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Euro 2016: Four big questions

Euro 2016
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Albania, Hungary and Northern Ireland on brink of Euro 2016 place

With two rounds to go and an expanded Euro 2016 in sight, doors have opened to a number of countries who might not normally be backed for a place at the top table -- and a number of them may seal their place in France automatically.

With Iceland already qualified and Wales looking all but assured of their place, let's look at five other surprise nations we could see in France.

Albania

Losing in the final seconds to a header from Portugal's Miguel Veloso on Monday night was a blow to Gianni De Biasi's unfancied side, but in reality it changed little. Albania are faced with the most tantalising of scenarios, knowing that -- with two games to play and second-placed Denmark faced with just one, in Portugal -- qualification for a first major tournament has moved from "possible" to "distinctly likely."

It does not end there. Albania's next match is on Oct. 8, at home against bitter rivals Serbia. What happened when the pair met a year ago has been well documented; it will be another incendiary atmosphere in Elbasan and the scenes of celebration if Albania can better Denmark's result in Lisbon are barely imaginable. Such an outcome would guarantee the home side an automatic place at Euro 2016 -- and be viewed as a humiliation for the Serbs.

Albania celebrate with their fans after claiming a draw in Denmark.

Qualifying in second place would strike a blow to those who believe expanding the finals to 24 teams will result in a drop in quality -- the top two would probably have gone through to a 16-team event, in any case.

Albania have got to this point through resilience and a spot of luck, too. A stunning smash-and-grab win in Portugal set the tone for a team whose strength lies in their organisation and expertly drilled defence; their fortunes swung definitively in July, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport reversed UEFA's initial decision and awarded them a 3-0 win after that ill-fated match in Belgrade.

But two hard-fought draws against Denmark show that their progress is no fluke and it would be a remarkable story if Albania, once one of Europe's whipping boys, make it into territory that for so long seemed a remote prospect.

Montenegro

Austria may have run away with Group G but the race for the next two places should go to the wire. Montenegro, a point shy of third-placed Sweden and three behind Russia, are outsiders but six points against Liechtenstein and Moldova this month hauled them into contention -- and now they must prove they can do it against the bigger sides, too.

They might just have a chance. Montenegro's next match, on Oct. 9, sees them host Austria in Podgorica. Austria narrowly won the first game between the sides but, having booked their place in the finals on Tuesday night, the pressure will be off them this time.

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was struck with a flare during the match against Montenegro.

Montenegro, whose captain Stevan Jovetic is a proven match winner despite an underwhelming stay at Manchester City, will sense an opportunity to close the gap ahead of what could be a jittery final group game against Russia in St. Petersburg three days later.

It is still something of a long shot for Montenegro, with the Swedes favoured to beat the group's two minnows next month. Perhaps they will live to regret the home game with Russia in March, which was awarded as a 3-0 win to the visiting team after serious crowd trouble in Podgorica. Had they held out for at least a draw in the final 23 minutes of the abandoned game, the prospects for Branko Brnovic's team would look more positive.

Northern Ireland

The champagne was put on ice for Michael O'Neill's side after Kyle Lafferty salvaged a last-gasp 1-1 draw with Hungary, and it still seems a trick of the light that Northern Ireland sit a point clear at the top of a qualifying group for a European championship.

That is the reality though, and even if Group F looks comfortably the weakest of the nine, Northern Ireland richly deserve their shot at a first-ever appearance at this tournament and a first major finals since the 1986 World Cup. They sit four points clear of third-placed Hungary with two matches remaining, so a win at home to Greece or away in Finland will do.

Kyle Lafferty has now scored seven goals in the qualifying campaign.

The despondent Greeks, whose propping-up of the table is the logical end point in a steady decline, visit Windsor Park first amid small signs of a revival -- Monday's goalless draw in Romania was a creditable result although it will take some time to salve the wounds of two defeats to the Faroe Islands and a home loss to Finland. Northern Ireland's task is more directly complicated, though, by suspensions to Chris Baird, Conor McLaughlin and the influential Lafferty, an outcast at Norwich but an inspirational leader of the line for his country with seven goals from eight games.

You worry about where the goals will come from against a Greece side that, when on form, is notorious for being able to lock a game down -- but you also suspect that O'Neill's wonderfully committed, expertly drilled team will find a way to write their name in the history books over the next 180 minutes.

Hungary

As with Northern Ireland, the shock value is lessened by the uninspiring nature of Group F -- but a generation of fans has yet to see Hungary, still a name that evokes fabulous deeds from the 1950s and before, compete at a major tournament. That may be about to change, with the point won by Bernd Storck's side in Belfast keeping their grip on third place and giving them at least a theoretical chance of catching fierce rivals Romania -- three points ahead -- in second.

A playoff place is the likely outcome, but victory against the Faroe Islands on Oct. 8 would at least set up a tense final set of fixtures in which Hungary travel to Greece and Romania visit the Faroes.

Hungary players celebrate after going in front in Northern Ireland.

As six goals from eight games would suggest, Hungary are an unflashy side; as four conceded shows, they are also a tight unit and at international level that tends to be the key to at least relative success. They have lost just seven of their last 32 internationals and, ever since the nadir of an 8-1 defeat to Netherlands two years ago, have been a tough nut to crack.

Catching a similarly stodgy Romania is not impossible; a playoff place might be more likely but, even if it will be asking too much to repeat the verve of times past, they sit on the brink of a first European championship since their fourth-placed finish in 1972.

Norway

Times have been fallow for Norway since their spell of prominence in the 1990s. They may not rank among Europe's minnows but it is 15 years since they have participated in a finals and the surprise here is that they are two games from consigning highly favoured Croatia to a playoff place.

Sunday night's 2-0 win over Croatia in Oslo was perhaps Norway's most important result for years. It meant they leapfrogged their rivals into second, a point clear, and coach Per-Mathias Hogmo has an exciting wave of players at his disposal who could complete the job at home against Malta next month.

Jo Inge Berget celebrates after scoring against Croatia.

The task might be made simpler by the fact that Croatia must face Bulgaria behind closed doors; even if things remain tight going into the final round of fixtures, a visit to Italy follows though they have not been remotely convincing en route to top spot in the group.

Malmo striker Jo Inge Berget was the hero for Norway against Croatia, scoring one and seeing a second shot deflected in by Vedran Corluka. Martin Odegaard, the 16-year-old midfielder who now plays for Real Madrid, is part of the squad's supporting cast but this has been very much a team effort, and Norway, who have phased out the generation that included John Arne Riise, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brede Hangeland, are proving decisively that they have a future.

Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.

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