Europe’s underdogs biting back
Although shock results have always been integral to football’s appeal, the early UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying action seems to have taken upsetting the expected order to the extreme. The race to Poland and Ukraine has barely started, of course, but the current standings will nonetheless provoke plenty of double-takes and raised eyebrows.
Albania and Belarus topping Group D? Lithuania leading Spain? Montenegro and Cyprus flying high? All would have been considered fanciful, laughable even, before the preliminaries commenced. Yet it these traditional also-rans who have emerged at the head of the continental pack thus far, with France, Czech Republic and Portugal among their high-profile victims. Now, as these unlikely pacesetters prepare to resume their preliminary campaigns, FIFA.com looks closer at their early triumphs and plans for future success.
Setting the tone
Of all the EURO sections, Group D best sums up just how unpredictable the first batch of matches proved to be. Indeed, Luxembourg’s place at the foot of the standings is the only unsurprising aspect of a section in which France, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania all trail joint-leaders Albania and Belarus. The Albanians are in pole position by virtue of a greater number of goals scored, having followed up a hard-fought 1-1 draw away to Romania with a 1-0 win over Luxembourg in what coach Josip Kuze described as “our most important game of the qualifiers.”
Sadly, however, they go into their forthcoming double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belarus under a cloud and without their influential coach after Kuze suffered a stroke. With the Croatian in a stable but serious condition, Albania are currently in a state of limbo, with the president of their national association conceding that it is “unclear” who will take charge for these vital qualifiers.
Should there be any slip-up, Belarus are well placed to pounce. Bernd Stange’s side made a spectacular start to their qualifying campaign with a memorable 1-0 win in Paris, a result lauded by captain Yuri Zhevnov as “one of the greatest victories in the nation’s history.” A subsequent 0-0 draw with Romania did nothing to dent confidence and, with fixtures against Luxembourg and Albania beckoning, their coach has made it clear that anything short of maximum points will be considered failure. "We have made a good start to qualifying,” said Stange. “However, we have to build on our success. That is why only victories over Luxembourg and Albania will be good enough."
Other teams aiming to build on early gains may be a little more reticent about setting such lofty targets. Montenegro, for example, face an imposing double-header against Switzerland and England, and are without the injured trio of Stevan Jovetic, Nikola Drincic and Ivan Fatic. Nonetheless, having begun their campaign with wins over Wales and Bulgaria, the Montenegrins are currently level on points with Fabio Capello’s Three Lions, and six clear of their three other group rivals.
For their Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjcar, that leaves them to face their formidable group rivals unburdened by pressure - and fearing no-one. "We will face strong teams, but we have shown that we are strong too," he said. "The most important thing is to have a big desire against Switzerland, but at the same time not to feel under any kind of pressure. The pressure is on Switzerland."
Fearless and unfazed
While Montenegro are sure to have it tough in their upcoming fixtures, spare a thought for Lithuania, the early sensations in Group I. They, after all, are facing up to Spain, reigning world and European champions and a team 41 places higher than them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Remarkably, however, they go into the Salamanca showdown unbeaten and a point clear of Vicente del Bosque’s star-studded side, having opened their campaign with a goalless draw against Scotland and a shock 1-0 win in the Czech Republic.
Having already exceeded expectations, coach Raimondas Zutautas believes another upset need not prove beyond his ever-improving side. "Spain's titles speak for themselves but every general must believe in his troops,” he said. “I believe we can go there, give a respectable performance and possibly achieve a result.”
Cyprus, one place below Lithuania on the Ranking table, will also be looking to defy the odds tomorrow when they tackle Group H leaders Norway, four days before travelling to face Denmark. Of all the early upsets, the islanders’ 4-4 draw in Portugal was surely the most dramatic and entertaining, and it has left them feeling confident of making life difficult for the section’s other big names. Nonetheless, they remain respectful of a Norwegian side, revived under Egil Olsen, who already boast two wins from two. “It will be a difficult game because Norway will be confident having won their opening two qualifiers,” said Cyprus coach Anastasiadis. “They are a very well-organised side.”
Indeed, Cyprus will be widely expected to emerge empty-handed, as will nearly all of these fellow high-flying outsiders. However, as the early qualifying action has proved, the European elite would do well to beware the bite of the continent’s underdogs.