When Germany won the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil during mid-July, there was a sense that international football needed a break and several established footballers announced their retirement from playing for their respective countries. Yet within the first week of September and with some of the European leagues barely completing their first round of fixtures, qualification for the European football championship tournament of 2016 has already begun. Not surprisingly, the opening series of fixtures have produced some unexpected results.
For example, the Netherlands team were beaten 2-1 by a Czech Republic team which failed to qualify for the World Cup. The Dutch were unbeaten in Brazil and during the qualifying campaign and were only eliminated from the tournament by Argentina on penalties in the semi-finals. A question remains as to whether some of their players were mentally and physically prepared for such a demanding fixture so early in the season.
In the case of Germany, a 2-1 win was claimed against Scotland yet the Scots had threatened to spoil the home celebration after equalising during the second half and causing the World Cup winners some concern. Under the management of Gordon Strachan, Scotland have improved significantly as an international team and were perhaps the fresher of the two squads having benefitted from a longer rest. Germany were weakened by the international retirement of a few players, notably Philipp Lahm, and were perhaps more vulnerable than anticipated on the night.
In some instances, it was a case of back to normal as Spain and Italy enjoyed relatively comfortable victories and it is worth noting that both national teams were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage. Similarly, England produced an improved display to win 2-0 in Switzerland while Greece may have paid for their World Cup exertions when beaten 1-0 at home by non-qualifiers Romania.
However, such is the qualification system for Euro 2016 that an early defeat at this stage is not necessarily a disaster. At least two teams from each of the nine groups qualify for the French tournament and then the best third placed team. Play-offs determine the remaining four participants joining the host country in the 24 team competition.
Such is the composition of some of the groups, a degree of complacency may have already arisen for some of the better teams and without being disrespectful to several weaker national squads, there is the example of apparent Switzerland and England dominance in a Group E also containing Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and San Marino.
Yet, it has often been stated that there are no longer any easy football games at an international level and this week has proved that the more successful teams can be exposed if they are not mentally attuned for the contest, a factor which does offer home for those teams regarded as European minnows.
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