THE BLOG

Change Is Good: Euro 2016 Qualifiers Benefit From Expansion

17/10/2014 16:16 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The expansion to 24 teams for the European Championships has made the qualifiers, finally, more competitive and exciting.

We have seen a different edge to the opening rounds of qualification for Euro 2016. Some of the smaller nations are picking up wins and topping their groups whilst some of the big nations are falling to teams they were heavily favoured to beat. A big reason behind this sudden change is nothing to do with the format of the qualifiers.

Next year's tournament in France will be the first tournament to feature 24 nations. Considering that number is almost half of the registered nations for UEFA, it was seen by some as unnecessary. The worry would be that it would fatigue players after a long season and make games less competitive with 'smaller' nations qualifying.

This new format may be good or bad for the competition next summer in France but what we do know is that the expansion has created an interesting new dynamic in qualifying.

The added spot in qualifying has given the juggernauts of European football an easier route to the finals. They now have a safety net. Hypothetically if they win all their home games, as expected, and beat the bottom two lower ranked teams away from home it would give them at least 21 points in a 6 team group. For the tournament in 2012, 21 points was enough to finish at least second in the group and first in some groups. That would mean qualification despite losing to your closest rivals.

What this means is a defeat here or there will not result in top players being resigned to a summer sat next to Adrian Chiles in the pundits chair. They could maybe afford to have a slip. Of course, players and managers would never admit that they know they can afford a loss, but it would be in the back of their minds.

Just underneath them, teams who are usually the challengers would qualify. For the last Euros in 2012 Turkey, who were semi-finalists in 2008, would have qualified as would have Bosnia-Herzegovina. England would have even qualified for Euro 2008.

It could be seen as unfair and just a money making scheme to make it easier for the big teams with the big stars to play in UEFA's big event. Some will also feel it will diminish the competition, especially in the group stages, with mismatch contests between world beaters and the plucky minnows who sneak in.

But all this has only added to what must be the main reason why the level of excitement in the qualifiers has intensified. The lower second to third tier teams now have a real chance of qualifying.

This glimmer of hope has brought the best out of them. It also applies to teams ranked way down in the fourth tier have been challenging some of the big boys as their determination to make a finals increases.

Just look at the results this weekend as testament to this theory. Holland have struggled in their games, losing two away games to possible challengers Czech Republic and Iceland. The later would have been a long way from qualifying under the old system. But with a win against the top dogs of the group added to a win against Turkey, Iceland are within touching distance already to make a push for the play-offs. As for Holland, they have plenty of games, two of them at home against the teams they lost to, to make up the deficit and qualify.

Spain have been subject to this kind of defeat already, in Slovakia, and Germany have been run close by Scotland before losing to Poland and drawing against the Republic of Ireland. Italy and Russia have also been matched by teams like Malta and Moldova, although Italy did manage to scrape past their neighbours.

To most fans and pundits, especially where England is concerned, the qualifiers have always been seen as a bit of a drag. Matches against the likes of San Marino and Andorra are seen as a waste of time. A glorified training match.

There usually only seems to be a real battle for top spot between two teams and maybe another if the draw produces an interesting group due to the seeding. But that is only a small amount of intrigue within a six or five team group. This new format changes things.

When the decision was to make the tournament bigger it was meant to give other countries a chance to play in major tournament.

What we didn't expect was for the qualifiers to become something more than a formality. The big teams may still qualify with ease, (four more wins, all their home games, should be enough to see England qualify), but the competition for those extra places has brought life back into what was quite a dull part of international football.