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Group 7 rivals bid to trip Portugal up

Hosts Portugal are favoured to win elite round Group 7 but Ukraine, Iceland and Latvia are eager to stop Emílio Peixe's side in their tracks and forge on to the finals in Malta.

Iceland finished top of qualifying round Group 10
Iceland finished top of qualifying round Group 10 ©Shapaev Mikhail, Football Union of Russia

Three victories from three games in Group 5 in Bosnia and Herzegovina were a measure of Portugal's class in the qualifying round, and while Emílio Peixe's side did not win any of their three fixtures at the Algarve International Tournament, he can take plenty of encouragement from seeing them draw against Germany (1-1), England (2-2) and the Netherlands (2-2).

Peixe used that event to give playing time to a number of fringe players, and his target on home soil in Group 7 is simple enough. "The goal is to prepare the team so we can achieve our main objective – to qualify for the European Championship," the 12-times capped former midfielder explained. "We want to win our elite round group if possible."

Qualifying round: Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0, Montenegro 2-1, Croatia 1-0 (Group 5 winners)

Key players: Renato Sanches (midfielder, SL Benfica), Rúben Neves (midfielder, FC Porto), Rúben Dias (defender, SL Benfica)

The Blue and Yellows reached the 2013 finals, but only made it to the elite round by the skin of their teeth as the best third-placed team in the qualifying round. Oleh Kuznetsov's side played in a friendly tournament in Minsk in January, beating Lithuania 3-0 and 6-1, winning 5-0 against both Iran and Kyrgyzstan, yet losing 2-1 to Belarus. A 2-0 friendly reverse against Greece in February was another setback.

However, the former Soviet Union and Ukraine defender was not disheartened. "During the winter we played six good games and overall I am happy with how the lads looked," he said. "We are getting ready for the elite round and hope to arrive at full strength."

Qualifying round: Italy 1-2, Sweden 0-0, Lithuania 1-1 (Group 2 third place, best third-placed side in qualifying round)

Key players: Dmytro Fastov (goalkeeper, FC Dynamo Kyiv), Oleksandr Pikhalonok (midfielder, FC Shakhtar Donetsk), Rostyslav Taranukha (forward, FC Dynamo Kyiv)

Coach Thorlákur Árnason was taken aback when his troops came top of qualifying Group 10 in Russia, following up a 3-3 draw with Azerbaijan with victories over Slovakia and the hosts. "I did not expect we would win our group because it was a strong one, but we played well, everthing clicked and we scored a lot of goals," Árnason explained.

Iceland went down 2-1 and 3-0 at home to Norway in two friendly games in the run-up to the elite round, yet the coach is keeping his eye on the task at hand. "We have played much fewer friendlies than the other teams but there's nothing we can do about that now," he noted. "I am looking forward to a tricky group."

Qualifying round: Azerbajian 3-3, Slovakia 4-2, Russia 2-1 (Group 3 winners)

Key players: Albert Gudmunssson (forward, sc Heerenveen), Viktor Karl Einarsson (midfielder, AZ Alkmaar),  Darri Sigthórsson (defender, Valur Reykjavík)

In seven friendlies since the start of 2014, Latvia's only successes have been against Turkmenistan (4-0) and Russia (1-0), with Igors Stepanovs's squad conceding 16 goals in those matches – including losses to Belarus (5-4), Iran (1-0) and Finland (2-0) in Minsk, and defeats elsewhere by Lithuania (2-1) and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (4-1).

"We have significant problems with goalkeepers and defenders," admitted the former Arsenal FC defender. "So the best way for us to defend is to attack. We will gamble on our strengths going forward. Portugal are the favourites. Ukraine are strong and dangerous too, while the game against Iceland will be very interesting, because our senior teams have been drawn together in UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying."

Qualifying round: Northern Ireland 1-0, Turkey 0-1, Luxembourg 2-0 (Group 9 runners-up)

Key players: Devids Dobrecovs (midfielder, SK Liepājas Metalurgs), Ņikita Juhnevičs (midfielder, Šitika Futbola skola), Ričards Korzāns (forward, FK Spartaks Jurmala)