The eyes of European football on Sunday turn to Dublin for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw with 12 nations handed the extra incentive of home advantage should they make it to the 24-team tournament in two years time for the first time.
Amsterdam, Baku, Bilbao, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Dublin, Glasgow, London, Munich, Rome and Saint Petersburg are the 12 cities that will host matches across the continent to celebrate the 60th anniversary since the first European Championships.
The draw in the Irish capital (1100GMT) will see UEFA’s 55 nations split into 10 groups with the top two in each section making up the first 20 teams to qualify.
However, a maximum of two of the hosts nations can be paired together in each group to give all 12 the chance of experiencing a home tournament with a guarantee of at least two home games in the group stages.
England stand to gain most from home advantage with both semi-finals and the final, as well as three group games and a last 16 tie set to be played at Wembley.
The Three Lions have enjoyed arguably their best year since winning the World Cup on home soil in 1966 as Gareth Southgate’s side reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia and then beat Spain and Croatia to reach the inaugural finals of the Nations League next summer.
Southgate is well aware of the extra inspiration of playing in a major tournament at home as he was part of the England side that reached the semi-finals at Euro ’96.
“What the players are going to experience is close to what we experienced in 1996 and in ’66. That’s incredible for everybody,” said the England manager.
The Wembley factor could be key to ending England’s half century without winning a major tournament with Southgate’s exciting young squad having re-energised a nation’s support.
“I think the most pleasing thing of the year has been the connection with the fans and being able to share brilliant experiences with them,” added Southgate after exacting some measure of revenge for defeat to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals in a thrilling Nations League group finale earlier this month.
“I can’t remember the new Wembley like that. We have exciting players that give them excitement.”
England, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands are guaranteed to end up in a five-team group to free them up from qualifiers for the Nations League finals in June.
– ‘Germany will qualify’ –
World champions France, Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Poland and Spain make up the rest of the top seeds, as Germany’s relegation from their Nations League group with the French and Dutch means they slip into pot two.
After also crashing out at the first hurdle at the World Cup for the first time in 80 years, Germany coach Joachim Loew needs to bounce back in qualifying with Munich playing host to five matches, including a quarter-final.
But Loew has no doubt the four-time world champions will qualify.
“Of course we would have wished for a different set-up for the draw, but we face the situation and accept it,” said Loew.
“I’m looking forward to next year. We have a team with good prospects and we’ll qualify for the European Championships.”
For those who fail to qualify in the top two of their group, there may still be the safety net of a playoff via the Nations League.
The final four places will be decided in a semi-final and final between the top four sides from the four tiers of the Nations League that do not qualify automatically in March 2020.