every match is difficult," Wilmots said. "But I will return home feeling satisfied."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out on this year's World Cup after Sweden was beaten by Portugal in a thrilling playoff, but the prolific Paris Saint-Germain forward should grace the fields of France in two years' time. Sweden and Russia are likely to lead Group G, where Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro and Austria look to be up against it.
Italy, runners-up to France in 2000 and Spain in 2012, will be confident of winning Group H, despite facing Croatia, Norway and Bulgaria. The other teams are Malta and Azerbaijan.
"It's a very demanding group, we will have to prepare ourselves well," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "We're not facing Belgium or Switzerland but I don't think Croatia is inferior to them. Croatia and Bulgaria are potential group winners."
Group F, however, seems to be the most open one and it is hard to call the top two from 2004 champion Greece, Finland, Romania, improving Northern Ireland and Hungary. All of them should take maximum points against perpetual minnow, the Faeroe Islands.
Having guided Portugal to the World Cup with a brilliant playoff performance against Sweden -- outshining even Ibrahimovic -- Cristiano Ronaldo will need to find his scoring touch to keep Portugal ahead of Serbia and Denmark in Group I, and trips to Albania and Armenia are sometimes tricky.
France completes Group I, although Didier Deschamps' team has no bearing on the outcome.
"It's pretty good to play a team like Portugal, they will be prestigious matches," Deschamps said.