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Home nations seek Euro glory

08 October 2015, 06:58

Berlin - Wales and Northern Ireland are set to give British football a boost by sealing qualification for Euro 2016 this week, joining England at next summer's tournament in France.

For both, it will be a first European Championship final, and for Wales their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

Wales - playing in Bosnia-Herzegovina Saturday followed by a game against minnows Andorra in Cardiff Tuesday - need just a point to go through from Group B.

Northern Ireland in Group F meanwhile need a win in either of their two remaining games, at home to Greece and away to Finland.

Scotland could yet make it the full quartet of qualifiers from the four Home Nations if they can clinch third spot in Group D and then survive the play-offs.

Not since the 1958 World Cup have England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland played together at a major tournament.

In fact three nations from the British Isles (which also includes the Republic of Ireland) have not competed in the same tournament since England, Scotland and Ireland appeared at the 1990 World Cup finals.

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Wales under coach Chris Coleman have emerged as one of the real surprises of the qualifiers and have risen to an unprecedented eighth in the FIFA world rankings.

They have lost only once in the past 13 matches and in June took a major step towards France with a 1-0 win against highly-fancied Belgium.

"The heat is on, the pressure is on, and this is where you find things out about yourself. We're good enough and strong enough to handle it and we've got to do that," Coleman said.

Real Madrid star Gareth Bale is undoubtedly the stand-out performer in a side with decent Premier League players including Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey although hardly filled with household names.

Bale has been involved in eight of Wales' nine goals in the competition - scoring six of them with two assists - but says success is down to squad unity.

"We've been together for a long time and we're such a close-knit group," he said this week.

"We've always had the belief to do it, it's just putting those performances together in a string of games. We've managed to do that and there is not far to go."

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Excitement is also mounting in Northern Ireland, who last qualified for a major tournament at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Coach Michael O'Neill has a squad of unsung heroes personified by Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty who with seven of his side's 12 goals in the campaign is only behind Bayern Munich duo Robert Lewandowski (10 for Poland) and Thomas Mueller (eight for Germany) in the qualifying goalscoring chart.

Lafferty, who shares seven goals with Wayne Rooney (England), Artem Dzyuba (Russia) and Edin Dzeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina), is suspended for Thursday's encounter with Greece, when a win would clinch qualification for O'Neill's men.

"If we get a point, it's not disastrous," O'Neill said, whose side is already guaranteed a play-off spot.

"We get another bite against Finland on Sunday. The worst possible scenario is another bite in the play-offs. If we don't get to the finals, we can only blame ourselves."

UEFA's decision to extend the number of finalist from 16 to 24 has undoubtedly helped minnows such as Northern Ireland.

"If you look around the groups now, and I am sure UEFA will see it, there are countries who have never had the opportunity before," he said.

"I think UEFA should be applauded for it. We are sitting here on the brink of qualification, but Iceland are already there!"

Scotland, who take on Poland at Hampden Park Thursday, could also yet benefit. But Gordon Strachan's side need four points from their remaining two games - with Gibraltar last up - and hope that Ireland lose their last two matches.

"I expect us to be in France," defender Russell Martin said. "I believe that 100 percent and I'm sure everyone in the squad would tell you the same."



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