Home examinations for heavyweight trio
The fourth round of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers involves key games across all nine groups. For Russia, Estonia, Croatia, Montenegro and Portugal, the onus is on keeping current momentum going, while for Turkey, Slovakia, Serbia and Denmark it is a chance to bounce back from recent defeats. Of the 22 matches on the agenda, Netherlands-Sweden and England-Montenegro are arguably the pick of the bunch.
The big match
England-Montenegro, Group G, Wembley Stadium, London 21.00 CET
Fabio Capello surprised many people by calling up 33-year-old Kevin Davies for England’s crucial encounter with Montenegro. And while the Bolton Wanderers forward could make his international debut in midweek, a more familiar sight for England fans will be that of Rio Ferdinand, who looks set to return to the side after recovering from the injury that kept him out of the recent FIFA World Cup™. Goalkeeper Robert Green, guilty of a big error in South Africa, has also been recalled to the squad. The Three Lions have made an impressive start to their campaign, scoring seven goals in two outings, and they will need to continue in the same vein in order to find a way through Montenegro’s miserly defence. Three consecutive 1-0 wins have propelled Zlatko Kranjcar’s solid side, which boasts a natural goalscorer in Roma's Mirko Vucinic, to the top of Group G. Lying 40th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their best position since they became an independent member of FIFA three years ago, Montenegro’s sparkling form should ensure they are not taken lightly by their more high-profile opponents.
Germany, the joint highest-scoring team in European qualifying so far with ten goals, are unlikely to find themselves severely tested in their Group A match in Kazakhstan, yet to find the net thus far. Turkey will attempt to put their defeat by Joachim Low's side behind them by seeing off struggling Azerbaijan in Baku. The pool's other game between Belgium and Austria should provide some clearer indicators regarding the latter’s eventual chances of qualifying, their two victories having come against the section’s weakest teams.
The big match in Group B sees Slovakia, unrecognisable in their 3-1 defeat in Armenia, take on Republic of Ireland in Zilina. The Irish, beaten 3-2 at home by Russia last time out, will come looking for the win, aware that just two points separate the top five teams in the pool.
Dejan Stankovic and Milos Krasic, who both play their football in Serie A, will both look to bite the hand that feeds them, as part of a wounded Serbia side that faces Italy in Genoa. With a 1-1 draw with Slovenia and a shock 3-1 defeat at the hands of Estonia to show for their efforts in Group C, the Serbs will have to be at their best to overcome La Nazionale. Despite appearing to have regained the defensive steel for which they were previously known, Cesare Prandelli’s men are currently undergoing difficulties at the opposite end of the pitch, as proven by their inability to find the net in their previous match away to Northern Ireland. Estonia, meanwhile, need to show their fans that Friday’s stunning win in Belgrade was no flash in the pan, and know that the best way to do that is to beat Slovenia in Tallinn.
In Group D, France showed in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Romania that they have made considerable progress under Laurent Blanc in a relatively short space of time. Against Luxembourg, whose backs-to-the-wall approach earned them an unexpected point against Belarus, the former Bordeaux coach will have the luxury of experimenting a little, especially in attack, where Karim Benzema is lacking in both confidence and match sharpness. Elsewhere, Belarus and Albania face off in Minsk, with both teams determined to maintain their unbeaten records.
In Group E, a duel between elite marksmen is on the cards in Amsterdam, where in-form Netherlands striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both set to feature. The game promises much more besides, as the Oranje, runners-up at South Africa 2010, continue to struggle to deal with the absence of Arjen Robben. And Sweden are not exactly there to make up the numbers either, having picked up maximum points from their first two outings, 2-0 and 6-0 wins against Hungary and San Marino respectively.
Croatia got their Group F campaign back on track over the weekend courtesy of a Niko Kranjcar-inspired 2-1 triumph in Israel. Victory versus a modest Malta side would see the Croatians increase their lead over at least one of their principal rivals, due to the fact that Greece and Israel are scheduled to play each other at the same time. Georgia travel to Latvia in the group’s other fixture.
In Group H, new Portugal coach Paulo Bento will be aiming for a second victory in a row, after Friday’s 3-1 success against Denmark made him just the second Portugal coach to enjoy a winning start in 25 years. An improved defensive display allied to explosive performances from Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo showed that opponents Iceland, sitting bottom of the group, will have their work cut out for them.
Last but by no means least, world champions Spain, deprived of numerous top names by injury, make the trip to Hampden Park, where a victory over Scotland will allow them to consolidate top spot in Group I. In-form forward Fernando Llorente, keen to cement his place in La Roja’s starting line-up, can expect plenty of attention from Craig Levein’s men.
Player to watch
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 27, currently sits atop the scoring charts for this qualifying campaign, with six goals in three matches, including a hat-trick and a brace. The Dutchman has now scored 22 times in 39 appearances for his country. In the Netherlands' upcoming clash with Sweden, he is likely to again cross paths with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose arrival at AC Milan led to Huntelaar’s departure, much to the delight of the former Ajax player’s current club, Schalke.
31 – The number of goals, out of the total of 181 registered so far, scored during the opening 15 minutes of the second half in qualifying matches. The number of goals scored in the final quarter of an hour is identical. Players have been less prolific before the break, however, finding the net just 20 times during the equivalent first-half periods.
What they said
"Teams have learnt to defend and hit us on the counter-attack when they play us. We'll need to make sure we take advantage of any chance that comes our way," Fernando Llorente, Spain forward.
Have your say
Which player will finish top scorer in EURO 2012 qualifying?