Twelve teams are still unbeaten going into the fifth round of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying matches, which are set to be staged this Friday and Saturday. Meanwhile, Germany and the Netherlands, with four straight victories, and Spain and Norway, with three wins in three, are yet to drop a point.
The upcoming games could prove decisive in Groups C, E and I, where the leaders, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, face the sides just below them in the shape of Slovenia, Austria and Czech Republic respectively.
The big match
Spain–Czech Republic, Group I, Estadio Los Carmenes, Granada, 22:00
Since winning the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, La Roja have struggled somewhat for consistency. While picking up the victories they have needed in qualifying, over Liechtenstein (4-0), Lithuania (3-1) and Scotland (3-2), Vicente del Bosque's charges fell to 4-1 and 4-0 defeats in showcase friendlies in Argentina and Portugal respectively. Without the injured Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro against the Czechs, Del Bosque will be hoping those painful losses serve as a reminder to his squad that reputations count for nothing in international football: "We need to be mentally prepared because this is going to be a really tough game."
Michel Bilek’s team arrive in Spain on the back of a disappointing 1-0 home defeat to Lithuania in their last group match. And with only three goals scored in three games so far, including two against lowly Liechtenstein, will the Czechs have the firepower to hurt the world and European champions on their own patch?
It would be a massive surprise should Germany fail to pick up three points at home to Kazakhstan, who have conceded ten and failed to find the net so far. Belgium, meanwhile, already have their backs to the wall in Austria. Even a repeat of the spectacular home tie between the two sides, which finished in a 4-4 draw, would probably not be good enough for Les Diables Rouges.
This has proved the closest section to call so far, with just two points separating four sides. Dick Advocaat’s Russia will need to be on their guard in Armenia, who are on a high after beating 2010 FIFA World Cup surprise packages Slovakia. That was quite a comedown for the Repre, who reached the Round of 16 in South Africa and had beaten Russia 1-0 earlier in qualifying. The Republic of Ireland need to get their campaign back on track at home to Macedonia after losing 3-2 at home to Russia and being held to a 1-1 draw in Slovakia.
Italy were awarded a 3-0 win after their last match against Serbia had to be halted due to crowd disturbance, and now travel to Slovenia hoping a younger-looking forward line can fire them to success. Last time out, Matjaz Kek’s side fell to a 1-0 home defeat to Northern Ireland, who themselves face a tough away test in Serbia.
France have clearly been on the mend under Laurent Blanc and, buoyed by three straight wins, they will be expecting to take all three points against Luxembourg. Belarus, in second, will be hopeful of building on their recent progress by disposing of Albania in third.
Hungary’s double-header with the Netherlands over the course of five days should make for intriguing viewing. The Dutch should have too much for the promising Hungarians, though they will undoubtedly miss injured attacking duo Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Indeed, the Schalke striker had been in clinical form so far and already has eight goals to his name to lead the EURO 2012 qualifying goalscoring table.
Croatia moved to the head of the pool with a comfortable 3-0 win over Malta last time out, and a trip to Temuri Ketsbaia’s unbeaten Georgia is next up for Slaven Bilic’s side. Should the Vatreni slip up, they would allow Greece to make up ground, providing the EURO 2004 winners prevail in Malta.
After dropping points at home in a 0-0 draw to dark horses Montenegro last time out, England will be looking for a win in Wales to return to the top of the group. Gary Speed’s first competitive match in charge of the Welsh could hardly be more challenging, especially with Gareth Bale forced out with a hamstring injury.
With Portugal not playing, Norway can pull clear if they get the better of local rivals Denmark. That is never an easy task, however, and is made all the more difficult by the withdrawals of keeper Jon Knudsen and seasoned striker John Carew.
Player to watch
Gianluigi Buffon - Against Slovenia, the Juventus goalkeeper will be taking part in his first EURO 2012 qualifier, some ten months after Italy’s early exit from South Africa 2010. Intriguingly, just five years on from Gli Azzurri's victory at Germany 2006, he is set to be the only veteran of that triumph involved in Friday's encounter.
44 – for the number of international goals scored by the leading strikers in Spanish footballing history, Raul and David Villa. Barcelona front-man Villa has reached that total in 71 internationals, while Raul took 102 games. Could the match with Czech Republic see Villa overtake the former Real Madrid legend?
What they said
"A punishment of one year is enough. He has understood his error and learnt from it." Fabio Capello, England coach, on John Terry’s reinstatement as captain.
Have your say
Will Franck Ribery go straight back into Laurent Blanc’s starting XI?