The summer holidays may be just around the corner in Europe, but many of the continent’s biggest stars still have crucial international assignments to negotiate before they can start to unwind.
Qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012 gets back into full swing on Friday with no less than 20 fixtures scheduled over the weekend. Eight teams are still unbeaten, but only three – Germany, Spain and the Netherlands – are yet to drop a single point.
The big match
Portugal-Norway, Saturday 4 June, Lisbon, Estadio da Luz (22.00 CET)
Portugal host surprise Group H leaders Norway in a match that will go some way to deciding who tops the section. A Selecção das Quinas made a stuttering start to the group back in September, drawing 4-4 with Cyprus and losing 1-0 away to Norway, but head coach Paolo Bento has a near full-strength squad to choose from for the return fixture.
In-form forward Cristiano Ronaldo has had another prolific season for Real Madrid, and he will no doubt be looking to finish the year with a bang. Norway are no pushovers, however, and Egil Olsen’s well-balanced side will fancy their chances of recording a third away victory. With ten points out of a possible 12 so far, they go into the match needing only a draw to maintain their three-point lead at the top.
Germany make the short trip to Austria without injured top scorer Miroslav Klose, but their winning streak is unlikely to be challenged by opponents who have lost their last two on the spin. Meanwhile, in the battle for second, resurgent Belgium host a Turkish side desperate for three points having lost 1-0 to Azerbaijan in October.
Everything is still to play for in Group B, with Slovakia, Russia and Republic of Ireland all level on ten points and dark horses Armenia close behind on eight. Russia only managed a goalless draw away to Armenia back in March, and Dick Advocaat’s side must win the return fixture if they are to keep pace with group leaders Slovakia. The latter host bottom-of-the-table Andorra, while Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland face a tricky away trip to FYR Macedonia.
With a five-point cushion and a game in hand, Italy are in firm control at the top of Group C. Barring a major slip-up, it should be plain sailing for the Azzurri at home to Estonia, whom they beat 2-1 in Tallinn in September.
France went into their first qualifier on the back of a dismal showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and they picked up from where they left off, losing at home to surprise package Belarus. Laurent Blanc’s side have improved considerably since then with a run of four straight wins, and they travel to Minsk keen to avenge their opening defeat. Belarus lost 1-0 to Albania in their last match, but group leaders Les Bleus cannot afford to be complacent with Bernd Stange’s team sitting just four points behind in second.
With group leaders the Netherlands not in action this weekend, Sweden have the chance to strengthen their grip on second place with victory in Moldova. Nine points adrift of top spot but with two games in hand, the Swedes will have to make do without injured striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Group F remains wide open and there is still very little separating the four teams at the top. Greece have arguably the most straightforward tie as they entertain bottom-of-the-pile Malta. Croatia will be out for revenge at home to Georgia after their 1-0 defeat in Tbilisi back in March, while Israel travel to Latvia keen to secure a third straight victory and keep themselves in the mix.
England and Montenegro are already six points clear at the top of Group G, and both sides have golden opportunities to stretch that lead even further as they host Switzerland and Bulgaria respectively. Stat fans, take note: Montenegro are the only team in the entire qualifying section yet to concede a single goal. The team nicknamed the Brave Falcons are not quite as plucky up front, however, and they have only managed three strikes from their four matches so far.
Player to watch
Abou Diaby, the tough-tackling Arsenal midfielder, has shown countless times that he has the talent to fill the boots of Patrick Vieira in the heart of France’s midfield. Sadly, though, his career has been blighted by a succession of niggling injuries and he managed just 20 appearances out of a possible 58 for the Gunners this term. “It’s a frustrating situation,” Diaby admits, but says he fully intends to “repay the faith” Laurent Blanc has shown in him.
21 – Mark van Bommel is renowned for his robust style of play. However, the veteran Dutch midfielder has in fact been fouled more times than any other player since qualifying began (21 in 342 minutes). It might also come as a surprise to know that he is only tenth in terms of fouls committed, with 13 offences to his name so far.
What they said
“My players are the country’s greatest ambassadors. Thanks to the football we play, people in the street can once again feel proud of our country,” Georges Leekens, Belgium coach.
Have your say
Can Georgia and Armenia cause upsets by beating Croatia and Russia away from home?