Ah, Monday night. The “morning after the night before” of the football calendar. There was a roster of lower division and non-league matches over the weekend, including the FA Cup, for which the Fourth (and final) Qualifying Round draw was made this morning. I’m going to go on a quick round-up of where we stand with the closing stages of the qualifying stages of the European Championships coming up this evening (I hadn’t really being paying that much attention to all of this, so this is arguably as much for my benefit as it is for anyone else’s), but I would just like to take a moment to congratulate the FA on some brilliantly short-sighted fixture planning in scheduling the Third Qualifying round for the for the same day as a round of European Championship qualifying round matches. It meant that most of the clubs involved were scrabbling around trying to find a free time-slot for their matches, and had an unsurprisingly detrimental affect on crowds. Honestly. With moves like this, and the decision to sell the TV rights to ITV from next season (and I think that we can all guess which way that is going to go), it makes you wonder whether they are actually trying to devalue the competition, not long after it had actually managed to regain some its former swagger.
Meanwhile, though, things are starting to take shape in the qualifying stages for Euro 2008. Most teams have only two or three matches still to play, but only one team so far has actually secured their place in Austria and Switzerland, whilst some of the bigger names are still in danger of failing to make it to the party at all. All will be somewhat clearer by the end of Wednesday night, but now seems like an apposite time to have a look at show the picture is starting to shape up, group by group. The hosts, Austria and Switzerland, of course, qualified automatically and played out a friendly match on Saturday, which Switzerland won by three goals to one.
Group A: Here’s a little curiosity for you. In spite of it being, with more qualifying places on offer, easier than getting to the World Cup Finals, Poland have never made it to the finals of the European Championships before. Weird, huh? It’s a record that would have been broken in five years time when they co-host the competition with Ukraine, but they seem likely to break their duck this time around anyway. They lead Group A by four points from Portugal (even though their match against Kazakhstan was delayed because of a floodlight on Saturday evening. It had been looking possible that one of the biggest surprises of the qualifying stages could come with Finland sitting in second place in the group, but they dropped two vital points away to Belgium on Saturday, meaning that the Portuguese are now in second place on goal difference from the Finns, and with a game in hand.
Group B: Scotland’s 3-1 win against Ukraine on Saturday knocked out Poland’s co-hosts for 2012, meaning that it’s now a three-way battle to the death between the Scots, Italy and France. With two matches to play, just two points separate Scotland at the top of the group and France in third place, and France and Italy kept the pressure up on Scotland with comfortable wins last weekend. Scotland should beat Georgia on Wednesday, meaning that Italy would have to win at Hampden Park in their penultimate qualifying match next month. France don’t have a showdown like that to look forward to, but they do still have to go to Ukraine in November, meaning that this group is likely to go right to the wire.
Group C: A win and two draws would be enough to see the defending champions, Greece, through to the finals, though this isn’t as clear cut as one might expect. Two of their remaining three matches are against their nearest challengers, Turkey and Norway. Turkey slipped up on Saturday, only managing a 1-1 draw in Moldova, whilst Norway had a free day. The Turks are at home to Greece (not a match that needs much of a reason on the pitch to be something of a political hot potato), whilst the Norwegians travel south to Bosnia. The really crucial match in this group with most likely come next month, when Turkey travel to Oslo to face Norway next month. Norway have only qualified for the finals of the European Championships before, but it would be foolish, in my humble opinion, to write off a team with players of the calibre of John Arne Riise, Morten Gamst Pedersen and John Carew.
Group D: This is the most clear-cut of all of the groups, with Germany having already qualified and Czech Republic needing just one more point to join them. The Czechs are five points clear of Ireland with a game in hand. Wales were knocked out in Saturday after they lost to, umm, Cyprus. At the bottom of the table, San Marino deserve some sort of award – they lost 7-0 to Slovakia at the weekend, bringing their goals against tally in this competition to a somewhat magnificent fifty. They should really let them, along with the Faroe Islands and Andorra (the other teams that have failed to get a single point between them in these qualifiers) play a mini-tournament during next year’s finals.
Group E: England, for all the dismal football they’ve played over the last fourteen months or so, still have a good chance of reaching the finals and, with just two goals conceded in their ten matches so far (and nine clean sheets), they’ve got the best defensive record of anyone in the tournament. Mind you, they only conceded two goals in the World Cup last year, and how far did that get them? They’re five points ahead of Russia at the moment, but the Russians have a game in hand and they play each other in Moscow in Wednesday night. The excuse about having to play in a plastic pitch is primed and ready to roll out on Thursday morning. Croatia are already virtually there, and will be through should Russia fail to win on Wednesday night. England could still mess this up, but with three decent enough wins in a row, they are coming into form at the right time.
Group G: Northern Ireland stood on the brink of an amazing qualification, but have collapsed recently in losing to Latvia and Iceland, leaving Spain and Sweden free to cruise to the top of the group. Northern Ireland probably to win their last three qualifying matches to get through, and they are against Spain, Sweden and Denmark. Gulp. The table might look a little more pleasing for them by the end of Wednesday night. They are at home against Denmark, whilst Spain play Sweden. It still looks likely that Spain and Sweden will have enough in the tank to get through.
Group H: Romania only need to beat Luxembourg on Wednesday after beating Holland in Bucharest on Saturday to book their place. The Dutch seem to have made rather hard work of qualifying, but they have three comfortable matches to finish off with. Seven points out of nine in their last three matches against Slovenia, Luxembourg and Belarus will see them through (the Slovenia match is, on paper, the trickiest of those free), but Bulgaria are still breathing down their necks, and a surprise result in favour of Slovenia could still the group wide open. It looks like being Holland and Romania, though.