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With Spain having yet to show weakness, Group I's drama surroundings second place - the playoff spot. Right now, Scotland holds that position, but with the Czech Republic facing minnows Liechtenstein, the Tartans are likely to give-up the "lead." With the group's other playoff contender, Lithuania, on the sideline Tuesday, Group I seems rather predictable ahead of round four's kick-offs.
Spain will likely stay perfect. The Czechs will take their turn in second. Scotland's goal difference should drop them behind Lithuania, while Liechtenstein will sit last.
Liechtenstein versus Czech Republic, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, Rheinpark Stadion, Vaduz - The Czechs are bracing themselves for an opponent set-up to draw, but having unlocked Scotland on Friday, Michal Bilek's team should be drilled in how to break-down a bunkered squad. Should they do so, the group's Pot 2 team will have overcome their round two loss to Lithuania, rising to second place only two matches later.
Scotland versus Spain, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Hampden Park, Glasgow - Scotland's team is a bit lead-footed to be expected to keep-up with Spain, particularly if Alan Hutton and Darren Fletcher do not play. Spain is expected to get Xabi Alonso back, which will only put more pressure on David Weir and Stephen McManus in central defense. While Craig Levein has publicly been holding-out hope of an upset, the Scotland manager would be happy with a one goal loss against a team he called the best the Scots have ever faced.
Qualifying in UEFA's five team groups goes by quickly. For example, when Portugal leaves the pitch in Iceland on Tuesday, they will be half-way through qualifying, only underscoring the need to get three points from the match in Reykjavík. Already five points behind Norway (having lost in Oslo), Paulo Bento can't afford to see his team stumble.
Denmark is a similar situation, needing a win, though having a match-in-hand on the Norweigans (and Portuguese), things are not as dire for the Danes. In turn, their Tuesday match in Copenhagen against Cyprus stands to be slightly easier than Portugal's task, though Cyprus's 4-4 draw in Portugal is one of the reasons this group has taken an early Norwegian lean.
Denmark versus Cyprus, 2:15 p.m. Eastern, Parken Stadium, Copenhagen - Where Efstathios Aloneftis is out (thigh) and Chrysostomos Michail is a doubt, Cyprus's fitness concerns heighten the odds against them. Denmark got the wake-up call of Friday's 3-1 loss in Porto, meaning they're unlikely to overlook the upset-minded Cypriots. Though they enter the day six points back of Norway, a win by Denmark, who have yet to face the group leaders, keeps their group-winning destiny in Danish hands.
Iceland versus Portugal, 3:45 p.m. Eastern, Laugardalsvöllur, Reykjavík - The Selecçao showed a surprising amount of daring and fluidity on Friday, a skill level we thought Carlos Queiroz had drained out of them. Apparently, Paulo Bento has come along at just the right time, though coming-off the Denmark triumph, there is the danger that this trip to Iceland will serve as a trap match. Momentum, however, should carry a Portuguese team happy to have the reigns taken off.
Something's gotta give. Group G is led by England and Montenegro, who both have perfect records thus far in qualification, although Montenegro have played three matches to England's two. On the other end of the spectrum, Switzerland and Wales, neither of which have recorded points, meet in a match that many have already ruled out as inconsequential. Bulgaria, sitting in the middle, have an off day on Tuesday.
Switzerland v Wales, 2:30 p.m. Eastern: Both coaches are feeling quite pessimistic about this match, although Brian Flynn much more so, stating that Wales' hopes of qualifying have been "severely damaged." Ottmar Hitzfeld has a bit more belief in his team, saying that Switzerland will be able to win its next two games at home. The Swiss squad is expected to be healthy, with the return of goalkeeper Diego Benaglio possible, while the Welsh contingent continues to see its players fall away. Hal Robson-Kanu has a hamstring injury, Andy Williams picked up an ankle issue against Bulgaria and is questionable for play, Chris Gunter was sent off in the last match and won't be available, and Joe Ledley will miss the match to be with his pregnant partner. Captain Craig Bellamy is still nursing a knee injury. No wonder Wales-still operating under a caretaker manager-are suffering from a lack of confidence.
England v Montenegro, 3 p.m. Eastern: The problem with England having had an off day on Friday is that the English media have had plenty of time to write about the upcoming match with Montenegro. Some fill their pages with dread, once again preferring to underestimate the Three Lions. Some take it for granted that England have already qualified. Very few take a middle ground. What is evident is that England are in a bit of an injury crisis right now. Although Rio Ferdinand has returned, reclaiming the captain's armband from Steven Gerrard, the back remains weak, with John Terry out with a back problem and Phil Jagielka with a hamstring injury. Ferdinand will instead be partnered by Joleon Lescott, who has yet to prove himself for either club or country. To add to Fabio Capello's woes, Frank Lampard remains out, still recovering from surgery (although many will say that this is actually a benefit to England), Darren Bent and Jermaine Defoe are injured, Theo Walcott has an ankle injury and Aaron Lennon pulled out with a sore back. In some ways, Capello will be relying on players inexperienced at the national level-but in other ways, he'll be the same old Fabio. For instance, does anyone believe that Wayne Rooney won't be starting, even with his recent lackluster form? While the talent is still evident in the England squad, this just might be Montenegro's time to shine. Should they capitalize on the weakness in England's back line-exempting Ashley Cole on the left-or take advantage of the fact that this squad has little experience playing together, England might find itself humbled once again.
Switzerland 1-0 Wales
England 2-1 Montenegro
Meanwhile, Israel and Latvia look to keep up in the race for second, both nations having stumbled in round three. Neither team were favored in their matches, with Israel losing to Croatia while Latvia lost at Greece, but at some point in qualifying, the Israelis and Latvians are going to have to spring a surprise. Neither team was expected to get to Poland and Ukraine, which means they will have to pick-up some unexpected points if they intend to make the trip.
Tuesday is another opportunity to do so.
Latvia versus Georgia, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, Skonto Stadium, Riga - I'm not sure we are to the point where Georgia can be favored at Latvia. In fact, the upstart, undefeated side is probably the underdog, but there'll be little reason to believe Temuri Ketsbaia's can take the his team to the next level if he can't get a result at the nation slated to finish fifth. To do so, they will have to overcome the absence of defender Zurab Khizanishvili, suspended for this match.
Greece versus Israel, 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Karaiskaskis Stadium, Pireaus - The effects of Yossi Benayoun's loss can not be understated. The Israeli captain is probably out until 2011 with an Achilles injury, severely undermining the team's ability to take advantage of this open group. Whereas once Israel looked to have a chance to qualify for this first major tournament in over 40 years, now their task is survival, with the hopes that 2011 will see a healthy Benayoun return to faint Israeli hopes. Greece being without Vassilios Torossidis (suspended) and goalkeeper Alexandros Tziolis (broken leg) will help.
If Moldova can hold the Netherlands to one goal (as they did on Friday), surely a more talented Sweden can hold the Arjen Robben-less, Robin van Persie-less Dutch scoreless. Let's consider the implications if they do.
The Swedes will have taken a point from their most difficult match and given themselves two routes to winning Group E. First, if they beat the Netherlands in Solna next year, they would probably win the group. However, in the interim, Sweden would also have a chance to rack-up a goal difference advantage. If they carry that into the October 2011 match, a draw could win them the group.
But that's October 2011. We're way ahead of ourselves. On Tuesday, Sweden has to take the first step, which will center around preventing Wesley Sneijder from setting-up Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Dirk Kuyt (let alone scoring on his own). Lyon's Kim Kallstrom will be the key man, playing a deep-sitting midfield role that will see him matched-up with the Dutch playmaker.
If Kallstrom can impersonate a world-class destroyer for 90 minutes, Sweden can get a result. The biggest problem with that plan: Kallstrom's not a world-class destroyer.
Finland versus Hungary, 11:30 a.m. Eastern, Helsinki Olympic Stadium - Finland's shock loss in Moldova means they have no further margin for error. Even a draw against Hungary will likely put second place out of reach. As such, Stuart Baxter has been able to convince Jussi Jaaskelainen to come out of international retirement for one match, alleviating fitness concerns at the goalkeeper position.
San Marino versus Moldova, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, Stadio Olimpico de Serravalle - The one road match Moldova will be favored to win - San Marino is that bad.
Netherlands versus Sweden, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, Amsterdam ArenA - The Netherlands' Friday performance in Moldova was likely an off day, but if it wasn't - if the Oranje is really that hindered without Robben and van Persie - they could control 66 percent of the possession but be left with a 0-0. Or worse, Zlatan Ibrahimovic could continue scoring goals and steal three points for Sweden.
Les Bleus' recent history would have them give away control of Group D now that their Saturday win over Romania has vaulted them top of the group, but with Luxembourg at the Stade Saint-Symphorien on Tuesday, not even France will be able to forgo this opportunity. And in truth, these sentiments may apply to a France mentality that has passed, with Laurent Blanc's stewardship of the troubled squad yielding early indications that talent may be ready to win out over turmoil. While their qualifying started with a shock home loss to Belarus, France's follow-up wins at Bosnia and Herzegovina and versus Romania hint Les Bleus are back.
If that's the case, Group D's fight will be for second place. That's where Tuesday's match in Belarus comes in.
Belarus versus Albania, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, Stadyen Spartak, Minsk - Both teams are undefeated, drawn on five points in Group D's second place, though all is not well with the upstarts. Belarus will be without their greatest goalscoring threat after Sergei Kornilenko picked up a red card against Luxembourg on Friday. Aleksandr Hleb is also a doubt, leaving younger brother Vyacheslav the team's last legitimate goal scoring threat. Albania will also be without a star, with captain Lorik Cana scheduled to miss the match. They will also be without coach Josip Kuze, at home recovering from a stroke.
France versus Luxembourg, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Stade Saint-Symphorien, Metz - Do I need to go into the details here? France is playing as well as they have at any point in the last four years while Luxembourg is coming off a home draw where they couldn't score against a 10-man Belarus. France will be fine.
"Italy's unproven" has been the theme surrounding this blog's coverage of Group C, a theme I believe holds up to scrutiny. After all, this is a team that's only won twice in 2010, beating Estonia and the Faroe Islands. While their trip to Belfast on Friday produced a reasonable result (a scoreless draw with Northern Ireland), we remain in this uncertain, are they any good place regarding Italy.
That shouldn't last much longer. On Tuesday, the Azzurri should get a greater test, with Serbia going to the Luigi Ferraris for the teams' fourth round match.
That's one of three Euro 2012 matches on Tuesday's docket from Group C, though let's talk about that one last. We need to establish the stakes, play-writes - talk about where the competition's likely to sit at the end of the day:
Faroe Islands versus Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland has positioned themselves to be Italy's replacement, should the Azzurri fail to find their long-lost form. A win at Slovenia and a draw with Italy have the green and white set for seven points, should they dispatch confederation minnows the Faroe Islands.
Still, you wonder if Tuesday's hosts won't have noticed Steven Davis's revolutionary corner kick technique and put a little lead at the end of the flag.
Estonia versus Slovenia - Estonia is the shock second place team after three rounds, winning in Beograd 1-3 on Friday. Slovenia, however, will be a much tougher team to beat, even through the venue moves to Tallinn. Whereas Estonia's thrived as much on the mistakes of others as their own initiative, Slovenia is known for their lack of mistakes. While they are a limited side talent-wise, Slovenia is well prepared and opportunistic. In short, Estonia may not have enough Northern Irish patience and discipline to replicate that nation's results.
Italy versus Serbia - Serbia's Dejan Stankovic will have license to control the midfield, with Italy's Daniele de Rossi ruled out. That absence, the numerical advantage of Serbia's four midfielders (against Italy's three), and the visitor's talent make this a dangerous test for an Italy team that's failed to impress. In addition, they'll be facing a wounded Serbia that just lost at home to Estonia. If Serbia can't muster a good effort in this match, they're a lost cause.
Cesare Prandelli will hope Serbia's desperation exposes an already leaky defense, allowing Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini to give the Azzurri control of Group C.
Faroe Islands 0, Northern Ireland 2
Estonia 0, Slovenia 1
Italy 1, Serbia 2
Slovakia, Russia and Ireland all sit on six points in Group B, with Slovakia on top due to their win in Moscow. After that surprise loss, and a lackluster win against Andorra, many started to wonder if Russia, who had been tipped to finish top, would play themselves out of the competition. But the win against Ireland in Dublin brought them back into the fold, and their fluid attacking style showed that Russia are still the team to beat in this group. Meanwhile, Armenia’s 3-1 victory over Slovakia and Macedonia’s 0-2 win away at Andorra gave them both four points and hope, albeit slim, to move on to the tournament proper.
Armenia v Andorra, 11 a.m. ET: Andorra, still without a point and with just one goal scored in three matches, hope to find a win against a home side missing four players: Karlen Mkrtchyan is suspended while Davit Manoyan, Edgar Malakyan and Agvan Mkrtchyan are all injured. However, Yura Movsisyan, who opened the goal scoring, will be healthy and available, and Armenia should have a fairly easy time finding three more points.
Slovakia v Republic of Ireland, 2:30 p.m. ET: The repre will attempt to keep their dominance against an Ireland team that also struggled in the past round. This match will be marked not by presence but by absence. Slovakia defender Martin Škrtel earned himself a yellow card that rules him out of Tuesday’s match, while Miroslav Stoch, the goal scorer on Friday, picked up an injury that could see him on the sidelines. The team is still missing forward Robert Vittek, and hoping Stanislav Sestak will be healthy enough to start. Ireland picked up just one injury, but it’s significant: a knee injury sent Kevin Doyle, in good form for both Wolves and his country, hobbling to the sidelines toward the end of the Russia match.
FYR Macedonia v Russia, 2:30 p.m. ET: This match looks to be an easy one for the country that believes it should be at the top of Group B. Macedonia’s points come from a win over Andorra and a draw with Armenia—nothing much to boast about. The home side are suffering injuries to captain Goran Pandev, midfielder Darko Tasevski and defender Goran Popov, although Aleksandar Lazevski will return for this match. Russia, on the other hand, are fully fit and ready for another win. Dick Advocaat’s side will likely use the same clever attacking style demonstrated against Ireland to easily cut through Macedonia’s defense.
Armenia v Andorra: 3-0
Slovakia v Ireland: 2-3
FYROM v Russia: 1-3
I see poetry in three threes.
The schedule makers were not kind to Belgium, sticking them with a home match against Germany and an away match against Turkey in their first three fixtures. Despite playing well and keeping those games close, Belgium lost both and finds themselves in a situation where they must get all three points against Austria at home to keep themselves in a position where qualification is not out of reach.
Azerbaijan versus Turkey, 11 am Eastern, Tuesday
After their first two European qualifying matches, a 6-1 loss to Germany and a 3-0 loss to Austria, Azerbaijan will be heavy underdogs against a strong Turkey side. Despite their poor performance against Germany, Turkey's win over Belgium strengthened their credentials as a team worthy of a spot in Euro 2012. With Arda Turan not in this side because of injury, Turkey will look to some new faces to try and create goals. Central midfielder Nuri Sahin is off to a fantastic start with his club team Borussia Dortmund this season and could be a key player for Turkey on Tuesday.
Honestly, though, Turkey should be able to get three points even if their top players don't perform. The gap in talent between these two sides is massive and Turkey should win even with a poor performance.
Kazakhstan versus Germany, 1 pm Eastern, Tuesday
In the first three games of their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Germany has taken nine points and has a goal differential of +9. Kazakhstan is one of two teams in this group on zero points and the only team in this group with zero goals. As a result, expect Jochem Löw to experiment a big and throw out some of his more inexperienced players. Expect the likes of Kevin Großkreutz, Holger Badstuber, Christian Träsch, and Toni Kroos to get run-outs. If those guys can't get it done, the likes of Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller will be waiting on the bench to take care of business.
Belgium versus Austria, 2:45 pm Eastern, Tuesday
This match is likely to determine the team more fit to challenge Turkey for second place in the group. Austria have six points from two matches, but those two matches were against bottom-feeders Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Tuesday, they have an away match against a formidable foe.
Austria are highlighted by their lineup of gigantic target strikers. Wolverhampton's 6'8" giant Stefan Maierhofer, Twente's 6'4" in-form goal scorer Marc Janko, and Werder Bremen's 6'4" new boy Marko Arnautovic are all likely to see the field at some point in time, although it is likely that only two will start. These three players should provide a handful of problems for Belgium's defense. Balanced forward Roland Linz and the smaller, quicker Erwin Hoffer round out a dangerous group of forward players for Austria.
Outside of that position, it is difficult to find any advantages Austria hold over a much deeper and more balanced Belgium side. Young star Eden Hazard and experienced central defender Vincent Kompany did not feature against Kazakhstan and both are expected to be available for selection against Austria. Teenage sensation Romelu Lukaku has yet to find the back of the net for his country, but based on his physical talents and club form, this is bound to happen sooner rather than later. Most importantly for Belgium, their midfield group of Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, and Timmy Simons out-class anything that Austria has to offer. Their massive strikers might be able to poach a goal, but Belgium are likely to have more of the ball and more of the chances.
Azerbaijan 0, Turkey 2
Kazakhstan 0, Germany 4
Belgium 2, Austria 1
Tuesday's slate of Euro 2012 qualifiers features four first versus second match-ups, though it's a first versus fourth match - Serbia's trip to Genoa - that provides the kind of quality-plus-desperation drama that transcends any early, battle to top the table, matches.
Consider Serbia, who are coming-off a home loss to Estonia - the kind of performance that could get a coach fired. Unfortunately, Serbia had just fired their coach (Radomir Antic) and replaced him with Vladomir Petrovic. Firing Petrovic would only feed the chaos, yet if the Eagles were to go into Genoa and get a result (not unrealistic, given their talent), they'd project their chaos into a group where Northern Ireland would assume the inside track.
We'll have more on that match-up in our Group C preview. That and the rest of the group previews will be released throughout the day, but if you are looking for a quicker guide to tomorrow's 22-match slate, here are six must follow games, many of which will be available live and via replay on ESPN3.com:
6. Belarus versus Albania, Group D, 1:30 p.m. EST, Stadyen Spartak, Mogilev - This is not a joke. These teams are undefeated, tied for second place in Group D, one point behind France. Three points for one team on Tuesday gives Cinderella another hour at the ball.
5. Scotland versus Spain, Group I, 3:00 p.m. EST, Hampden Park, Glasgow [ESPN3.com] - One of the day's four battles between first and second place teams, it will be interesting to see how Gary Caldwell and David Weir hold-up against la Roja's pressure, though the two central defenders shouldn't be singled-out. It's not like the rest of the Tartan Army matches up well.
4. Italy versus Serbia, Group C, 2:50 p.m. EST, Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris, Genova - These teams combined for one point on Friday, with Italy posting a respectable (if uninspiring) draw in Belfast. Serbia drops a bomb on this group if they get three, potentially sending Estonia top.
3. England versus Montenegro, Group G, 3:00 p.m. EST, Wembley Stadium, London - Both teams are perfect, though England's played one fewer match. England could be rusty, having not played together in a month. Regardless, this could be the wake-up for Montenegro from their 1-0-riddled dreams.
2. Slovakia versus Ireland, Group B, 2:30 p.m. EST, Stadion Pod Dubnom, Zilina [ESPN3.com] - By the transitive property of soccer results, Ireland will win this one. Slovakia beat Russia in Moscow, with the Russians going on to beat the Irish in Dublin. The circle can not be complete unless Ireland wins in Zilina.
1. Netherlands versus Sweden, Group E, 2:30 p.m. EST, Amerstdam ArenA, Amsterdam [ESPN3.com] - Perhaps the Dutch were looking toward this match while struggling through an unexpectedly close 0-1 win in Moldova; regardless, two perfect teams will take the pitch in Amsterdam, where a draw for the Swedes would give them control of the group.
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