SALAMANCA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: Fernando Llorente (L) of Spain celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the EURO 2012 Qualifying Group I match between Spain and Lithuania at the Helmantico stadium on October 8, 2010 in Salamanca, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Euro 2012 Qualifying: Order, Big Three Emerge After Third Match Day

Qualifying for Euro 2012 is starting to take shape, with UEFA's big three having already made themselves the class of the pre-tournament tournament.

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Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group I: Injuries Or Not, Spain Set To Cruise Through Group

Group I Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Spain 2 2 0 0 7 1 +6 6
Scotland 3 1 1 1 2 2 0 4
Lithuania 3 1 1 1 2 3 -1 4
Czech Republic 2 1 0 1 1 1 0 3
Liechtenstein 2 0 0 2 1 6 −5 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Scotland let the group thanks to four points and a Lithuania victory at the Czech Republic, allowing the Tartan Army to go top on a tiebreaker. Of course, the real reason for that status was Spain having an early off day, having only played Liechtenstein during the September match break. The holders were expected to use the October break to resume their place atop the group, having matches with Lithuania and Scotland.

Where They Stand, Now: Thanks to the Czech Republic getting three in Praha over Scotland, Spain was able to go top with their win over Lithuania. In doing so, the Rojo illustrated while their talent pool is the world's envy, ultimately posting a comfortable victory despite missing five contributors.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Are the Czechs too far removed from their peak?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Spain
  2. Lithuania
  3. Czech Republic
  4. Scotland
  5. Liechtenstein

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group H: Are Norway Too Far In Front?

Group H Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Norway 3 3 0 0 5 2 +3 9
Portugal 3 1 1 1 7 6 +1 4
Denmark 2 1 0 1 2 3 −1 3
Cyprus 2 0 1 1 5 6 −1 1
Iceland 2 0 0 2 1 3 −2 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: While Carlos Queiroz's drug test games had distracted us, Norway had quietly assumed a cat bird's seat. With wins at Iceland and against Portugal, the Norweigans were the group's only six point team. With Denmark on three but about to visit Portugal, Egil Olsen's team was a minor upset in Cyprus and a Denmark trip in Porto way from dominating this group.

Where They Stand, Now: And that's exactly what happened. John Arne Riise put Norway in front early, a lead they never gave up, while Portugal was very convincing in beating Denmark. While Paulo Bento's Selecçao debut hinted that Portugal was ready to resume the role as the group's best team, their five points deficit with five matches left may be too much to overcome, with Portugal already having lost in Oslo.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: With Paulo Bento's releasing the reigns return Portugal to prominence?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Norway
  2. Portugal
  3. Denmark
  4. Cyprus
  5. Iceland

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group G: The Tenuous Throne Of Montenegro

Group G Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Montenegro 3 3 0 0 3 0 +3 9
England 2 2 0 0 7 1 +6 6
Bulgaria 3 1 0 2 1 5 −4 3
Wales 2 0 0 2 0 2 −2 0
Switzerland 2 0 0 2 1 4 −3 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: England had asserted control of the group with a win at Switzerland while Montenegro, even on points, had kept-up with two 1-0 wins. The Welsh and Switz, both second place aspirants, were left without points after their first match, with Wales changing coaches after the September break.

Where They Stand, Now: Though they have played only two matches, Switzerland and Wales may be too far behind Montenegro, with a five team group meaning two fewer matches to catch-up. Meanwhile, the Montenegrans sit atop the quintet, and while that could start to go south Tuesday in London, they've still put up 270 scoreless minutes to start qualifying.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Can Montenegro hold serve in their four post-London matches?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. England
  2. Montenegro
  3. Switzerland
  4. Bulgaria
  5. Wales

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group F: Croatia's Win In Israel Gives Blazers Early Control

Group F Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Croatia 3 2 1 0 5 1 +4 7
Georgia 3 1 2 0 2 1 +1 5
Greece 3 1 2 0 2 1 +1 5
Israel 3 1 1 1 4 3 +1 4
Latvia 3 1 0 2 2 4 −2 3
Malta 3 0 0 3 1 6 −5 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Croatia and Israel were tied atop a group poised for a five team race. Greece had drawn both their matches, as had Georgia, whose young talent was starting to pay dividends. Latvia, coming off a third place finish in World Cup qualifying, sat in the same spot, though their only point had come against Malta.

Where They Stand, Now: Greece and Georgia's first victories have kept Croatia from running away from the pack, though Slaven Bilic's win in Israel gives the Croats valuable points Greece are unlikely to get. As such, Croatia has taken control of Group F, looking like the only above average team in doing so.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Will the young Greek come along fast enough to challenge Croatia?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Croatia
  2. Greece
  3. Israel
  4. Georgia
  5. Latvia
  6. Malta

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group E: Netherlands, Sweden Set To Runaway With Group

Group E Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Netherlands 3 3 0 0 8 1 +7 9
Sweden 2 2 0 0 8 0 +8 6
Hungary 3 2 0 1 10 3 +7 6
Moldova 3 1 0 2 3 3 0 3
Finland 2 0 0 2 1 4 −3 0
San Marino 3 0 0 3 0 19 −19 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Things had gotten top-heavy quick, with the Netherlands and Sweden combining for 12 points in four matches, posting a 15:1 goal ratio in the process. That clarity was granted by Finland, who in losing their opening match at Moldova quickly and starkly illustrated the difference between themselves and the duo who will be in this tournament come November 2011.

Where They Stand, Now: Though Hungary's destruction of San Marino superficially inflated their record, the group's lead duo remain entrenched at the top. The Netherlands were not their usual, dominant self in Moldova, winning only 0-1, but the Dutch remained and on-track before their Tueday match in Amsterdam against the Swedes.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Will Sweden stay perfect against the group's bottom four, allowing them to steal this group with a home win over the Netherlands (and tiebreakers)?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Netherlands
  2. Sweden
  3. Hungary
  4. Finland
  5. Moldova
  6. San Marino

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group D: France Quickly Overcomes Early Troubles

Group D Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
France 3 2 0 1 4 1 +3 6
Albania 3 1 2 0 3 2 +1 5
Belarus 3 1 2 0 1 0 +1 5
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3 1 1 1 4 3 +1 4
Romania 3 0 2 1 1 3 −2 2
Luxembourg 3 0 1 2 0 4 −4 1

How Things Were, Before Friday: Albania and Belarus was tied atop the group, testament to the missed opportunities missed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, and Romania. Their struggles combined with a Belarussian win in France had this group looking a lot like the group France and Romania occupied in World Cup qualifying, a group ultimately won by Serbia.

Where They Stand, Now: Though Albania and Belarus are still without losses, France put forth a second consecutive convincing performance, building on their round two, road win at Bosnia and Herzegovina with a dominant performance against Romania (even if their goals came late). When was the last time Les Bleus put together two successive strong performances? If that's an indication Laurent Blanc has figured out something Raymond Domenech never could, Group D will quickly become a lot less interesting.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Has Blanc finally make France into a team?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. France
  2. Belarus
  3. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  4. Albania
  5. Romania
  6. Luxembourg

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group C: Unproved Italy Sees Chief Challenger Stumble

Group C Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Italy 3 2 1 0 7 1 +6 7
Estonia 3 2 0 1 6 4 +2 6
Northern Ireland 2 1 1 0 1 0 +1 4
Serbia 3 1 1 1 5 4 +1 4
Slovenia 3 1 1 1 6 3 +3 4
Faroe Islands 4 0 0 4 2 15 −13 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Italy was perfect but still unproved, having drawn Estonia and the Faroes to start the tournament. Serbia had tripped, changed coaches, but still seemed capable to taking the group. Northern Ireland was the dark horse, with Slovenia's challenge mitigated by having lost at home.

Where They Stand, Now: Serbia is in chaos, with Vladimir Petrovic's debut dramatically failing, losing at home to Estonia. That left Italy top of the group after a draw in Belfast,a result that should have us considering Northern Ireland more seriously; however, that result only feeds the feeling that nobody from Group C is set to step forward and take the group from the Azzurri.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Will Cesare Prandelli get Italy figured out before one of Northern Ireland, Serbia, or Slovenia can distinguish themselves?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Italy
  2. Northern Ireland
  3. Serbia
  4. Slovenia
  5. Estonia
  6. Faroe Islands

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group B: Slovakia, Russia, Ireland Try To Give Away Control

Group B Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Slovakia 3 2 0 1 3 3 0 6
Russia 3 2 0 1 5 3 +2 6
Republic of Ireland 3 2 0 1 6 4 +2 6
Armenia 3 1 1 1 5 4 +1 4
Macedonia 3 1 1 1 4 3 +1 4
Andorra 3 0 0 3 1 7 −6 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Slovakia's win in Moscow had given them the group's first advantage - three points few expected them to get. At the same time, the Dick Advocaat era in Moscow had gotten off to a disastrous start. And as they looked-on from their minnow-battling distance, Ireland had not only raced to the top of the group but also, having seen the group favorites lose at home, given themselves reason to believe they could win the group.

Where They Stand, Now:  Ireland was rocked in Dublin by Russia. Although the final score, 2-3, was close, Russia scoring three goals against a Giovanni Trapattoni team intent on preventing goals exposed the former group-leaders. Combine that with Slovakia's shock loss in Armenia and Macedonia's first win and five nations are within two points at the top of the group.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Can Slovakia do what Russia and Ireland did not: Get points at home?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Russia
  2. Ireland
  3. Slovakia
  4. Armenia
  5. Macedonia
  6. Andorra

Euro 2012 Qualifying, Group A: Where Germany's Asserted Control

Group A Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Germany 3 3 0 0 10 1 +9 9
Austria 2 2 0 0 5 0 +5 6
Turkey 3 2 0 1 6 5 +1 6
Belgium 3 1 0 2 4 4 0 3
Kazakhstan 3 0 0 3 0 7 −7 0
Azerbaijan 2 0 0 2 1 9 −8 0

How Things Were, Before Friday: Germany's win in Brussels had the favorites half-way toward controlling the group, with Belgium's subsequent loss in Turkey leaving the Red Devils pointless after two rounds. With the Germans and Turks perched atop the group, Austria's win over Kazakhstan, coupled with Belgian misfortunes, threatened to make this a four nation group.

Where They Stand, Now: For Germany, Turkey proved less of a problem than Belgium, while in Kazakhstan, Belgium overcame a scoreless first half to post their first three points. Meanwhile, Austria was cruising past Kazakhstan, staking an easy set of opening fixtures to second place.

Question That Will Define The Group, Going Forward: Did Marvin Ogunjimi's second half brace fast-forward Belgium's maturation?

Predicted Order Of Finish:

  1. Germany
  2. Belgium
  3. Turkey
  4. Austria
  5. Kazakhstan
  6. Azerbaijan

Euro 2012 Qualifying: Order, Big Three Emerge After Third Match Day

It's taken only three rounds of UEFA's Euro 2012 qualifying before some semblance of order's come to the nine groups. While we entered Friday's matches with Scotland and Sweden outpacing Spain and the Netherlands, by the end of the day's seven hours of soccer, the world's top two teams had regained their groups' leads. When France beat Romania at Stade de France on Saturday, Albania ceded their Group D lead to Les Blues, leaving Norway and Montenegro as the only eyebrow-raising group leaders.

Where They Stand

We're too far away from the October 2011-end of Euro qualifying to have a good idea of who will be in Poland and Ukraine two summers from now, but good ideas often aren't fun ones, so let's go with fun.

The top sixteen teams on this list are how Euro 2012 might look, if qualifying ended now. There is so much wrong with doing this that I'll let you figure out why it wouldn't work. Just know we acknowledge all it's problems, including picking the four playoff winners by nothing more than FIFA ranking (which is how UEFA decided the "seeded" nations for World Cup playoffs).

Just go with it. This will all seem more realistic when we do it again, two days from now.

Group Leaders
A Germany
B Slovakia
C Italy
D France
E Netherlands
F Croatia
G Montenegro
H Norway
I Spain
Top Runner-Up
G England
Top Rated Runners-Up
H Portugal
B Russia
E Sweden
I Scotland
Host Poland
Host Ukraine
Other Runners-Up
A Austria
D Albania
C Estonia
F Georgia
Other High-Rated Nations
F Greece
C Serbia
C Slovenia
G Switzerland
A Turkey

Montenegro's Group G lead is one part England's off day, one part Switzerland's stumbles, and another part Mirko Vucinic. When the Montenegrans go to London on Tuesday they will likely give their lead back to the Three Lions, who sit on six points through two matches. Still, with three 1-0 victories to open qualifying - two thanks to Vucinic goals - the Falcons are three steps ahead of Switzerland, who sit on no points through their first two rounds.

If Montenegro leads a group, there's no reason why Norway can't, though their five point lead over Portugal - the biggest lead of any group leader - is far less tenuous. Norway has already beaten Portugal, and they made surprisingly straight-forward work of a Cyprus team that had recent, strong performances against the Selecçao and Italy. Coming into this tournament, the Cypriots looked the better bet to challenge Portugal and Denmark for the group's top two. Now, that duo may already be too far behind Norway the realistically think they can win the group.

But beyond the performances of the tournament's upstarts, the third day of Euro 2012 qualifying was more about the favorites - how each performed without some of their biggest stars.

In Berlin, Germany spent the days leading into Turkey's visit considering the importance of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Their switch to two holding midfielders a year ago coupled with Torsten Frings and Michael Ballack being eased out of the team has left the Nationalmannschaft thin in the pivot. When Schweinsteiger withdrew from the team with injury, that thinness was taxed. Against Turkey, Joachim Löw went with Toni Kroos in the pivot, a move that initially  underscored the Germans' dependence on Schweinsteiger. After a 3-0 dismantling of Turkey, Schweinsteiger's absence turned to exhibition of strength.

Schweinsteiger's club teammate with Bayern Munich, winger Arjen Robben, has been out since the World Cup final, a loss also being felt by the Dutch national team. Perhaps that, along with the absence of forward Robin van Persie and the exile of midfielder Nigel de Jong, is why the Netherlands was unable to rack-up their customary, lop-sided result against Moldova. A first half goal from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar - his sixth of qualifying - is all the Dutch would need, all they would get, though the possession advantages, the fluidity that exemplified their pre-World Cup play were there. With a little more dynamism in the final third - a little more Robben and van Persie - the Dutch will resume living-up to their second-in-the-world billing.

First in the world is still Spain, though without Xavi Hernández, it took the world champions forty-five minutes to remember their stature. It may not be fair to attribute all those struggles to their playmaker's absence. Also out was Fernando Torres, though that seemed less of an issue after Fernando Llorente's second half brace staked the holders to a 3-1 home win over Lithuania.

Of note, though, was how Spain went about their goals, changing tact after a scoreless first half. Like most of Spain's opponents, Lithuania stayed deep, narrow and compact, but unlike Spain's common solutions - relying on David Villa brilliance or the easing open of cracks by Hernández and Andrés Iniesta - Vincent del Bosque was more blunt. Both Llorente goals saw Spain build through their right flank, get behind the defense, and find the Bilbão man for headers.

While they were goals Torres is capable of, they weren't goals we've seen of late from El Niño. Beyond Llorente's usurping Torres in the World Cup, Friday's performance was  testament as to why Spain's incumbent striker is not del Bosque's best starting option.

And though, like the Netherlands, Spain had a harder time than expected, Friday gave them, the Dutch, and the Germans another opportunity to reinforce order in Europe. The gap between number three and UEFA's field continues to grow. With the likes of Italy, England, Portugal and France continuing to serve as glass half-fulls, the space beneath Germany has become as big as South America's chasm between Argentina and the likes of Paraguay and Chile.

The Lay of the Land

Combine that hierarchy with the strength of Europe's nine groups and you start to get a good idea of where each team stands.

First, you have the nations that are almost shoe-ins to qualify for Euro 2012:

Shoe-ins: Germany (Group A), Netherlands (Group E), Croatia (Group F), England (Group G), Spain (Group I)

If the Netherlands are drawn by Sweden on Tuesday, they would (remarkably) drop out of this group. Given how the Dutch played on Friday, is it beyond reason to think that Sweden could play-for and get a draw? England is here by virtue of their group, while Croatia's win at Ramat Gan has given them a prohibitive advantage over an otherwise mediocre group.

Sure, one of Croatia or England could still trip-up and make me rue my "shoe-in" designation, but equivocation's rarely fun. Let me have this one, OK? While this may seem ironic coming from a writer's fingers, we can't let things like definitions constrain us.

Inside track: Slovakia (Group B), Italy (Group C), France (Group D), Sweden (Group E), Montenegro (Group G), Norway (Group I), Portugal (Group I)

Some of these inside track teams will soon meet obstacles, but until they do, they remain on course to qualify. For Sweden and Montenegro, those obstacles come Tuesday.  For France and Portugal, the obstacles will continue to be internal, both teams having convincingly overcome them on Friday. Italy and Slovakia, however, tripped, though they still have the best track records in their group, neither having dropped points at home.

Within sight: Austria, Belgium, Turkey (Group A); Ireland, Russia (Group B); Northern Ireland (Group C); Georgia, Greece (Group F); Denmark (Group H); Scotland, Lithuania (Group I).

Austria and Belgium face-off in Brussels on Tuesday, likely to be the Austrian's first blemish of qualifying. Both Serbia and Slovenia have stumbled at home in Group C, keeping them a step behind Northern Ireland. Greece and Georgia's early draws have been forgiven by an easy (if even) group, while nobody beside France looks convincing in Group D.

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