Euro qualifiers reach decision time


There are still ten places at next summer’s European Championship finals in Poland and Ukraine up for grabs with the final two rounds of qualifiers now upon us. Only Germany, Italy, defending champions Spain and the Netherlands are currently guaranteed of a place at Euro 2012 along with the two co-hosts, with the Dutch certain of being the best second-placed team at worst, but the picture will become much clearer over the next week.
England face Montenegro in their last game in Podgorica knowing that a draw will be enough to take them through. However, a defeat would leave first place in Group G in the hands of the tiny Balkan state going into their final match in Switzerland on Tuesday. France are another continental heavyweight on the verge of clinching qualification and they know a win against Group D outsiders Albania at the Stade de France will leave them needing just a point against Bosnia-Herzegovina at the same venue next Tuesday to be sure of first place.
A slip-up by either the English or the French — two traditional powerhouses who have endured their fair share of setbacks in recent times — cannot be ruled out, but the drama is set to be greater elsewhere. Group B is the most open of all, with the top four nations separated by just three points after eight games. Russia are two points clear of Ireland in first place, with Armenia and Slovakia a further point behind. The Russians — semi-finalists at Euro 2008 — face Slovakia in Zilina on Friday knowing that a draw will leave them needing only to beat whipping boys Andorra in Moscow in their final game to be sure of first place. “We are the group favourites, we are in first place. But the main thing is that we’re still in first place on Tuesday,” said a bullish Russia coach Dick Advocaat, who also insisted that he will step down if his team fail to qualify. “We haven’t lost a single away game, so this must give confidence to the players that we can do it,” he added in reference to the Slovakia showdown. Meanwhile, there will be a fiery atmosphere in the port city of Piraeus, where Greece entertain Croatia in what is likely to be the deciding game in Group F.
Croatia overtook Greece at the top of the table last month and a win for Slaven Bilic’s side will guarantee them first place with one round of matches remaining. A win for Greece will put them back in pole position before they go to Georgia on Tuesday, when Croatia host Latvia. “There is a special way to handle these games,” says striker Angelos Charisteas, the man who scored Greece’s winner in the Euro 2004 final and who is back in the squad for the first time in over a year. “We need to be patient, not rush things or get anxious about scoring an early goal and be extra careful not to concede.” “We are very good at home and have proved in the past that we have the personality and mental strength to perform well under pressure.”
The situation is even tighter at the top of Group H, where Portugal, Denmark and Norway are all level on 13 points. However, the Norwegians have just one game left and so wins on Friday for Portugal and the Danes — against Iceland and Cyprus respectively — will set up a decider between the two in Copenhagen next week. “The atmosphere is relaxed and we are confident, even if we know that these games will be decisive,” said Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho. “There is pressure on us to win every game but our recent form has been very good and now we are nearing the finish line.” Eight runners-up will go into playoffs in November to decide the last four places, and Turkey, Serbia, Sweden and the Czech Republic are among the nations who could make sure of second place in their respective groups this weekend.

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