With less than sixteen months to the next World Cup qualifying tournament, Europe's Associates are looking forward to a crucial phase in the four-year international cycle.

Theoretically, as many as eight European countries have at least an outside chance of making it to next year's twelve-team qualifier, scheduled for the UAE.

For Norway, Germany and Jersey, the adventure will begin in Jersey in May, when they will take on the likes of Nepal, Afghanistan, Mozambique and the United States in the World Cricket League Division 5.

A top-two position there would take them to the Fourth Division tournament in September, where they would join Italy – relegated from Division 3 last year – Fiji, Hong Kong and Tanzania. And for the top two sides in that competition there's a place in the next Division 3 tournament, planned for January 2009.

The opposition there will be Papua-New Guinea, the Cayman Islands, Argentina and Uganda, and for two of those six teams the prize will be a spot in the World Cup qualifying tournament itself.

They will join the six qualifiers from the last World Cup (Bermuda, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, The Netherlands and Scotland), together with the top four from the recent Second Division tournament of the WCL: the UAE, Oman, Namibia and Denmark.

For the top three European Associates, of course, a crack at a major tournament will come before this, with the qualifier for the 2009 World Twenty20 championship taking place in Belfast in August.

Qualification for last year's inaugural competition was settled, somewhat illogically, through the ODIs of the World Cricket League, but this time the contenders will need to prove that they're the best of the Associates in the shortest form of the game.

The Twenty20 qualifying tournament will immediately follow the European Division One championship, to be held in Dublin in late July. Norway will be competing at this level for the first time, having gained promotion in 2006 to join the ‘Big Three', Denmark and Italy.

And then Division Two will be played in Guernsey in August, with the home side taking on island neighbours Jersey, Croatia, France, Germany and Gibraltar. Not only will the winners have a chance of promotion, but the rankings may offer the prospect of a future place in the WCL.

Meanwhile, Ireland, The Netherlands and Scotland will be completing the round-robin phase of the Intercontinental Cup, with a place in the final at stake. All three countries still have a chance of making the final, although they all face some tough away matches on the way.

The Netherlands, currently second, kick off with a difficult tour to Namibia and the UAE, but then have home advantage against Ireland and Kenya. Ireland have an even more demanding draw, facing the UAE in Dubai in March and then Namibia and Kenya in October, with just a match against Canada at home.

Scotland, too, have three games away from home, taking on Namibia in April and then Bermuda and Canada, both in King City, Ontario in July. Their one home match is against Kenya in August.

The draw has certainly done the European sides no favours: with an eight-team competition it's inevitable that four sides will have to play four matches away, although in this case the situation is complicated by the fact that Bermuda have no suitable ground and are forced to play all their matches off the island.

Even so, it's disappointing that Ireland, The Netherlands and Scotland should be the only countries playing three games at home and four away, while Namibia and the UAE are at home five times each and away just twice.

Given how great the home advantage tends to be in this competition with touring sides often below strength, you can't help feeling that the draw have been unfairly tilted against the Europeans (who just happen to have won the first three tournaments).

That apart, everything seems set for another fascinating year of Associates cricket.