The clash between familiar foes Portugal and Bosnia-Herzegovina is likely to take top billing among Friday’s first-leg fixtures of the play-off round for UEFA EURO 2012, from which the final four qualifiers for next summer’s continental event in Poland and Ukraine will eventually emerge over two games.
The play-offs concern the eight teams that finished as runners-up across nine qualifying sections, with Sweden having already advanced directly as the second-placed side with the best overall record. The first legs will take place on 11 November, with the return matches scheduled for 15 November.
The big game
Bosnia-Herzegovina-Portugal, Bilino Polje Stadium, Zenica, 20.00 CET
Bosnian supporters will be on the lookout for revenge on Friday, when their heroes take on the side that shattered their hopes of reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Portugal’s 2-0 aggregate play-off triumph propelled them to South Africa at the expense of their Balkan opposition. This time around, after a difficult start to their Group H campaign, the Portuguese put together a good run of results before falling at the final hurdle, losing 2-1 to pool winners Denmark. Coach Paulo Bento will be able to count on the services of several key men for this crucial encounter, such as in-form captain Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as Hugo Almeida, Fabio Coentrao and Pepe, who are all back to full fitness after missing Portugal’s two final group matches.
Safet Susic’s Bosnia-Herzegovina side, meanwhile, secured second place in their group by winning six and drawing two of their ten matches, finishing just behind France. To offset the suspension of defenders Sasa Papac and Boris Pandza, as well as the injury to Mensur Mujdza, Susic has called up Sanel Jahic, a first-team regular at APOEL Nicosia, the surprise packages of this season’s UEFA Champions League.
The other matches
Czech Republic-Montenegro, Stadion Letna, Prague, 20.15 CET
Czech Republic finished in second spot in Group I, just ahead of Scotland, but a long way behind first-placed Spain. While they may not have attained the levels of some of the great Czech teams of the recent past, they are still a solid, experienced outfit. This is the third time that the Reprezentace have been involved in a play-off; their first saw them defeat Norway, but their second experience was less successful as they lost out to Belgium. Czech coach Michal Bilek has to make do without defensive linchpin Tomas Hubschman, but is hopeful about Petr Cech’s chances of playing, despite the goalkeeper’s recently sustained nose injury.
As for the Montenegrins, coach Branko Brnovic can count on the return of the influential Branko Boskovic, who had been sidelined with injury since April. This could well be the only change made to the team that drew 2-2 with England, which was the second time during the campaign that the Balkan side avoided defeat by the Three Lions.
Turkey-Croatia, Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul, 20.05 CET
Having put their fans through the suspense of four play-off rounds since 2000, Turkey have twice failed to progress to final tournaments, losing to Latvia and Switzerland. Guus Hiddink can welcome back Caner Erkin, Ozan Ipek and Halil Altintop to the fray, but will be forced to do without Nuri Sahin, Gokhan Zan and Yekta Kurtulus. The psychological advantage should be with Turkey, following their win over Croatia on penalties in the quarter-final of EURO 2008. Of the three play-offs in which they have been involved, the Croatians have twice successfully advanced, but they find themselves handicapped by injury in the run-up to this latest challenge, with Mladen Petric, Ivan Strinic, Niko Kranjcar and Dejan Lovren all out. To compensate for these absences, Slaven Bilic has called on two experienced Bayern Munich players, Danijel Pranjic and Ivica Olic.
Estonia-Republic of Ireland, Le Coq Arena, Tallinn, 20.45 CET
Republic of Ireland have been trying in vain to qualify for the EURO finals since 1988, their only appearance at the competition to date. For his country’s all-important encounter with Estonia in Tallinn, Giovanni Trapattoni may have to do without Robbie Keane and Shane Long due to injury, as well as the suspended Kevin Doyle. Opposition coach Tarmo Ruutli sprang a surprise when he announced his squad for Estonia’s first-ever play-off match, recalling defender Andrei Sidorenkov, who had been omitted since the 2-0 loss to the Faroe Islands back in June, and forward Vladimir Voskoboinikov, who took no part in the Baltic team’s pool matches.
Player to watch
Mirko Vucinic, captain of surprise packages Montenegro and scorer of his country’s first-ever goal on 24 March 2007 in a 2-1 win over Hungary, represents the focal point of this dangerous side. Juventus’ rangy, powerful front man is accustomed to finding a way past the wily defenders of Serie A, and is capable of turning a match on its head in an instant. His international goal tally currently stands at 11 from 24 matches.
5 – The total number of play-off ties in which the Republic of Ireland have participated, more than any other country. The Irish have not enjoyed great success in these two-legged affairs, with just one qualification – against Iran (2-0, 0-1), ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup – to show for their efforts.