Just because we’re metaphorically turning our backs on England until they get their house in order doesn’t mean that we should ignore the qualifiers for Euro 2008, because there’s plenty of interest to be had amongst the qualifying groups, and some of the bigger teams appear likely to make very hard work of getting to the finals at all, at the moment. I think it’s time to have a look at what has been going on so far and what we’ve got coming up this weekend. Quickly, to clarify the major rule change for this tournament, there will be no play-offs for Euro 2008. With the new, improved, bigger groups, the top two from each group go through.
Group A – Portugal, Poland, Belgium, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Finland & Armenia: How about this for starters, then? Five games into the fourteen, and it’s Finland leading the pack. Unbeaten in five games, the Finns won in Poland and held Portugal in Helsinki, before a double against Armenia to put them in (an arguably unrepresentative) top place. The group favourites, Portugal, have stuttered so far. They were also beaten by Poland and currently lay in fourth place, with just seven points from their first four matches. It’s critical for them that they beat Belgium tonight – with Finland not having a match, they could close the gap down to a single point. Serbia, though, are the best placed of all the teams at the moment though, with three wins from their opening four matches and a trip to Kazakhstan tomorrow night, victory in which could see them top the group by the end of the weekend. Seemingly perennial qualifiers Belgium have only won two of their five matches so far, and seem unlikely to be able to make up the ground that they’ve already lost.
Group B – France, Italy, Ukraine, Scotland, Lithuania, Georgia, Faroe Islands: It’s not often that you get a World Cup final replayed as a competitive match within about two months of the original match itself, but when France beat Italy 3-1 in Paris last September, there were far more important things at stake than mere pride. Walter Smith had turned Scotland around during his time in charge, and every point is now absolutely critical for two of Europe’s biggest football nations – something that France can grimly attest to after the Scots beat them 1-0 at Hampden Park. The real beneficiaries of that win were the Italians, who stayed in touch through beating Ukraine 2-0. Scotland then lost 2-0 in Kiev, meaning that the French and the Scots are tied at the top, with Italy just behind them, but with an all-important game in hand. With Smith now having gone to Rangers, it’s critical that Scotland beat Georgia tomorrow to maintain their momentum and steal top place back. The Italians have another free weekend, and France have a potentially tricky trip to Lithuania. If they fail to win there, they could be in real danger of missing out altogether.
Group C – Turkey, Greece, Norway, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malta, Hungary & Moldova: This group is already shaping up to be a three-horse race between Turkey, Greece and Norway, though the more interesting story is probably the collapse of Hungarian football. Once perennial qualifiers for major competitions, the Hungarians have had an appalling start to this competition, losing to Malta and getting thrashed at home by Norway. The Turks and the Greeks meet in Athens tomorrow night – it promises to be a volatile night, with plenty of other considerations alongside how tight things are in their group. In the only truly significant result of this group so far (the bigger teams, by and large, haven’t played each other yet), Greece beat Norway 1-0. Norway need to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina tonight to stay in touch with the top two.
Group D – Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland, Wales, Cyprus & San Marino: You feel a little bit sorry for the Irish and the Welsh, I guess – drawn against two of the strongest sides on the whole continent. The Germans, of course, kicked off with a win against Ireland and that thirteen goal win against San Marino. It looked likely that they will pull clear at the top of the group, but picking just a draw in Cyprus perhaps showed that German confidence is still brittle. Ireland and Wales have been poor so far. The Irish lost in Cyprus and needed a last minute goal to pick up all three points against San Marino, whilst the Welsh were thrashed at home by Slovakia, who sit on third place knowing that they will close the gap on the top two if they win in Cyprus tomorrow. They know that they will close the gap if they win because Germany travel to the Czech Republic in what might just be the match of the weekend. Defeat for either of them could prove to be costly, though I don’t anticipate Wales or Ireland having enough to significantly close the gap on them.
Group E – Croatia, Russia, England, Israel, Macedonia, Estonia & Andorra: I said before a ball was even kicked in this group that England might not qualify for Euro 2008 (go and check the archives if you don’t believe me). Their match in Israel is a must-win tomorrow night, because with Croatia and Russia having relatively straightforward looking matches against Estonia and Macedonia, anything other than three points in Tel Aviv will mean that the gap would be four or five points by Sunday morning. Quite why people were writing off the Croats and the Russians before it started is beyond me. Croatia absolutely bossed England when they played them, and with England still having to play the Russians twice, the future will be bleak for Steve McClaren if they don’t win tomorrow, and win in some style too. The Israelis have been impressive so far – they held Russia to a draw in Moscow – and a win for them would see England drop to fourth (or potentially fifth) in the group.
Group F – Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Latvia, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Liechenstein: The highest profile strugglers alongside England at the moment are Spain. With two defeats from their opening three games leave them already four points adrift of second-placed Denmark. They simply have to beat them in Madrid tomorrow, if they’re to stay in touch with them. Sweden have cut through the group like a knife through hot butter so far, with four wins out of four, but they have a night off tonight. Northern Ireland have recovered impressively from their opening home defeat by Iceland, with wins against Spain and Latvia and a creditable draw in Copenhagen against Denmark. They travel to play group whipping-boys, Liechenstein, tomorrow – if they win there and Denmark fail to get a result in Madrid, they’ll be up to second place in the group. Heady days indeed.
Group G – Holland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Luxembourg and Belarus: It’s Robin Van Persie’s group already, this, and the race is now on to see who can see who’ll finish second to the Dutch, who I can’t see tripping up, in spite of the retirement of Roodle Van Noodle in January. The battle for second place, however, could be a tense one – Romania have a game in hand on Bulgaria, but that game in hand was away to Holland, where the Bulgarians picked up a very handy point. Romania would be going some to repeat that feat tomorrow night. Bulgaria have a night off this weekend, so it’s down to the Romanians to grind out a result in Holland tomorrow.