A total of 24 UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers will take place between 2-3 September, and with several of Europe's domestic leagues yet to resume after the summer break, the matches promise to be extremely open.
With just four matchdays remaining – three in some sections – points are at a premium, particularly in Groups B, F and H, which feature three-way tussles for top spot. Reigning champions Spain, 2008 finalists Germany and 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ runners-up the Netherlands all have slightly more breathing space at the top of their respective groups, having won all of their qualifiers to date.
The big match
Republic of Ireland-Slovakia, Dublin Arena, Dublin, 20.45
Group leaders Republic of Ireland face two crucial qualifiers in the space of four days, hosting third-placed Slovakia before travelling to Moscow to take on Russia, who are currently second. The three sides are level on 13 points, but Russia hold a slight advantage in that they have already played four matches away from home. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Irish side earned a respectable 1-1 draw in Bratislava, but they will be without injured midfielder Keith Fahey for the return fixture. They will, however, welcome back Spartak Moscow winger Aiden McGeady.
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss has had his hands full since the beginning of August, having taken the top job at Slovan Bratislava in addition to his national team commitments. Weiss has called up the Slovan trio of Filip Sebo, Igor Zofcak and Karim Guede, after all three played key roles in eliminating Roma from the UEFA Europa League. Slovakia are capable of great results, as proven by their 1-0 win away to Russia, but they have also disappointed with two unconvincing 1-0 victories against Andorra.
Germany have a perfect record of 21 points from seven qualifiers, and another victory against Austria would mathematically secure their place at next summer’s finals. The race for second spot is still wide open, however, with Belgium and Turkey battling it out for the runners-up berth. Belgium travel to Azerbaijan, while the Turks, who have a game in hand, entertain Kazakhstan.
Russia go into their qualifiers without goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who recently suffered a serious knee injury. Dick Advocaat’s side can go top of the group regardless of the result between Republic of Ireland and Slovakia, but they first need to win at home to FYR Macedonia, who have already lost four times.
Italy need an away win against the Faroe Islands and a victory over Slovenia four days later to seal qualification for EURO 2012. Coach Cesare Prandelli will once again turn to Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi for inspiration, but with the new Serie A season yet to begin, the Azzurri may need time to find their rhythm. Serbia have been disappointing since the start of the qualifying campaign, and despite having a game in hand, they must win away to Northern Ireland if they are to stay in the race for second spot.
Tricky away trips to Albania and Romania lie in store for France, who lead Group D despite having dropped five points to Belarus. Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena are set to return for Les Bleus, but coach Laurent Blanc will be without his first-choice pairing in central defence. Belarus, meanwhile, are just one point adrift from France but have played one more match. They host Bosnia Herzegovina and the in-form Edin Dzeko, who need all three points if they are to stay in the hunt for qualification.
The Netherlands recently secured first place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and their celebrations are unlikely to be halted at home to San Marino. Indeed, Bert van Marwijk’s men won the away fixture 5-0 and have triumphed in all six of their EURO 2012 qualifiers to date. However, with Sweden just three points behind, the Dutch know they cannot afford the slightest slip-up. Sweden host the Oranje on October 11, but they first have to negotiate an away trip to Hungary.
Group leaders Greece are unbeaten so far, but they face a real test away to Israel, who are just one point adrift, having played one game more. The Greeks struggled to a 2-1 win at home, and they will be hoping to match Croatia’s 2-1 scoreline in the reverse fixture. Slaven Bilic’s Croatia are away to bottom-of-the-pile Malta, and they have the chance to move up to first place ahead of their crunch match against Greece in Piraeus on 7 October.
Surprise package Montenegro are level with England on 11 points, but a superior goal difference of +8 versus +3 gives Fabio Capello’s side a slight edge. England were held to a goalless draw in the pair’s first encounter at Wembley, and they make the journey to Montenegro for the return fixture on 7 October. The Three Lions travel to Bulgaria on Friday with a number of young players in sparkling form, including Manchester United winger Ashley Young. They should not expect an easy ride, however, as Lothar Matthaus’s side features the likes of Stilian and Martin Petrov, who play for Aston Villa and Bolton respectively. For their part, Montenegro are away to a Wales, who are yet to record a single point in the group.
Group H remains extremely tight, with the top three of Portugal, Denmark and Norway all on 10 points. Portugal have a score to settle against Cyprus, who snatched an impressive 4-4 draw in the first match in Guimaraes. Nuno Gomes will not add to his 78 caps, with coach Paulo Bento overlooking the experienced forward for the potentially tricky encounter. Bento has opted instead to strengthen his midfield by recalling Miguel Veloso, Eliseu and Paulo Machado.
With Spain out of sight at the top of the group, Scotland host Czech Republic in a match that will be crucial in the battle for second spot.
Player to watch
Eden Hazard is yet to sparkle for Belgium in quite the same way that he has for his club side, Lille. He made his international debut against Luxembourg on 19 November 2008, aged 17 years and 316 days, and has since played 20 matches without notching a single goal. Hazard fell out with coach Georges Leekens in Belgium’s last qualifier against Turkey, but the pair have resolved their differences and the 20-year-old now has the chance to display his talent away to Azerbaijan.
11 – Of the 25 players in Fabio Capello’s England squad, 11 play for Manchester’s two major clubs. The Manchester-based players alone could theoretically make up a full starting XI, with Joe Hart (Man City) in goal, Phil Jones (Man Utd), Joleon Lescott (Man City), Micah Richards (Man City) and Chris Smalling (Man Utd) in defence, Gareth Barry (Man City), Tom Cleverley (Man Utd), Adam Johnson (Man City), James Milner (Man City) and Ashley Young (Man Utd) in midfield, and Wayne Rooney (Man Utd) as the lone striker.
What they said
“We’re not here to try out players. Once we’ve reached out goal, there will be other matches in which to reward players who are having a good season. For now, our future depends on the next four matches,” France coach Laurent Blanc.
Have your say
Which team will be the first to qualify for EURO 2012?