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UEFA has made many positive changes to European football in recent years. Admittedly the Champions League’s impending “Swiss Model” is nothing short of a power grab by the games elite. But there have been plenty of changes designed to give smaller nations more chance of featuring on the highest level.
The Europa Conference League was designed to give clubs from those smaller nations the best chance at playing top-tier continental football well into the new year. Throughout the first two instalments of the competition, we have seen quarterfinalists from countries such as Norway, Greece, Czech Republic, Poland, and Switzerland. And it isn’t just club football that has reaped the rewards.
Since the European Championships were expanded to accommodate 24 teams, plenty of lower-ranked nations have qualified. The likes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, and North Macedonia have all qualified. The UEFA Nations League has also given the continent’s tiniest nations an opportunity to qualify for the Euros, with the respective league winners battling it out for a shot at qualification.
Next summer’s European Championships are just around the corner. The competition will get underway next June in Germany and if you are someone who likes to visit betting sites, you’ll already know that the bookmakers currently make France and England the early 4/1 favorites for glory. Despite there being just a handful of games remaining in the qualification campaign, three of the continent’s minnows are still in with a hope of qualifying.
A 2-0 defeat away at ten-man Latvia in their most recent qualifier may well have dampened Armenia’s hopes of qualifying. But with two games remaining, they are still in with a chance of reaching the promised land next summer, mathematically at least. And perhaps we should have seen their upturn in fortunes coming after their impressive performance – albeit in a losing effort – against Turkey on their opening match day.
Despite slipping to a 2-1 defeat to their local rivals, the Armenians had plenty of opportunities to take a point from that contest, if not all three. They would make no mistake in their second game, dismantling Wales 4-2 in Cardiff with the experienced Lucas Zelarayán and talented young prodigy Grant-Leon Ranos both bagging braces. Add the talent of 23-year-old Krasnodar midfielder Eduard Spertsyan to those two, and it’s clear to see that Armenia’s stock is on the rise!
Unfortunately, their defeat in Riga, as well as a narrow defeat to Croatia has left them with it all to do. They must beat Wales at home and hope the Croats slip up on the road against Latvia. If they do not slip up, then Armenia must defeat Croatia in Zagreb and score at least two goals in the process.
Luxembourg have been steadily improving for several years now. With players such as record scorer Gerson Rodrigues alongside talented Germany-based youngsters Timothé Rupil, Mathias Olesen, Leandro Barreiro, and Eldin Dzogovic, a bright future is on the horizon for football in the country. And the current European qualification campaign may very well be the start of that.
A goalless draw in their opening game against Slovakia sets the tone. Then three consecutive victories, one at home against Iceland and back-to-back away victories against Bosnia and Liechtenstein left fans dreaming of a first-ever major tournament. However, a spanner has been thrown in the works after they fell to a late defeat at home to the Slovakians, as well as a combined 15-0 drubbing in the games home and away against 2016 champions Portugal.
Those results have left Luxembourg needing favours. They need Slovakia to lose to both Iceland – who themselves have slim hopes of qualifying – and Portugal. Should that happen, Luxembourg would need to defeat Liechtenstein at home and Iceland away to progress.
While both Luxembourg and Armenia have been impressive during the current qualifying campaign, there has been one nation that has shone brighter than the rest. That nation is Kazakhstan. For years, the Kazakhs were somewhat of a laughingstock in the European football scene, with many seeing the long flight to Astana somewhat pointless for a guaranteed three points.
However, those three points are no longer guaranteed, as Denmark found out on matchday two. Despite being 2-0 down with just under 20 minutes remaining, the Kazakhs reeled off three goals – with the latter two coming in the 86th and 89th minute – to secure a shocking victory. Abat Aymbetov’s long-range winner was a genuine Puskas Award contender, and the impressive results have kept flowing.
1-0 victories home and away against Northern Ireland left them with a great chance of qualification. The recent 2-1 victory away at Finland reignited their hopes after a disappointing defeat in the reverse fixture against Denmark.
They need Slovenia to not beat Denmark to set up a crunch match between themselves and the Slovenians in Ljubljana with a spot at Euro 2024 on the line. Should Slovenia get the victory in Copenhagen, Kazakhstan would still need to beat Slovenia on the final matchday while hoping Northern Ireland can pick up at least a point against Denmark in Belfast.