UEFA European Under-21 Championship holders Spain and the other three semi-finalists in Israel in June begin their bids to reach the 2015 finals in the Czech Republic when the first full set of qualifiers is played on Thursday.
Most of the hopefuls in the ten groups have played as many as three qualifiers already, but of the eight sides that took part in the 2013 finals, only Russia – with a 3-0 defeat of Andorra in Group 2 – have opened their bid. That will change over the next few days and UEFA.com looks at how the groups are shaping up.
The ten pool winners and four runners-up with the best record against the teams first, third, fourth and fifth in their sections will advance to the play-offs in autumn 2014 for the seven available finals places alongside the Czech Republic.
England, eliminated in the group stage in Israel, are under new management in Gareth Southgate as they aim for a fifth straight qualification. They are at home to Moldova on Thursday, the same day Lithuania – who have seven points from three games – welcome Finland, three adrift with a match in hand. Wales, a further point back like Moldova, go to San Marino on Friday. The following Monday, England visit Finland before Wales play Moldova 24 hours later.
Three sides still have 100% records – Bulgaria after two games and both Russia and Denmark following one fixture each. All six nations play on Friday, when Russia host point-less Slovenia, Bulgaria face second-placed Estonia and Denmark meet Andorra. Russia and Bulgaria then play four days later in Moscow, when Denmark visit Slovenia.
The Netherlands, semi-final losers to Italy in Israel, will open their qualification bid on Thursday against Scotland, who like Slovakia have already overcome a Luxembourg side who play Georgia on the same day. Next Monday the Netherlands go to Luxembourg while Slovakia – beaten by the Dutch in the 2013 play-offs – meet Georgia.
Spain are going for a third straight title but first must qualify and three teams – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and Austria – have all stolen a march by defeating Albania. Spain have a tricky opener in Austria on Thursday and four days later welcome Albania to Logrono. Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, visit Hungary then host Austria.
There are no 2013 qualifiers in this section, and in the early exchanges Croatia and Latvia have comfortably beaten Liechtenstein, who have lost all 30 of their games in this competition. Switzerland open their bid on Thursday in Latvia, but Ukraine must wait until Monday before starting against Croatia in Lviv, the same night Switzerland cross the Rhine to play Liechtenstein.
Germany made a group stage exit in Israel and start their 2015 campaign on Friday in the Faroe Islands, who took a point off Romania with a last-gasp equaliser before losing to Montenegro and the Republic of Ireland. On Monday, Germany are in Ireland, with Montenegro and Romania facing off 24 hours later.
No 2013 finalists feature in this section but Poland are in front thanks to home wins against Malta and Turkey. On Friday, Poland travel for the first time, to Sweden, while Turkey take on Malta. Greece start their campaign next Tuesday against Malta, when Turkey will host Sweden.
Norway were the surprise semi-finalists in Israel, and both those nations are involved in this group along with Portugal. The only result so far has been a goalless draw between Azerbaijan and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and just three games are played this month, two of them involving Norway. The Scandinavians will visit Portugal on Thursday and welcome FYROM next Tuesday, while Israel face Azerbaijan on Sunday.
Five-time winners Italy lost a high-quality final to Spain in June and start their bid for a sixth title under new coach Luigi Di Biagio at home against Belgium on Thursday. On the same night, Serbia will welcome Cyprus, who have played in both group games so far, losing 2-0 in Belgium but beating Northern Ireland 3-0. Cyprus play again next Monday at home to Italy, while Northern Ireland go to Belgium.
Iceland, who qualified in 2011, have been setting the early pace by beating Belarus home and away and also winning in Armenia. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, have been involved in two 1-0 away wins – in their favour in Belarus and at their expense against Armenia. Still to play are France, but they put that right at home to Kazakhstan on Thursday and in Belarus next Monday as they aim to end a run of qualifying failures stretching back to 2006. The following day Iceland aim for a fourth win against Kazakhstan.
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