Russia, France face tough tests
A look at the nine groups in Euro 2012 qualifying reveals that nations that should be advancing automatically to Poland and Ukraine are indeed on the way there.
Germany became the first team to book its spot -- apart from the hosts -- and will soon be joined by world champion Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and England.
However, not every group is settled just yet. Here are three important matchups on Tuesday.
Group B, Russia (1) vs. Ireland (2)
Arsenal fans would have a hard time believing this, seen in UEFA's match report of Russia's slender 1-0 win over Macedonia Friday: "... with Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov working tirelessly up front."
"Arshavin" and "working tirelessly" rarely feature in the same sentence these days, unless it relates to "working tirelessly" to shirk defensive responsibilities.
In fairness to the gifted Arshavin, he played a massive role in the buildup to the winner that gave Russia breathing space atop the group, three points ahead of the Irish and Slovakia -- which shared the spoils in a 0-0 draw in Dublin. Robbie Keane's late headed miss proved costly in a result more beneficial to the visitor than Giovanni Trapattoni's team.
A win for Russia, which failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup following an uplifting Euro 2008, would boost its chances of capturing the group, while a defeat for Ireland wouldn't be terminal -- but almost.
Russia had little problem penetrating the Irish defense in the reverse fixture in Dublin last October, hanging on, in the end, for a 3-2 victory, and Ireland will be without suspended central defender Sean St. Ledger, part of the revolution at Leicester, for the rematch in Moscow.
Goals have been harder to come by for Ireland since.
"We need to play not better, but with a little bit more incision and determination, and if we get that, maybe we will score a goal," Trapattoni said.
Group H, Denmark (3) vs. Norway (2)
Norway isn't the most exciting team, but eccentric boss Egil Olsen knows that. Instead of an expansive attack filled with speedy wingers and lethal finishers, Norway gets the job done by stifling opponents, scoring here and there.
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"I am the first to admit our attacking play leaves a lot to be desired, but defensively we are world class," Olsen was quoted by UEFA.com as saying after a win against group favorite, and leader, Portugal a year ago.
The stats prove his point: Norway has conceded a mere four goals in six qualifying matches, blanking Portugal 1-0 and only letting in one away to the Iberians in June. The Portuguese, led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, had scored seven goals in their previous two home fixtures.
Marshaled by Fulham's Brede Hangeland, Norway's back four stood firm in Friday's 1-0 win over Iceland in another Scandinavian derby, capitalizing on a late penalty.
Olsen, in charge during Norway's halcyon days of the 1990s, says he would gladly settle for a point in Copenhagen, which would see his side usurp idle Portugal and strengthen its chances of reaching the playoffs, if nothing else.
Denmark manager Morten Olsen claims he'd settle for a draw, too; the Danes, who possess more flair -- and highly rated Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen -- sit three points behind Portugal and Norway with a game in hand.
And yes, the two played to a tense, cagey 1-1 draw in Oslo in March.
Group D, Romania (4) vs. France (1)
French manager Laurent Blanc should be taking it rather easy. After all, France leads the group by three points heading down the stretch.
But Blanc and the French media are at loggerheads.
The scribes weren't impressed with the play of Manchester City's attacking midfielder Samir Nasri and a makeshift defense in Friday's narrow 2-1 win at Albania, and Blanc was left to defend himself.
"I recognize that Albania caused us problems," he told reporters. "But the analysis doesn't always have to focus on the negatives. Were there no satisfying elements?"
Nasri was criticized for holding on to the ball too long, dropping too deep and keeping his head down; those who watch him in the Premier League could see that happening. There are calls for Blanc to replace Nasri with Sochaux's Marvin Martin.
Les Bleus, actually decked out in mostly white with horizontal stripes, appeared less than assured at the back. With Valencia's Adil Rami suspended and Milan's Philippe Mexes injured, Blanc employed Barcelona's Eric Abidal and Tottenham's Younes Kaboul in the center of defense. Their mix-up on a long ball led to Albania's goal early in the second half.
"We won, remind me, we got three points," Blanc said.
Rami will likely return in Bucharest against Romania, which lies five points behind France and two adrift of second-place Bosnia and Herzegovina. A win is required, but Romania hasn't topped France since 1972.
Romania produced one shot on target in last October's 2-0 loss in Paris, and its task won't be made easier with the banishment of former Juventus, Chelsea and Fiorentina bad boy Adrian Mutu.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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