Of the nine qualifying groups for Euro 2016, eight proceeded in the generally accepted fashion. Yes, there were a few surprises here and there — the Netherlands didn't even make the playoffs — but generally speaking, things weren't too silly. Even the Dutch ended up behind three competent-to-decent teams, while the minnows by and large — by and small? — all did their minnowy thing.
The ninth group, group F, was all over the place.
That Claudio Ranieri ended this season as the title-winning manager of Leicester was a massive surprise in its own right, but it was given an extra layer of "wait, what?" by the fact that Ranieri made about as big a mess of his previous gig as any manager could have. He was in charge of Greece at the start of qualifying for Euro 2016; he wasn't by the end, after two losses, home and away, to the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands.
Though the Faroes managed to avoid any proper hammerings in any of their other games, they lost all eight, meaning that the other, non-Greece teams in the group suddenly all had a six-point advantage on Ranieri's profoundly un-merry men. (Not that they were his for long.) So Northern Ireland and Romania — who might have been expecting to struggle with Greece for qualification — ended up looking fairly comfortable at the top of the group, while Hungary nicked third ahead of Finland. Greece eventually finished an ignominious last.
All of which means it's a little difficult to know what to make of the qualifying campaign. For example, it's undoubtedly impressive that Romania were one of only four teams — along with England, Austria and Italy — to make it through their qualifying campaign undefeated. Yet the team only managed five wins, and four of those came against the Faroes and the collapsing Greeks; that lot plus five draws only amounted to a second place finish.
Similarly, conceding a mere two goals in those ten games is moderately amazing, and the best defensive record of any team in qualifying. But this was a remarkably low-scoring group overall — winners Northern Ireland scored 16, Romania and Hungary 11 and the other three teams didn't even break double figures. Only Group I had fewer goals, and that group also had fewer teams and so fewer games.
If we want to put the best possible gloss on this, we might presume that from the ruins of Old Greece have emerged New Greece; a team so ruthless and heterodox in their defense that it can take the tournament by storm, stifle its way to the final and make off with the trophy. We can even stretch to a further parallel: Greeks played hosts Portugal in the opening game of Euro 2004, and beat them; Romania are France's opponents on June 10 ...
Sadly, this almost certainly isn't the case. Romania will be defensively tight because they don't really have much choice, and they will likely be dour as a natural consequence. Napoli's Vlad Chiriches is the defensive leader, and while that prospect might amuse Tottenham fans, he's pretty decent in his national colors. He'll be joined at the back by Dragos Grigore; the two central defenders played every minute of the qualifying campaign. They'll try to eke out draws against France — those of you that remember their 0-0 draw in Euro 2008 may want to make alternative plans/drink heavily — and Switzerland, then beat Albania, then see how far into the tournament they can progress without any goals happening anywhere.