Four Euro qualies that matter most
Germany, Italy, Holland and Spain have all qualified for Euro 2012, along with joint hosts Poland and Ukraine, while 22 countries are now mathematically eliminated. This means that on the penultimate matchday, this Friday, there are only four games where both sides still have something to play for. Here, we look at all of them.
Greece vs. Croatia
In terms of the situation in Group F, this is unquestionably the most exciting game. Croatia is first with 19 points, Greece second with 18. One will qualify automatically, the other will have to settle for a playoff. Croatia is in the driver's seat, but Greece has home advantage.
This should be an interesting game tactically -- which side will take control? Greece is slightly more attack-minded than the victorious side of 2004, but it still works best when playing on the counter-attack. The problem, of course, is that Croatia would be delighted with a point, and therefore it's not likely to commit a lot of men forward to leave gaps at the back. That means Greece will have to be a little more proactive than usual.
The home side is without flying winger Sotiris Ninis, who damaged his cruciate ligament shortly after scoring the only goal against Israel in September. A front three of Georgios Samaras, Dimitris Salpingidis and Theo Gekas will probably be used, but this trio can be far too static, and they're rarely assisted by midfield runners. Like in 2004, set pieces might be key.
With Croatia happy with a point, the first thought of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar will probably be to keep the ball, rather than to penetrate the Greek defense. A cagey approach is likely, with Croatia's two banks of four compact, and the two strikers -- where head coach Slavan Bilic can choose from Nikola Kalinic, Nikica Jelavic, Mario Mandzukic, Eduardo da Silva and Ivan Klasnic -- are likely to be forced to fend for themselves, and asked to work hard defensively.
Montenegro vs. England
Fabio Capello's side need just a point in Podgorica to secure progress to Euro 2012, partly thanks to Montenegro's surprise 2-1 defeat in Wales in its previous game. Capello says he will try to attack and get all three points, but England has a knack of picking up a vital 0-0 away from home late in qualifiers -- a heroic draw in Rome in 1997 took the Three Lions to the World Cup, and a point from a fiery game in Turkey six years later confirmed their place at Euro 2004.
Capello has problems at the back, as he's used six center-back partnerships in his seven qualification games so far, mainly because of injury. Despite Rio Ferdinand's return to fitness, he's been omitted from the squad, meaning John Terry will probably continue to be partnered by Gary Cahill. The Bolton player has endured a poor start to the season, however; no side in Premier League history has conceded more than Bolton's 21 goals after seven games of the season. Meanwhile, Phil Jagielka has also been below-par, and Chris Smalling is injured. Which means Phil Jones could slot in at right back. His United teammate Danny Welbeck could get a start upfront, which indicates Capello wants to tap into Manchester United's excellent beginning to the campaign, with Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney also expected to start.
Montenegro, on the other hand, is still coming to terms with the shock sacking of coach Zlatko Kranjcar, who had guided the team to a superb start in Group G, including a respectable 0-0 away at Wembley when Montenegro was without its two star strikers, Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic. Kranjcar appears to have been a victim of his own success, and his replacement, Branko Brnovic, was previously the assistant, so he's unlikely to make sweeping changes to a side that was punching above its weight.
With the return of Vucinic and Jovetic, Montenegro will test England's backline far more than it did at Wembley, although against Wales those two played behind Radomir Djalovic, rather than as a front two. But, as the sacking of Kranjcar shows, Montenegro needs to tone down its expectations -- it's probably competing to secure a playoff place, rather than to overtake England. Brnovic knows that -- he's set to rest Marko Basa, Milan Jovanovic and Nikola Drincic, all one booking away from missing the next game, as he wants to be sure of their involvement against third-placed Switzerland on Tuesday.
Euro 2012 on ESPN3
ESPN3 will be broadcasting a slew of Euro 2012 qualifying matches, including Russia vs. Slovakia, Moldova vs. Netherlands, Italy vs. Serbia, Croatia vs. Greece, Spain vs. Czech Republic, England vs. Montenegro, Albania vs. France and Ireland vs. Andorra. The first match, Finland vs. Sweden, kicks off at 12:15 ET on Friday, Oct. 6. You can see the full listing for matches and watch them by going to Watch ESPN.
Slovakia vs. Russia
Russia is atop Group B with 17 points, and Slovakia sits in fourth place with 14 points and still has a chance to qualify from an extremely complicated group where Ireland (15 points) and Armenia (14 points) are also in the hunt. With Russia, Slovakia and Armenia all able to finish on 20 points, we could be in for one of the tightest finishes to a qualification group in years.
Slovakia impressed at the World Cup last year and won the reverse fixture 1-0 in Moscow, but its surprising 4-0 defeat at home to Armenia in their last outing has put the team on the back foot. Like the two previously mentioned games, the situation here is different for both sides -- Slovakia, the home side, needs a win, the away side would probably accept a draw with a home game against bottom-placed Andorra on Tuesday and a favorable head-to-head record against both Ireland and Armenia.
Dick Advocaat's side is technically proficient but most dangerous on the counter-attack. Russia is very much dominated by Zenit St Petersburg players in midfield and attack -- the all-Zenit trio of Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov form the midfield triangle, while Aleksandr Kerzhakov plays upfront, often supported by ex-Zenit players such as Andrei Arshavin, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Igor Semshov. Kerzhakov is injured for this game, however, so Pogrebnyak or Roman Pavlyuchenko are likely to hold the ball up, rather than drifting into space on the flanks, as Kerzhakov does.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss has chopped and changed throughout qualifying, using 31 players in the seven games so far. Perhaps the instability in selection has caused the inconsistency in results. He now seems to favor a 4-2-3-1, with Filip Holosko supported by Marek Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss Jr. and Miroslav Stoch. He might be wise to include center back Tomas Hubocan in his side, as he plays in Russia with Zenit, so he'll know many of his opponents well.
Northern Ireland vs. Estonia
Estonia played the first match of the 2012 qualification process, scoring two stoppage-time goals to win 2-1 over the Faroe Islands on Aug. 11, 2010. Back then, few would have thought that result would turn out to be significant, but a win here would give the team a fighting chance of its first-ever major qualification, even if it's depending on the results of others.
In truth, this is the most tenuous example of two sides still with something to play for. Northern Ireland would need Italy to beat Serbia and then beat Italy next Tuesday to stand a chance of qualification -- and that's without even considering this game. Qualification is all but over, with some Northern Ireland fans admitting they'd happily see their team lose if it led to manager Nigel Worthington being dismissed. Northern Ireland's last outing was a 4-1 defeat in Estonia, and with Premier League defenders Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes both ruled out -- and the latter set to retire from international football -- there isn't much hope.
Estonia's away form has been very unpredictable, with a win in Serbia and Slovenia, yet a defeat to the Faroes, and it has injury problems too. Center back Taavi Rahn is suspended, and midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev is a doubt, but Estonia should win this game.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.