Home Nations looking good in race to join Euro 2016 contenders

England and their Home Nations rivals are looking good to qualify for Euro 2016.
England and their Home Nations rivals are looking good to qualify for Euro 2016.
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England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all maintained their charge towards Euro 2016 qualification with victories in the latest round of matches while the Republic of Ireland are still in contention after a draw against Poland.

Expanding the tournament from 16 to 24 teams has widened the net for qualification-hopefuls and the home nations look on course to take advantage after an encouraging opening half to the campaign.

Here, Press Association Sport takes a closer look at their prospects after five games played.

ENGLAND

The Story So Far

England’s 4-0 win over Lithuania on Friday made it five wins out of five for Roy Hodgson’s men, who have opened up a six-point lead at the top of Group E. A 2-0 victory in Switzerland, England’s major rivals for qualification, was the pick of the bunch and, even at the half-way stage, the Three Lions look to have one foot in the finals.

Fixtures to come

Slovenia (a), San Marino (a), Switzerland (h), Estonia (h), Lithuania (a)

Key match

England may already have qualified by the time they host Switzerland in September but a positive result at Wembley should ensure they win the group. Hodgson’s side will also want to at least maintain their lead over second-placed Slovenia when they visit Maribor next time out.

Verdict

After a disappointing World Cup, England have been ruthless in this qualifying campaign. The low level of opposition will keep the doubters doubting but some fluent performances, and particularly the win in Switzerland, have at least afforded some room for optimism.

SCOTLAND

The Story So Far

A narrow 2-1 defeat away to Germany in the opening game seemed to inject belief into Gordon Strachan’s side, who are level on points with the world champions and only a point behind table-toppers Poland in Group D. Wins against Georgia, Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar, as well as a draw in Warsaw, have put Scotland in a strong position to qualify for their first major finals since 1998.

Fixtures to come

Republic of Ireland (a), Georgia (a), Germany (h), Poland (h), Gibraltar (a)

Key match

Home games against Germany and Poland may be decisive in ordering the top three but before those, Scotland must negotiate a pivotal trip to fourth-placed Republic of Ireland, who are only two points back and unbeaten in Dublin so far.

Verdict

A tough draw had many supposing Scotland’s best chance of qualification would be via third place and a play-off but the Tartan Army are gathering momentum under Strachan and with key games at Hampden Park to come, automatic progress remains a distinct possibility.

WALES

The Story So Far

Wales are two points clear at the top of Group B and unbeaten after three wins and two draws. A 3-0 victory away to second-placed Israel on Saturday backed up a valuable draw in Belgium and leaves Chris Coleman’s men well-placed not only to qualify, but to progress as group winners.

Fixtures to come

Belgium (h), Cyprus (a), Israel (h), Bosnia-Hercegovina (a), Andorra (h)

Key match

Wales’ next game sees them host Belgium, who were favourites to win the group before the campaign began. Belgium have a game in hand and take on Israel on Tuesday night, but victory over the World Cup quarter-finalists in Cardiff would leave Wales on the brink of automatic qualification.

Verdict

An excellent opening half to the campaign has Wales fans dreaming of a first major finals since the 1958 World Cup. The question now is can they handle the pressure of being favourites rather than underdogs? If Gareth Bale can keep scoring - he has four goals in five so far - there seems no reason why not.

NORTHERN IRELAND

The Story So Far

A superb opening victory in Hungary proved a springboard for further wins against the Faroe Islands, Greece and Finland as Northern Ireland sit second in Group F, one point behind Romania to who they lost 2-0 to in Bucharest.

Fixtures to come

Romania (h), Faroe Islands (a), Hungary (h), Greece (h), Finland (a)

Key match

A win at home to Romania in their next match would see Michael O’Neill’s side jump above their opponents into first place but the key to remaining in the top two may be avoiding defeat at home to Hungary in September, who are four points behind in third.

Verdict

It’s a case of so far so good for Northern Ireland, who have taken full advantage of a kind draw to put themselves in touching distance of their first ever European Championship finals.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

The Story So Far

Draws against Poland and Germany, combined with wins over Georgia and Gibraltar, took the sting out of an away defeat to Scotland and means Martin O’Neill’s men are fourth and only two points adrift of the top three.

Fixtures to come

Scotland (h), Gibraltar (a), Georgia (h), Germany (h), Poland (a)

Key match

The home match against Scotland next up may well prove crucial to the Republic’s hopes of qualification. Victory in Dublin would see them jump above their opponents but defeat would open up a five-point gap that may be too large to close.

Verdict

Despite some strong results, a difficult group means the odds are still against the Republic of Ireland to qualify. Three of their remaining games are at home, however, and if they can maintain their unbeaten record in Dublin against Scotland and Germany, they will have a good chance.