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Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 12:12:22 AM
Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 12:12:29 AM
by mike collett
NICE, France (Reuters) - World champions Spain will start their campaign for a third successive European Championship in a group with Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg, meaning an emotional trip back to Kiev for Vicente del Bosque's team who lifted the trophy there in 2012.
Spain will start their campaign with a home game against Macedonia and they will play their 10th and final qualifier in Ukraine in October, 2015.
Three-times champions Germany were grouped with three English-speaking sides from Ireland, Scotland and newcomers Gibraltar while the Netherlands, who lost to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, face the Czech Republic and Turkey as well as Latvia, Iceland and Kazakhstan.
Germany, seeking their first European title since 1996, face Scotland in their opening match at home on September 7.
Newboys Gibraltar will mark their entry into official European competition for the first time at home to Poland on the same night.
Their home games are being played in Faro, Portugal, as their UEFA-sanctioned stadium in Gibraltar will not be finished until the end of 2016.
Italy, runners-up to Spain in 2012, will meet Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta in Group H.
England, former World Cup winners but never European champions, play Switzerland, who England coach Roy Hodgson took to the 1994 World Cup in the United States, as well as Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino, who have lost all 56 qualifiers they have played since 1992.
With 24 teams taking part in the 2016 finals in France, the draw no longer offers the daunting barrier it once did for the middle-ranking countries.
France qualify automatically as hosts and 23 of UEFA's 54 member nations will qualify alongside them with the top two teams from each group assured of going through as well as the best third-placed finishers among the nine groups.
The remaining eight third-placed teams will play off to produce the other four finalists.
"Our history shows that we always qualify and beat these countries," Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal told reporters.
"With the system now, that not only the first, but the second and maybe the third shall qualify, I think we can do the job. I won't be in charge then of course because I am leaving after the World Cup, but I am sure we will be in the finals."
Spain coach Del Bosque reacted cautiously to the draw.
"The group is not as easy as it looks, and you have to respect every team in it," he told reporters.
"We face four teams from eastern Europe and the weather could have an influence.
"Ukraine look the most dangerous opponents but we have very happy memories of being in Kiev of course in 2012 and what has happened there has made me very sad.
"I hope and pray that the political situation will resolve itself as soon as possible,"
Politics had an influence on two of the pairings in the draw. Gibraltar were originally drawn in the same group as Spain but moved to another one because of political tensions between the two countries.
It was also agreed that Azerbaijan and Armenia would also be kept apart for political reasons, but they were also originally paired in the same group before Armenia were moved.
"I would have loved it if we could have stayed in the same group as Spain, and maybe that will happen one day," Gibraltar manager Allen Bula said.
"This is an historic day for us and now the reality has set in. What can we do realistically ? I think we must aim for the playoffs."
World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, the hosts in 2004, were drawn in Group I along with Denmark, Serbia, Armenia and Albania.
The qualifying competition, which lasts for 13 months, begins in September and ends in October 2015 with the playoffs scheduled for the following month.
A feature of the qualifying campaign will be seven "weeks of football" when matches will be played for six days running starting on a Thursday and running through to the following Tuesday.
UEFA president Michel Platini said on Saturday the "week of football" was brought in as a way of highlighting the international game again because it had been over-shadowed by club football for too long.
One ironic footnote to the draw was that Ireland and Scotland, the two nations who proposed the competition's expansion in 2007 as a way of making it easier for nations like them to qualify, were drawn in the same group along with Germany and Poland, co-hosts in 2012.
"I think it's the toughest group but it's an exciting one,"
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill told reporters.
"We have got Scotland, we have Poland who we have played in a recent friendly and whose recent efforts against England at Wembley were not too bad at all.
"I've been told Scotland and Ireland proposed the changes and so it is ironic they have ended up in the same group."
France will play 10 friendlies on the same nights as the competitive matches against the five teams in Portugal's group.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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