The 13th European Championship Finals was again going to be hosted by two countries, for the second time. Netherlands and Belgium did well hosting the 2000 tournament, and Austria and Switzerland were chosen to welcome the other 14 qualifiers.
To arrive at 14 qualifiers, the zz teams were squeezed into 7 groups. This made for some countries playing 14 qualifying games. There were 6 groups of 7 and one of 8. What had changed this time round was the removal of play-offs so the top two qualified automatically.
Group A was the group with 8 nations, including the first appearance in a European qualifying competition for Kazakhstan. Armenia and Azerbaijan provided the canon-fodder so really it was between 3 countries for 2 places with 2 others trying to make an impression. Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Finland and Belgium were the teams contesting.
Finland surprised everyone by winning in Poland and then holding Portugal to a draw. Poland then won their first battle against Portugal. They looked to have ruined all that good work when they lost in Armenia, but when Portugal failed to win there either they were back in it. Poland then grabbed a draw in Lisbon and in the end Portugal drew too many matches and Poland won the group by 1pt from Portugal. Serbia were 3pts back in third, beating Finland on the head-to-head.
GROUP WINNERS: Poland
SECOND PLACE: Portugal
Group B contained the two finalists from 2000, Italy and France as well as Scotland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and Faroe Islands. Italy started with a shock when Lithuania managed to grab a point in Naples, and then Scotland went to Lithuania and won, having thrashed the Faroes. Then came the result of the group for Scotland. In October 2006 France arrived at Hampden Park and Gary Caldwell scored the only goal of the game to give Scotland a famous 1-0 win. France had just beaten Italy before arriving in Glasgow, but then both sides got into their stride. Scotland lost in Ukraine and by the time Italy arrived at Hampden in November 2007, they needed to win. Luca Toni gave Italy an early lead but then Barry Ferguson equalised in the second half. The game looked to be heading for a draw but a minute into injury time and Christian Panucci scored a dramatic winner for the Italians. That win gave Italy the group with France 3pts back. Scotland were third just 2pts behind the French. They had come close to pulling off a shock and had pushed France close.
Group C had the holders, Greece who would be up against arch rivals, Turkey. Norway, Bosnia, Moldova, Hungary and Malta were their opponents. The Greeks, shock winners in 2004 won only dropped 5pts. They drew 2-2 in Oslo and then were thumped 1-4 at home by Turkey, which was payback for Greece winning in Turkey. Turkey surprisingly lost in Bosnia and were even held in Malta, but eventually earned 2nd place, 1pt from Norway. It was really just between Greece, Turkey and Norway and few were surprised with the final placings
GROUP WINNERS: Greece
SECOND PLACE: Turkey
After Group B contained the finalists from 2000, Group D had the finalists from 1996. Czech Republic and Germany were drawn against each other in a group with Republic if Ireland, Slovakia, Wales, Cyprus and San Marino. Germany and the Czechs won in each other’s backyard, and the Czechs away form was really impressive as the only goal they conceded was in Dublin in a 1-1 draw. Czechs won the group by 2pts from Germany who were held at home by Wales and also held away to the Republic of Ireland and a real shock as they failed to win in Cyprus. They did thrash San Marino, 13-0 as Podolski scored 4. These two were far ahead of the rest, as the Irish finished 10pts back in 3rd. The only real high point for Wales, apart from the spirited draw in Germany, was a trip to Slovakia where they won 5-2.
GROUP WINNERS: Czech Republic
SECOND PLACE: Germany
England were drawn in Group E and they were under new management after Sven-Goran Eriksson had resigned. His assistant, Steve McLaren took over and hopes were high in a group which contained Andorra, Croatia, Estonia, Israel, Macedonia and Russia. England knew the games against Russia and Croatia were going to be important. England began with a 5-0 win at home to Andorra with Peter Crouch and Jermaine Defoe scoring twice. Crouch was again on target in a 1-0 win in Macedonia. The Macedonians then turned up at Old Trafford and gained a valuable 0-0 draw. Russia had dropped points at home Israel too. England then faced their first test as they travelled to Zagreb to meet Croatia. Eduardo gave the home side the lead just after the hour. Barely had England had time to react to this when a back-pass from Gary Neville hit a clump of earth in Paul Robinson’s penalty area and the England keeper missed his kick and turned round to watch the ball trickle over the line into the goal. England lost 0-2 and things were now going to be tough. Worse was to follow as they went to Israel and were held 0-0. But then things turned in England’s favour as they had 3-0 win each against Andorra, Estonia, Israel and then Russia. After another 3-0 win at home to Estonia, they then went to Moscow. Rooney gave England a first half lead but then 2 goals in 4 minutes in the second half saw Russia gain a crucial 2-1 win. England then faced Croatia at home, needing to win to qualify. 14 minutes in and they were 0-2 down. Lampard and Crouch brought them back level before Petric scored the winner. England had failed to qualify as Croatia and Russia finished 1st and 2nd. Steve McLaren lost his job.
GROUP WINNERS: Croatia
SECOND PLACE: Russia
Group F had Spain and Sweden as the two sides expected to dominate. Denmark and Iceland were also in there along with Northern Ireland, Latvia and Liechtenstein. Latvia had qualified for Euro 2004, their first appearance in a major tournament, but they made little impression here winning just 4 matches. Spain won every home match, conceding just 1 goal. Away from home they were held in Iceland, but their biggest shock was in September 2006 when they travelled to Windsor Park. Xavi gave Spain an early lead, but David Healy soon equalised. Early in the second half and David Villa then put Spain back in front, but again Healy equalised. Then with 10 minutes to go, Healy completed his hat-trick and Northern Ireland had repeated their achievement in the World Cup in 1982 to beat Spain. Healy then scored another hat-trick in Liechtenstein and in all, scored 13 goals in a campaign which saw the Irish score a total of just 17 goals. Northern Ireland also beat Sweden and Denmark at home to produce their best qualifying performances for years. Spain won the group with Sweden in 2nd, and the Irish claimed 3rd place from Denmark.
GROUP WINNERS: Spain
SECOND PLACE: Sweden
Group G contained Netherlands, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Albanial Slovenia and Luxembourg. It seemed the weakest of the groups. Romania won it losing just once, in Bulgaria and drawing in Rotterdam. Other than that, they won every game. The Dutch were second although they had a shock, losing in Belarus, but they only conceded once at home and beat Bulgaria by 1pt. The Bulgarians too had a good home record but defeat in Amsterdam ultimately cost them
GROUP WINNERS: Romania
SECOND PLACE: Netherlands
It had seemed a long qualifying campaign, mainly due to the number of matches each country had to play, but we had our qualifiers to join Austria and Switzerland in the finals.
Poland, Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Romania, Netherlands.