From Italy's undefeated performance to Croatia's last-minute leap into the second place slot, Group H was one of the more exciting chapters of the 2016 European Championship qualifying competition. Italy and Croatia qualify for Euro 2016 and will be headed to France next spring to compete in the prestigious UEFA tournament. Third-placers Norway, meanwhile, will look to win their seat in Euro 2016 with a strong playoff performance. Other group members-Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Malta-are headed home after failing to qualify.
Italy's Surprise Success Streak
To understand Italy's success story in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, we need to look back at last summer's 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Though that tournament ended with Germany's national soccer team winning their fourth WC title, surprises and upsets still abounded throughout. Three of the biggest and most respected football teams on the planet-Spain, Italy, and England-all bowed out of the tournament after dismal performances in the group stage.
All three of those teams have now officially bounced back
with the qualifying rounds of the 2016 European Championship. England were the big story of the event, going 10 wins for 10 games in Group E. But Spain snagged nine wins to keep the dream of three consecutive Euro titles alive, and Italy joined England, Romania, and Austria as the only undefeated squads in the competition.
Italy bombed out of the 2014 World Cup partially because they were offensively weak. Indeed, the football team only managed a total of two goals in their three group stage fixtures last summer, both of them coming within 15 minutes of each other in Italy's tournament-opening match with England. Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli provided the goals.
During the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Italy still weren't hugely impressive from an offensive perspective. The team only tallied a total of 16 goals in the competition-less than half of Poland's high water mark of 33. Italy's top scorer for the qualifiers was Southampton striker Graziano Pelle, who only managed three goals in Group H play. Three players (Antonio Candreva, Giorgio Chiellini, and Eder) scored two points apiece. Italy's other goals were either one-off scores or own goals.
Marchisio and Balotelli, meanwhile, were non-factors. Marchisio played in four qualifying games but has been dealing with injury problems as of late. Balotelli, on the other hand, hasn't made a single appearance with the Italian national soccer team since the World Cup.
Bottom line, Italy lack a clear offensive star at the moment, something that could make it challenging for the soccer team to make an impression at next year's European Championship. Poland have Robert Lewandowski; England have Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck; Germany have Thomas Muller; even Spain, who lost most of their best players to retirement last year, have a breakout star in the form of Paco Alcacer. The lack of a clear offensive lynchpin raises doubts about how far the Italian national side can go in Euro 2016.
Croatia Bamboozle Norway
Italy may have strung together an undefeated record in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, but arguably the most exciting story in Group H was the Croatian national football team sweeping past Norway on the final day of competition.
Croatia, as the pot two draw for Group H, were always expected to finish second in the group. That prediction approved particularly apt after a March fixture where the Croatian side beat Norway 5-1. But Norway had been gaining on Croatia ever since and had actually beaten the football team in a September 6th home game. For a moment, it looked like the Norwegian squad would surge to only their second-ever European Championship appearance.
But a tough bit of final-day scheduling put Norway in an away game against Italy, which they lost 2-1. That gave Croatia a chance to move into second place, with a win against Malta. Now, Norway will have to contend for a Euro 2016 spot via the playoffs. Croatia, meanwhile, are headed to their fourth European Championship in a row, thanks in part to a six-goal qualifier performance from Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic.
Do Italy have what it takes to be contenders at Euro 2016? Could Croatia be a potential dark horse? Share your thoughts with us and look us up on social media.