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By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) - When Michel Platini revamped the European Championship, turning the finals from a tough, lean 16-team tournament in 2012 into a flabby, roll up, anybody s welcome 24-side affair in 2016, it was not surprising he ran into a blizzard of rebukes.
At a stroke, it seemed to many, UEFA s President had messed around with a perfectly-formed event that actually needed no meddling. Suddenly, it may have felt to the best teams in Europe as if qualification for the finals was a divine right, not a hard-earned privilege.
Was this then perhaps the main reason for the major nations sluggish start to the qualifiers and for the spate of wholly unlikely results which have so far proliferated after just the opening couple of rounds of matches?
Perhaps, though, despite inducing a degree of complacency among the elite, the Frenchman may also have created a structure where those teams who once felt they had no chance of qualifying now believe the finals in France 2016 is not just some impossible dream.
The theory now is that, with two teams and sometimes three per group guaranteed to make the finals in France, Europe s top guns can afford an absent-minded off-day and still feel as safe as houses.
Indeed, perhaps sub-consciously amid their post-Brazil slumbers, they have happily taken advantage of this comfort zone, which may explain some of the startling results which have afflicted them so far.
Still, though, there has been a so what? feel to these sensations. Portugal get beaten at home by Albania. So what? Let Ronaldo rest his injury, come back rejuvenated and even if they finish behind Serbia and Denmark, they will probably still qualify.
So the world champions Germany are downed for the first time ever by their Polish neighbours? Great, but not a soul imagines that the reverse will remotely derail the Mannschaft s progress towards France 2016.
What about the reigning champions loss to Slovakia, their first defeat in a Euro qualifier for eight years? No problem. Spain strolled to a 4-0 win over Luxembourg to right the football world s axis.
To be fair, there were some extenuating circumstances behind these three shocks.
Portugal were coming off their calamitous World Cup campaign and in the death throes of the unpopular Paulo Bento s reign, had taken the precaution of resting Ronaldo. These days they are not good enough to do without him.
Germany did not look too shabby but simply suffered one of those nights when, despite fashioning countless chances, their finishing could not match the build-up.
As for Spain, they too dominated in Zilina only to discover that Diego Costa remained as blunt in Spanish red (no goals in six appearances at that point, before he broke his duck on Sunday against Luxembourg) as he is sharp in Chelsea blue (nine goals in seven Premier League games).
These were not isolated freak events, though. There have been other odd happenings, too, compared to the shock-free zone of 2012 qualifying.
Liechtenstein, FIFA ranked 172, drew with and could have beaten 43rd ranked Montenegro and then were only beaten 2-0 by Sweden on Sunday.
Cyprus, ranked 85th, came from behind to win at the home of World Cup finals qualifiers, Bosnia; Switzerland, the 10th best team in the world according to FIFA, lost 1-0 to Slovenia ranked 53rd, and World Cup semi-finalists Netherlands succumbed to the Czech Republic.
Could all these be explained as a mere, coincidental sequence of one-offs or a sign of the better teams taking their foot off the gas because of the safety blanket of the new qualification rules?
Or were they actually an indication that, as the World Cup finals seemed to demonstrate with the likes of Costa Rica defeating Italy, Chile outclassing Spain and Ghana drawing with Germany, that we should actually not be surprised by the increasingly level playing field at international level. Smaller teams are starting to believe they can join the party in France.
Iceland, for example once considered makeweights, have won their opening two qualifiers with a goal tally of 6-0, while Wales, who have only ever reached a finals once, the 1958 World Cup, now harbour real hopes of a place in France in two years time.
England manager Roy Hodgson, musing on some of the early scorelines, said after his own side s 5-0 win over eternally hapless San Marino, I suppose they re surprising results, but maybe not.
I think we should stop being surprised in international football. If you happen to be called Spain, Russia or England, we can t expect we can go and beat whoever because we have more people in our country than them.
Which is why he looked a relieved man after his team from a population of 53 million were last seen eking out a 1-0 win over Estonia s team from a population of 1.3 million.
For a moment, normality had returned but the shock waves may continue to reverberate in these qualifiers.
(Writing by Ian Chadband; Editing by Mike Collett and Justin Palmer)
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