Euro 2016
53 teams are involved in qualifying for the finals in France in next summer AFP

The qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is reaching its final throes, with just a handful of group stage fixtures left to decide which teams will appear at the new-look tournament next summer in France. While many of the usual suspects are in a strong position to qualify, some of Europe's lesser lights are also shining brighter this time round.

After Uefa expanded the tournament from its usual 16-team format to 24, many expected smaller nations to reach at least the play-off round, but some countries have performed above expectations to such an extent that they probably would have qualified even without the expansion.

Here, IBTimes UK take a look at five of those teams that are edging ever closer to reaching the promised land....


Chris Coleman deserves enormous credit for the job he has done with his native Wales since replacing late friend and former teammate Gary Speed as manager in January 2012. While their qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup ended in a disappointing fifth-place finish behind Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Scotland, this time around his team have been hugely impressive and currently top Group B, having yet to endure a single defeat.

With the formidable Ashley Williams marshalling a frugal defence, Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey dictating play from midfield and the indomitable Gareth Bale providing a constant source of goals, Wales have taken four points from Belgium on their way to leapfrogging England in the latest Fifa world rankings.

Following their recent 1-0 win in Cyprus, secured via a stunning Bale header with just nine minutes remaining, another three points for Coleman's side against Israel at the Millennium Stadium on 6 September would secure their place at a major tournament for the first time since a 17-year-old Pele ended their 1958 World Cup campaign at the quarter-final stage.

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale has scored six goals for Wales during their current qualifying campaign Getty


While Wales' significant achievements have stolen much of the qualifying limelight in the build-up to Euro 2016, Iceland's latest impressive campaign is deserving of equal praise when you consider the size of the country and the limited resources they have on offer. Having amassed just four points in their quest to reach Euro 2012, only an agonising 2-0 aggregate play-off defeat to Croatia in 2013 denied them a place as the smallest country to ever to reach a World Cup.

Rather than allow that heartbreak to erode their spirit, however, the former minnows have suffered just one defeat in seven qualifying matches and currently lead Group A with a two-point advantage over the Czech Republic. Two victories over a Netherlands side currently in freefall have made people really sit up and take notice. Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson scored both goals in a 2-0 triumph in Reykjavik last Autumn and he proved the Oranje's nemesis once again last night as his 51st-minute strike secured another famous win.

With only Kazakhstan, Latvia and Turkey – the group's bottom three sides – left to play and an eight-point buffer over the Dutch, Lars Lagerback and co look a safe bet to reach their first major tournament.

Iceland - AFP
Gylfi Sigurdsson celebrates his winning goal against the Netherlands in Amsterdam AFP


Alongside Roy Hodgson's England, Slovakia are the only other nation in Euro 2016 qualifying that boast a 100% winning record. That statistic becomes all the more impressive when you consider that their group includes Spain, as well as 2012 co-hosts Ukraine.

In their six games during the current campaign so far, Jan Kozak's men have scored 13 goals and conceded just three, with a 2-1 win over the reigning European champions in Zilina unquestionably their most impressive result. How they fare in the return fixture this weekend, and indeed in the following match against Ukraine three days later, is likely to go a long way to determining their fate, with those two sides three and six points adrift of the leaders respectively.

Slovakia have reached one major finals as an independent nation. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a team managed by Vladimir Weiss qualified for the round of 16 courtesy of a memorable 3-2 win over an underwhelming Italy before falling to the Netherlands.

Martin Skrtel and Marek Hamsik are among Slovakia's key players as they bid to reach France AFP


Admittedly placed in one of the weakest qualifying groups, Romania have, like Iceland, done well to banish painful memories of World Cup play-off failure to put themselves in a strong position to reach their first European Championship since 2008.

A 4-2 aggregate defeat to an unremarkable Greece team was a disappointing end to an otherwise positive campaign that saw Tricolorii fend off competition from Hungary and Turkey for the right to end up second behind the Netherlands.

A fast start and retribution over the Greeks was earned with a narrow victory in Piraeus last September, and draws with Hungary and Northern Ireland are the only two occasions on which they have been denied victory. With just seven goals they are tied with Portugal for the fewest strikes from by a table-topping team, although that has been offset by a staunch rearguard that have conceded just once – Balázs Dzsudzsák's late equaliser in the 1-1 draw at home to Hungary – in six outings.

Ciprian Marica's goal helped Romania get revenge over Greece in September 2014 AFP

Northern Ireland

Perched just one solitary point behind Romania in Group F are Northern Ireland, who prior to this campaign had won a combined total of three matches during their failed attempts to make Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

Michael O'Neill never experienced the cut and thrust of a major tournament during his 31-cap international career, yet victories in the upcoming qualifying double-header away to the Faroe Islands and against Hungary in Belfast will see him guide them to their first tournament since a group stage exit at the 1986 World Cup.

With five goals to his name, Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty is level with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thomas Muller in the scoring charts, and only two behind Poland's Robert Lewandowski. O'Neill will be relying on the 27-year-old former Palermo substitute to maintain his performance levels for one final push after recovering from a knee ligament injury.

Kyle Lafferty
Kyle Lafferty's lack of first-team football at club level has not affected his performances for Northern Ireland AFP