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Euro 2016: Four big questions

Euro 2016
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Portugal rely too much on Cristiano Ronaldo, Ireland's hopes are fading

It's heading toward crunch time in the 2016 European Championship qualifiers. ESPN FC's Nick Miller takes a look at some of the biggest talking points from this week's games.

Portugal jump on Ronaldo's back ... again

We have seen this season for Real Madrid that Cristiano Ronaldo, as he continues his relentless pursuit of cartoon goal-scoring numbers, is rarely happier than when he's doing something on his own. Ronaldo looks positively irked when his teammates score, with the notion of it being a goal he could've scored etched across his face.

Perhaps his Portuguese colleagues have taken that to heart, as they seem only too happy to allow Ronaldo to put them on his back and carry them through this qualification campaign. Ronaldo bagged himself a hat trick to once more bail his country out of some trouble, after they fell behind to Armenia in Yerevan, which has been somewhat of a theme of this campaign.

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PortugalPortugal
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Ronaldo has now scored five of Portugal's seven goals in five games thus far, and all of them have been crucial; two were winners in 1-0 victories, and of course, these three were to save their skin in Armenia. As far as tactics go, the give-the-ball-to-one-of-this-generation's-two-unfathomable-greats isn't the worst option in the world, it is worrying that Portugal don't appear to have a Plan B.

However, while Ronaldo is happy to do most of the work himself, Portugal will be happy, sitting as they do top of Group I, ahead of Denmark and looking set for relatively untroubled passage to France.

Ireland are fading away

"We are still in the group," Martin O'Neill said after his Republic of Ireland side rather limply drew with Scotland on Saturday. "That is not just bravado talk."

Technically, O'Neill is correct, and of course, he was hardly going to say anything else, but Ireland are capable of automatically qualifying for Euro 2016 in the same way a man with a piano is capable of composing a symphony: It's theoretically possible, but realistically, it isn't going to happen.

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ScotlandScotland
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True, even in a qualification process that makes it easier than ever before to make it through to the finals, Ireland were given an extremely tough group, but their pool of talent is at worst comparable with Scotland's, the team they are now relying on slipping up if they are to even make the playoffs.

The strange thing was that Ireland were actually much better than Scotland in the early exchanges, their play was more inventive and their attacks were more threatening, but they couldn't score more than Jon Walters' marginally offside opener and allowed a reorganized opposition back into the game after the break. "We had a lot of pressure, a lot of corner kicks, but we have to try to turn that into goals," O'Neill said.

Ireland now haven't won in their past four games, and the optimism gained from their 1-1 draw in Germany in October is quickly ebbing away, along with their hopes of qualifying for France 2016.

It's Poland vs. Scotland for the other spot

It wasn't quite on the level of Sadio Mane's 2-minute, 56-second hat trick against Aston Villa, but three goals in four minutes is still pretty handy going.

It was looking a little hairy for Poland in the closing stages of their clash with Georgia, until Robert Lewandowski popped up with his late treble, ensuring they top their group even after Germany shellacked Gibraltar in routine fashion (so routine, in fact, that Jogi Low took time out to file his nails after their sixth goal), meaning the Poles are looking in pretty good shape.

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Still, the upcoming game against Scotland looks like it will be a winner-take-all affair, assuming both sides lose to Germany and come through their other, more routine tests. Gordon Strachan's men look gradually more impressive every game they play, with the former Celtic boss managing to squeeze the best from a relatively limited group of players in a way his predecessor at Parkhead is struggling to do Dublin.

Strachan seems to manage without ego too: he recognised that selecting Matt Ritchie on the flank was an error, so he replaced him with Ikechi Anya at halftime, a move that paid off straight away. In terms of domestic performances, there is little comparison between the two, with Ritchie the primary on-pitch architect of Bournemouth's Championship title win, while Anya has been on Watford's bench for a good portion of the season. But for Scotland, the latter is usually superb, with his energy and relentlessness proving crucial for his country once again.

Make a note of Oct. 8 at Hampden Park. It could well be the biggest game of the whole campaign.

Faroes trip up Greece again

Of course, Greece have not been a European Championship-winning team for some time (they weren't really a European Championship-winning team when they, well, won the European Championship), but this must represent quite a low for Sergio Markarian's men.

Greece have now been beaten not once but twice in the same qualifying campaign by the Faroe Islands, a team that has won 21 games in the 27 years since they started playing competitive football and has won just two in the past four years. Both of those have been against the Greeks.

Faroe IslandsFaroe Islands
GreeceGreece
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In perhaps the most open group in qualification, Greece have been utterly dire, not picking up a single victory, losing all of their home games and managing only two draws against Hungary and Finland. This was a team that made the last 16 of the World Cup only a year ago by sneaking past Ivory Coast in that extraordinary game in Fortaleza.

They might not be a European Championship-winning side, but they sure as hell are better than this. Or, at least, they should be. The previous defeat to the Faroes saw the dismissal of Claudio Ranieri as the Greek head coach, and it wouldn't be an enormous shock if history repeats itself.

For their part, the Faroes will still not qualify for the finals next year, but head coach Lars Olsen noted this result will "echo around the world." That's enough for them right now.

Northern Ireland just about stay on course

While neither the Greeks nor the Faroes will be in France next summer, Northern Ireland might very well be. Their 0-0 draw with Romania on Saturday was not what one might call pretty, but it keeps them in the top two, a point back from the Romanians but, crucially, two ahead of Hungary.

"Tonight's game was the tensest for us so far," manager Michael O'Neill said after the game. "Both teams were determined not to be beaten, and the group will be decided by the finest of margins. We expect the rest of the games to follow into the same pattern. We're pleased with a point. I wouldn't say delighted."

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Having gathered that point, Northern Ireland must now capitalise on their solid start in September, when they play the Faroes, then Hungary. Six points in those two encounters will virtually seal their place in the finals, points that would put them at least five ahead of the Hungarians with two games remaining. Hopefully they won't live to rue Kyle Lafferty's implausible miss against the Romanians, after he hammered the ball straight at their goalkeeper when it looked easier to score.

Still, that Northern Ireland seemed slightly frustrated to have only drawn a game like this is an indication of their progress. We could yet have four countries from the British Isles in the finals, and no story will be better than Northern Ireland's.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

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