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Euro 2012 qualifying race reduced to half the battle

STEWART Regan's inheritance as Scottish Football Association chief executive hasn't always been rich in positives but in one way at least he should be eternally thankful to his predecessors.

Six years after David Taylor helped persuade Uefa to expand the European Championship to 24 teams, there was something unmistakably chipper about the Englishman's demeanour as he discussed the redrawn, and rather less onerous, qualifying arrangements for the 2016 tournament.

Regan won't actually be at the Palais des Congres in Nice this morning when the 53 nations vying to join hosts France at the finals are drawn into eight qualifying groups of six and one of five, but, 18 years after Scotland's last appearance in a major finals, also in France, it would be nice to think they might just be back there in two years' time.

Not making the cut amid such circumstances - an almost one in two chance of making it, rather than one in four - would feel like a crushing failure, but there are no guarantees. Even the 24-team structure might not have been enough to save Scotland in their last two European Championship qualifying campaigns, both of which saw them finish third in their group.

The statistics themselves seem undecided about the matter: while Scotland are in the fourth pot of seeds for today's draw, Fifa's rankings suggest we should sneak in, as the 22nd best side in Europe. "We have to be more confident going into this campaign simply because there's a greater chance of qualifying," Regan said. "One in two as opposed to a one in four chance of qualifying, and the fact we finished the last campaign strongly means you have to have a higher degree of optimism. You can't be complacent but this presents us with a much better chance than we have ever had before, and that has to be a good thing."

The Republic of Ireland earned around £10 million from qualifying for Euro 2012 and there is no doubt a similar windfall would be highly welcome for the SFA. Regan said: "You can't say for definite what [qualification] would be worth because the budgets and prize money haven't been communicated by Uefa," Regan said.

"But if you base it on previous tournaments there is a multi-million- pound prize just for being there and the further you get the more the numbers go north. It would be a substantial contribution to the Scottish FA and it could help start to put in place elements of the strategy we would like to focus on."

Even without qualifying, the SFA are already up on the deal, having benefited through TV rights from Uefa's new "Week of Football" concept, which will see qualifiers will be spread over six days from Thursday to Tuesday,

Regan, meanwhile, no longer has to face the ordeal of having to attend fixtures meetings in smoke-filled rooms across the continent. Within three hours of this morning's draw, a list of fixtures, dates and times (either 5pm or 7.45pm kick-offs) will drop into the SFA inbox.

Although member associations will be able to swap home and away fixtures in extraordinary circumstances, it is a far cry from events in Brussels two years ago.

Regan's first exposure to such occasions included having to make a desperate 11th-hour call to Strathclyde Police to persuade them to allow Friday night international matches; being informed by Croatia manager Slaven Bilic that "the Scots were worse than the Serbs"; and ending up with risky home fixtures against Serbia and Macedonia at the start of the campaign.

"Craig Levein and I went to Belgium for the bun fight that was the World Cup group dates meeting," Regan said. "Slaven Bilic said we were worse than the Serbs because we had dug our heels in so much to try to get our way.

"This time, the fixtures will be produced automatically by computer and they will be available approximately three hours after the draw is made. In many ways that takes the what-ifs, the discussions, the blame game that goes on. People say I told you so, it is too hot, it is too cold, it is too dry, the stadium is too big, it is too small."

While there is a nagging suspicion that Uefa's neutral computer algorithm will automatically favour the bigger nations - as it is, England, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands are guaranteed a six-team group, while the hosts France will play friendlies against the five-team group - Scotland manager Gordon Strachan sees merit in the changes. "As a fan I am OK with that, it is like the Champions League now, over a few nights," he said. "I am happy that the computer is making the fixtures."

There may be a temptation for Scotland to switch home fixtures in 2014 for away ones, with Hampden is out of commission, but for now Strachan quite fancies a home match to start. "I think the excitement of a home game at the start would be terrific," he said.

One by-product of the changes is the scrapping of the August friendly date, which places a preparation premium on Scotland's March 5 friendly against Poland in Warsaw, and a still-to-be-confirmed mini training camp most likely to be held in Europe in May/June.

"We can travel around the world and play iagainst top sides in strange conditions but is that really going to help our European build-up?" Strachan said. "No. We'll stay closer to home and make it short and sharp. It will be three or four days and we'll work really hard."

Further enhancing the feelgood factor for Strachan is David Marshall's form at Cardiff City, which threatens Allan McGregor's place as first-choice goalkeeper. "It's like back when we had Jim Leighton and Andy Goram," he said. "But the current two are better looking."

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