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Sunday, October 9, 2011
Final-day scenarios for Euro qualifying

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

The waiting is almost over.

After Tuesday, we'll have a much better idea of who'll be playing at Euro 2012 -- and which traditional powerhouses, if any, won't be among the 16 teams in the final stage.

It's no surprise that Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and England -- all group winners -- have already qualified, joining hosts Poland and Ukraine. Portugal and France, though, are still on the bubble.

Five more automatic spots are up for grabs and, later, four more via the playoffs.

Wouldn't it be something if Armenia and Estonia join similarly modest Montenegro in those two-leg crapshoots? No one could have seen that coming.

Here's what's on the line:

Hazard
Eden Hazard and Belgium must defeat Germany on Tuesday to earn a spot in the Euro 2012 playoffs.

Group A:
A win and Belgium makes the playoffs. Sounds simple, right?

But executing that will be tough -- given Belgium visits Germany.

Germany wants to end qualifying with a perfect 10-0 record, so don't expect the home team to put in a half-hearted effort against a Red Devils squad that hasn't fully translated its immense talent into results.

"Motivation is never a problem for this group," in-form German striker Mario Gomez told UEFA.com.

If, as expected, Germany prevails in Dusseldorf and Turkey doesn't lose to minnow Azerbaijan in Istanbul, the Turks, guided by nomad Guus Hiddink, finish second.

"I know we need a super day, but my players are already looking forward," Belgium manager Georges Leekens told reporters in the wake of Friday's comfortable victory against Kazakhstan.

Group B:
Russia -- formerly led by Hiddink and now steered by another Dutchman, Dick Advocaat -- needs a point against Andorra in Moscow to seal top spot. Bet your house, car, signed Pele jerseys and whatever else on that happening.

Andorra, which can at least say it borders world champion Spain, has lost all nine games in qualifying, scoring a paltry one goal. (Take a bow, Cristian Martinez.)

Advocaat told reporters last week his players, accused of ill discipline in the past, can let loose -- if Russia completes the job. The Russians did the hard part Friday, winning in Slovakia, which faded when it mattered most.

"Tuesday evening they can drink as much as they want," Advocaat said.

Assuming Russia doesn't stutter, Ireland and Armenia battle it out for second in Dublin. Armenia, population 3 million, has never appeared in a major tournament.

Ireland's talismanic striker, Robbie Keane, is doubtful due to injury. His absence would boost the chances of Armenia, which sits a point behind the Irish heading into the final-day clash.

Group C:
With 1.3 million inhabitants, Estonia is even more of an underdog than Armenia. But Estonia, like Armenia formerly part of the Soviet Union, is playing its best soccer ever, having reached an all-time high of 58th in the most recent FIFA rankings (yes, for what that's worth).

Led in the past by ex-Derby goalkeeper Mart Poom, Amkar Perm midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev is now the star man. He netted five times in qualifying, including both goals in a 2-1 win at Northern Ireland on Friday.

Having completed qualifying, Estonia now must hope that Serbia fails to win in Slovenia to retain second place behind Italy. Serbia, which tied Italy 1-1 in Belgrade, won't be overawed, since Slovenia has the worst home record in the group.

"If we keep up the pace and aggression, then it looks good for us," Serbia defender Neven Subotic told UEFA.com.

Group D:
It's a straight shootout between France and Bosnia and Herzegovina to win the group. France, holding a slender one-point lead, needs to avoid defeat to stay atop the standings. Imagine the embarrassment if Les Bleus lose and have to settle for the playoffs.

France manager Laurent Blanc doesn't plan on employing negative tactics for the crunch clash in Paris.

"Our strategy is to win the game," Blanc told reporters. "We will not prepare for that game to draw. This would be the best way to lose."

Nasri
Samir Nasri will lead an injury-depleted France squad against Bosnia-Herzegovina in a battle for the top spot in Group D.

Blanc has several injury concerns after a physical 3-0 win against Albania on Friday. One player who is fit is Samir Nasri.

Nasri and Blanc haven't always gotten along during qualifying, but the midfielder shone against the Albanians. Nasri's Manchester City teammate, Edin Dzeko, is the danger man for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Group E:
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in the mood, he's one of the world's top strikers. So it's a huge blow for Sweden that "Ibra" will miss the Netherlands' visit to Solna.

Ibrahimovic was given a yellow card by English referee Mark Clattenburg in Friday's 2-1 win at Finland when he made contact with defender Niklas Moisander. He's thus banned for the last group game.

"[Clattenburg] apologized and also said that he did wrong," Ibrahimovic told Swedish TV.

Sweden, already guaranteed a place in the playoffs, would qualify automatically as the best group runner-up if it tops the Dutch. A draw may be enough. Its buildup, though, wasn't helped further by a reported bust up between manager Erik Hamren and forward Ola Toivonen.

The Netherlands, runner-up in South Africa, is also trying to end qualifying with a 10-0 record.

"It would be nice to finish with a perfect record," midfielder Rafael van der Vaart told UEFA.com. "Sweden still has something to play for, so I think it will be a great game."

Group F:
Greece, the unexpected Euro 2004 champ, is now in pole position after beating Croatia 2-0 on Friday to leapfrog the Croats and move into first.

If the Greeks get at least a point at Georgia, they're in as automatic qualifiers and Croatia comes second. At first glance it looks good for the Greeks, since Georgia is second-last. But Georgia has a solid 2-1-1 record at home.

"We had two finals to play and we have won the first one," Greece manager Fernando Santos told reporters. "We haven't achieved anything yet. We want to celebrate after the game in Georgia, which is a good team and will have nothing to lose."

Croatia can't be caught in second and has an outside chance of finishing as the best group runner-up. Slaven Bilic's team needs to overcome fourth-place Latvia in Rijeka and hope other results go its way.

Group G:
Done and dusted.

England triumphed as group champion, and Montenegro is in the playoffs.

Nani
Nani has emerged as a creative force for a Portugal team that can win its group with an away draw at Denmark.

Group H:
As qualifying progressed, order was restored in Group H. Norway dipped, and Portugal and Denmark improved. Norway, realistically, now needs a miracle to land second.

Portugal, which possesses ample flash thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo, heads into Copenhagen tied on points with the Danes, knowing a draw is enough to capture top spot.

If Denmark takes all three points, Morten Olsen's men go through automatically. There's even a chance the loser nabs the best runner-up spot among the nine groups.

"We [have the same points] as Portugal and we are at home, so I think we have a slight advantage," highly rated Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen told reporters.

Eriksen is urging fans not to jeer when Ronaldo is on the ball, since he figures it fires him up.

Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, meanwhile, said Denmark shouldn't be focusing only on the Real Madrid whiz.

"Nani is in great shape and has done so much for Manchester United this year," Bendtner, on loan at Sunderland from Arsenal, told reporters.

Group I:
Scotland and the Czech Republic have seen better days, but one of the two is sure to clinch second behind Spain.

The Czechs would appear to be in a better position, despite trailing Scotland by a point. That's because Scotland travels to Spain. If Spain wins in Alicante, all the Czechs need is a draw in Lithuania -- and Lithuania has yet to win at home this session.

"It's a tall order," Scotland manager Craig Levein told reporters Saturday after an unconvincing 1-0 victory at bottom-feeder Liechtenstein. "But there is nothing for us to fear. That's the important thing. We are in the position that if we win the game we qualify [for the playoffs]. Why should you be incredulous that that's possible?"

He won't have convinced many.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.