When the European championships contained just 16 teams, it was widely regarded as the hardest international tournament to qualify for, let alone win. Thanks to the expanded format introduced for Euro 2016, eight more nations will be represented at next year’s finals in France.
Naturally, some, including Off The Post, expressed concern that the expanded format would make qualifying for the tournament all-too straightforward for the stronger nations, but thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Halfway through qualifying, only two teams -- England and Slovakia -- have perfect records, while the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium find other nations at the top of their respective groups. Even more shocking: we find Greece, a winner of this competition in 2004, at the bottom of what looks to be the easiest group -- yet the World Cup round-of-o6 finisher finds itself one point behind the Faroe Islands (yup, you read that right).
Even if Euro 2016 qualifying hasn’t been as straightforward as anyone imagined, most of the traditional powers will still qualify with ease, thanks to the expanded format. But the biggest beneficiary of all, assuming it can get its act together in the final five games, will no doubt be the Netherlands. The third-place finisher at last summer’s World Cup finds itself third in Group A, five points behind Iceland in second, and six points behind the Czech Republic in first.
As a reminder, the top two teams and the best third-place finisher from each group automatically qualifies for Euro 2016, with the remaining third-place teams entering a two-game playoff against each other. So third-place is not necessarily a death sentence, although it is really poor considering the strength of the group and the Netherlands’ tradition at major tournaments.
But it isn’t just European Championship qualifying: the Dutch have been awful almost every time they’ve played together (barring a 6-0 mauling of Latvia) since Guus Hiddink took over for Louis van Gaal following the World Cup. In his second spell as national team coach, Hiddink has endured the worst start in Dutch history, with two wins, four losses, one draw and 11 goals conceded in his opening seven games in charge in all competitions.
The worst part about the Netherlands’ Euro 2016 qualifying campaign is that the quality of the team’s play has actually decreased since a late 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in the opener in early September. Indeed, Hiddink’s men were very, very lucky to come away from Saturday’s home clash against Turkey with a point, thanks to a tame Wesley Sneijder shot that deflected off Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s head with just a few minutes remaining.
Perhaps more worrying for the Dutch is the fact that Hiddink himself doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do about his team’s poor form. "Of course, we will succeed even if I'm not sure yet how," Hiddink said in his post-game press conference. Instead, he tried to put a positive spin on grabbing a point at home to a team it may be forced to beat in Istanbul in order to qualify for Euro 2016: "We wanted to beat Turkey but at the end of the qualifying competition it could yet prove to be a very important point."
More than a few of his compatriots have already given up on the 68-year-old. Way back in November, Ronald de Boer, who played under Hiddink during the 1998 World Cup when the Dutch finished fourth, said: “I don’t really think he has a game plan.” After Saturday’s poor display, Netherlands legend Johan Cruyff wrote in his column for De Telegraf: "There have to be changes and fast because this football hurts the eyes. We don't have anything and I wonder when they will finally sound the alarm."
With Euro 2016 qualifying already half over, and with tough clashes against Iceland, Turkey (away) and the Czech Republic all coming up in quick succession this summer, now might be a very good time for the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) to sound the alarm.