Saturday, March 24, 2007

Euro 2008 Qualifiers: Preview

Today sees the next 'double header' of matches begin in the Euro 2008 qualifying competition, so let's review what's happened so far and what might happen over the next week or so.

Group A
Finland have made the best start in Group A but they could end the day in third place as Serbia travel to Kazakhstan and Poland play host to Azerbaijan. Both teams are just one point behind the Finns, but Serbia have the all-important game in hand over both of them. That said, Finland have already won in Poland 3-1 back in September and Serbia have already beaten Belgium.

Portugal and Belgium are already four points behind Finland but things aren’t set to improve for either of them any time soon. After playing each other today, Portugal travel to Serbia next Wednesday and Belgium don’t play at all.

Group B
The ‘Group of Death’ is giving the Scots little to be fearful about so far. They top the group ahead of France despite having an inferior goal difference. Scotland’s 1-0 victory over the French in October earned them first place but they’ve since lost 2-0 to Ukraine and seen Alex McLeish take over the managerial reins from Walter Smith.

Today, Scotland travel to Georgia who have already lost 3-0 at home to the French so McLeish’s men will be aiming to inflict a similar score on them today. Elsewhere, France travel to Lithuania while third-placed Italy must wait until Wednesday for their next match, at home to the Scots.

The world champions haven’t made the most confident start to their campaign, drawing 1-1 at home to Lithuania before losing 3-1 away to France, but they may have turned the corner after a hard-earned 2-0 win at home to Ukraine, who are fourth.

Ukraine could be in third place or higher by the end of the week as they have two comparatively easy fixtures to come – a trip to the Faroe Islands today and a home match against Lithuania during the week.

Group C
Turkey and Greece have an almost identical record at the top of Group C at the moment. Both teams won all three of their opening games and are yet to concede a goal, which makes today’s match between the two in Athens all the more interesting.

The reigning European champions made a tentative start, but their 1-0 win at home to third-placed Norway in October could be an indicator of who the stronger team is in Group C. It’ll be interesting to see how Turkey get on when they play the Norwegians at home on Wednesday while the Greeks visit Malta on the same day.

Group D
Group D, like Group C, sees the top two fighting it out against each other today. Germany and the Czech Republic both have ten points from a possible twelve, although there’s no doubt who has the superior goal difference after Germany’s 13-0 victory over San Marino last year.

Strangely, both teams have slipped up against weaker opposition than themselves. The Czech Republic were the first to drop points after a draw in Dublin, but the Germans failed to make the most of the advantage when they drew 1-1 away to Cyprus. The winner of today’s game will regain the advantage again, so it would seem, but Germany don’t have a match on Wednesday while the Czechs go to Cyprus themselves.

Three points behind the leaders (but having played an extra game) are the Republic of Ireland who today play host to Wales at Croke Park. Both teams have made faltering starts and don’t appear to be in a position to stop the top two in their tracks. The Irish only grabbed a winner away to San Marino in the dying seconds of their last match while Wales have already taken a 5-1 home beating against Slovakia.

Group E
England have it all to do since slipping to third place in their group. A recent loss of form will need to be reversed away to Israel today before the virtual formality of a win in Andorra follows on Wednesday.

After a 5-0 win in their first match at home to the Andorrans and a 1-0 win away to Macedonia, England failed to score in either of the next two. That will give group leaders Croatia one less thing to worry about as they welcome Macedonia to their own ground today.

The Croatians have won three of their first four matches, only dropping points in the 0-0 draw away to Russia that opened their campaign. Russia today travel to Estonia looking to bridge the two point gap they trail by, but like Croatia they play just once this week.

As for Israel – on seven points with England and Macedonia – they’ll also be playing Estonia in their Wednesday game in Tel Aviv.

Group F
Sweden are the clear leaders in Group F. They have a five point lead ahead of second-placed Denmark who have two games in hand on them. The Swedes have made an impressive start, winning all four of their games – one of which was a 2-0 victory at home to Spain.

The sense of achievement from that result was somewhat diminished, however, when Northern Ireland beat the Spanish 3-2 at home in the previous fixture. That goes some way to explaining why Lawrie Sanchez’s team are currently third in the group while Spain find themselves behind Latvia in fifth and change may not yet be imminent.

Spain today face Denmark for the first time in the competition while Northern Ireland go to Liechtenstein, and with Latvia visiting the tiny principality on Wednesday, Spain may yet have to wait for their rise up the table even if they do beat Iceland on the same day.

Denmark sit out the Wednesday fixtures, but they’ll be keeping an eye on Sweden’s trip to Belfast the same day to find out where they stand ahead of the next round of games in June.

Northern Ireland‘s great start came only after defeat at home to Iceland in their first game. The win against Spain, a hard-fought goalless draw away to Denmark and a 1-0 over Latvia has since given them their best chance to qualify for a major championship for twenty years.

Group G
The Netherlands lead a three way fight for first place in Group G. Their perfect start was brought to an end after a 1-1 draw away to nearest challengers Bulgaria last October though Bulgaria have also drawn 2-2 away to Romania who are in third.

An interesting match should ensue today as the Netherlands play host to Romania while Wednesday’s games see the top three all playing weaker opposition – Bulgaria playing at home to Albania, Romania awaiting the visit of Luxembourg and the Netherlands playing Slovenia for the first time.

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