Germany, Italy, Netherlands and defending champions Spain have already qualified along with host nations Poland and Ukraine for UEFA EURO 2012, with six more automatic slots and eight play-off berths to be decided between Friday and next Tuesday.
Headlining the Friday-night bill are top-of-the-section games in Groups F and G, between Greece and Croatia, and Montenegro and England respectively. Should the Croatians win and the English draw, they will both advance to the finals.
The big game
Greece-Croatia, Group F, Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus, 8.45 cet
Section leaders by a single point from the Greeks, despite a shock 1-0 loss in Georgia in March, Croatia will make sure of top spot if they prevail in Piraeus. “We’re going to win in Greece and qualify for the finals,” predicted their coach Slaven Bilic, who has five Dynamo Zagreb players forming the spine of his side. Greece have been in formidable form, however, winning eight and drawing six of the 14 games they have played since Portuguese coach Fernando Santos took over in the aftermath of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. In their eight group games to date, the miserly Greeks have let in just four goals.
The other games
Germany clinched their finals place last month and will now have a big say in whether Turkey or Belgium, their next two opponents, take the play-off slot. The group winners can expect a spicy atmosphere at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul, where Guus Hiddink’s men will be going flat out for three potentially decisive points.
Andorra-Republic of Ireland
Four teams are still in the running for the top two places in this keenly contested pool. Leaders Russia are two points clear of the Irish, with Armenia and Slovakia a point further back, the Armenians having slipped into third after last month’s stunning 4-0 win in Zilina. The inconsistent Russians lost at home to the Slovakians last September, and should they avenge that result, they will be all but through.
The Italians have already won the group, leaving Serbia (14 points), Estonia (13) and Slovenia (11) to battle it out for second. The Serbs have played one game less than their two rivals, and should they beat the Italians in Belgrade, the play-off place will be theirs. The first group meeting between the two sides was abandoned following crowd trouble, with Italians being awarded a 3-0 win.
Bosnia and Herzegovina-Luxembourg
A mere point separates the French and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the expectation is for their fates to be decided when they meet at the Stade de France on Tuesday. Yet while the Bosnians will hope to make short work of Luxembourg, Bleus coach Laurent Blanc has had a spate of injuries to contend with, particularly up front, with Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Kevin Gameiro all out for the visit of the Albanians. The incoming Bafetimbi Gomis and Djibril Cisse are the men charged with the task of securing three essential points.
While Netherlands will be aiming to maintain their perfect pool record at home to the Moldovans, second-placed Sweden have a crucial assignment in Finland. Level on 18 points with Hungary having played one game less, the Swedes have a superior head-to-head record to the eastern Europeans and will clinch the play-off slot if they win in Helsinki. Having crushed the Finns 5-0 at home, that ought not to be beyond their reach.
England are six points clear of the Montenegrins but are playing their last game and still need a point to secure their UEFA EURO 2012 finals place. Fabio Capello has left old stagers Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand at home, putting his faith instead in young guns Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Micah Richards and Andy Carroll. Opposite number Branko Brnovic has Savo Pavicevic Marko Basa, Miodrag Dzudovic and Milan Jovanovic all back from injury and suspension for a game they must win if they are to have any chance of topping the section. Should they do so, they will have the opportunity to complete the job in Switzerland on Tuesday.
Portugal, Denmark and Norway are tied on 13 points, though wins for the Danes and the Portuguese here will leave the Norwegians out of the running for first place and make Tuesday’s meeting between the two in Copenhagen a section decider.
Michal Bilek’s men are comfortably placed in second, two points ahead of Scotland and with a better record in the head-to-head. A point from this game could well be enough to see them into the play-offs, though the Spanish will no doubt be keen to preserve their 100 per cent record.
Player to watch
With Karim Benzema out through injury, 26-year-old Lyon striker Bafetimbi Gomis returns to spearhead the France attack after a two-year absence. Currently the joint-top marksman in Ligue 1 with six goals in nine games and the scorer of two goals for Les Bleus to date, Gomis has a silky touch to go with his power, as he showed in the recent UEFA Champions League match against Dynamo Zagreb, where his exquisite lob helped Les Gones to victory.
17-15-6 - David Villa’s vital stats in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying competition. The Spain striker, the joint-highest scorer at South Africa 2010, has had 17 shots on goal so far, 15 of them on target and six of them finding the back of the net.
What they said
“Miracles only happen when you believe in them,” Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic.