Hungry minnows eye EURO upsets
The second round of games in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying competition take place on Tuesday, with France’s tricky trip to Sarajevo arguably the pick of the evening’s 23 matches. Also featuring high up the bill are Croatia-Greece, Switzerland-England and Norway-Portugal, while a clutch of less-fancied nations are intent on pulling off a shock or two.
The big match
Bosnia-Herzegovina-France, Group D, Sarajevo, Asim Ferhatovic Hase Stadium (21.00 CET)
France have been struggling to recapture past glories since their old guard’s last hurrah at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Ignominious first-round exits at EURO 2008 and South Africa 2010 have resulted in a slide down to 21st place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, prompting a prolonged bout of soul-searching and a change of coach. Deprived of several of the country’s leading players, new man Laurent Blanc has brought in plenty of fresh blood, trimming the team’s average age to a youthful 24.5. Last Friday’s shock 1-0 home defeat to Belarus brought yet more woe, however, and unless Blanc can inspire an immediate revival in Sarajevo, their Group D campaign could prove to be another tale of woe for the ailing French.
Narrowly beaten by Germany in Brussels in their Group A opener, Belgium are looking to the precocious skills of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to kick-start their challenge when they take on Turkey in Istanbul. With their confidence high after a 3-0 win in Kazakhstan, Guus Hiddink’s side are sure to provide another stiff test. Meanwhile, Germany should have little difficulty in accounting for Azerbaijan at home.
There is an early top-of-the-table meeting in Group B as Dick Advocaat’s Russia look to follow up their 2-0 victory over Andorra when they entertain South Africa 2010 qualifiers Slovakia, who edged out Macedonia last week. A draw in that game could well see Republic of Ireland move top. Victors in Armenia on Friday, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men play host to Andorra at the Dublin Arena.
After suffering a scare in Estonia, Italy can expect an easier evening at home to Faroe Islands in Group C, where most of the attention will be focused on Serbia’s meeting with near-neighbours Slovenia, who kicked off with an unwelcome home defeat to Northern Ireland.
Group E favourites the Netherlands and Sweden will be hoping to make it two wins out of two when they entertain Finland and San Marino respectively, while Hungary are at home to Moldova, the other side in the section to win last Friday.
After collecting an unexpected point in Greece, Georgia will put their Group F aspirations to the test at home to Israel, while the Greeks, now under Fernando Santos, face an awkward engagement in Croatia.
Early Group G leaders England recovered some pride by putting four goals past Bulgaria without reply but can expect an altogether stiffer test away to Switzerland, the only side to beat Spain at South Africa 2010.
Portugal’s defence will be under scrutiny when they travel to Norway in Group H. After watching his side let in four goals in a high-scoring draw with Cyprus, suspended coach Carlos Queiroz will make the trip to Oslo at his own expense. In the other game in the section Denmark open up with a home game against Iceland.
And finally, while Spain travel to Argentina for an appetising friendly, Group I rivals Czech Republic kick off their campaign at home to Lithuania and Scotland go for goals against unfancied Liechtenstein.
Player to watch
Belgium are banking on 17-year-old striking sensation Romelu Lukaku to spark a revival in their fortunes. An international debutant at the age of 16 against Croatia in March, the Anderlecht teenager turned down several big offers from some of Europe’s leading clubs to continue his education in Brussels.
34 - Twice Lukaku’s age, veteran Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy scored his 34th goal in 65 international appearances last Friday, taking him past Johan Cruyff and Abe Lenstra in the list of the Netherlands’ top scorers. Only three players no lie ahead of him: Faas Wilkes (35 goals), Dennis Bergkamp (37) and the Netherland’s all-time leading marksman Patrick Kluivert (40).
What they said
“If you create chances, guys like Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe are always going to find the back of the net. With a little luck, we’ll see the same scenario on Tuesday in Switzerland as we did last Friday,” Steven Gerrard, England midfielder.
Have your say
Which player will finish the qualifying competition as leading scorer?
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