October’s final Euro 2012 qualifiers brought the long journey of qualifying to an end for 10 teams. However, those in second place in the groups, now face each other over 2 legs to decide the final 4 places. I’m going to analyse these four games, and tell you who I think will take the crucial last spaces at next summer’s European football festival…
Turkey v Croatia
Two teams that last played each other at the previous championships in 2008, the teams have history. It was Turkey who took the victory after a last-minute extra time equaliser, and a penalty shootout victory. Croatia, then will be vying for revenge, with highly-rated manager Slaven Bilic perhaps quitting his posr if his team don’t achieve their place in the tournament. Bilic has been at the reigns for 5 years now, and has constantly been linked to former clubs Everton and West Ham, ever since him and his team knocked England out of the running in qualification for Euro 2008. Even without Bilic, Croatia look to have a fine future, with a side consisting of the likes of Luka Modric, Spurs little magician, Darijio Srna and fellow Spurs player Niko Kranjcar. Former Arsenal man Eduardo is the spearhead of the attack and follows the unpredictable nature of the side.
Turkey have a world-class manager too, albeit one with much more experience. Guus Hiddink, the well-travelled Dutch coach, will hope to take his recently adopted nation into the finals to make Turkey the third team he has managed at a European Championships. A Turkish side with no real star names, the most famous being Hamit Altintop of Real Madrid, and mainly based in the home country, bar the likes of Arda Turan at Atletico Madrid and a couple of others, means that Hiddink has once again worked magic with the underdogs, they shouldn’t be taken for granted, and will have every chance of securing victory with their team bond.
Star Man: Luka Modric (Croatia) My Prediction: Croatia 3-1 (on aggregate)
Estonia v Republic of Ireland
The surprise package of the play-offs Estonia, face the nearly-men of Ireland, in a clash that the Irish must fancy their chances in, however the underdogs mustn’t be underestimated and pose a threat to the Islanders. Estonia have surprised many to get this far, amassing their biggest ever qualifying points total, and beating the likes of Slovenia, Serbia and Northern Ireland, all strong qualifying teams over the last few years-they even gave the aging Italy side still licking their wounds from a woeful World Cup 2010, a run for their money taking the lead! They’ve won their last three competitive matches, although a loss to the Faroe Islands show a certain level of inconsistency that could see them struggle of two legs.
The Irish haven’t been lucky or conisistent for a long time prior to this compaign. Thierry Henry + handball are three words that are enough to make fans blood boil with anger. However, in this section, Ireland have had a lot of the luck they so desperately need. They managed to dispatch wins over minnows Andorra and Macedonia fairly easily and the defensive prowess that coach Giovanni Trappatoni has instilled in the team has shone through in the goalless draws with Slovakia and Russia, points which proved crucial to get this far. Trappatoni may have divided fans with his typical Italian style of play, very defensive, but the results cannot be argued against, two play-offs in two qualifiers is impressive, and a tournament qualification for the first time in 10 years looks on the cards for the Republic, provided no slip-ups in what should be a fairly tight, but straightforward couple of games. Top scorer Robbie Keane’s return from injury will certainly boost a quiet frontline.
Star Man: Robbie Keane (Ireland) My Prediction: 2-0 Ireland (on aggregate)
Czech Republic v Montenegro
The name Montenegro will bring chills down the spine of any England fan. The world’s newest international side, as a result of the independence gained from Serbia in 2007, shocked the ‘inventors’ of football denying them victory twice with a 0-0 draw at Wembley, and a stoppage-time equaliser in the return fixture at Podgorica. They’re a difficult team to break down and always seem dangerous on the counter-attack with Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic leading the line and the top scoring charts with 11 for the new nation. Podgorica, too is a dangerous place to go, as the small, yet vocal crowd fully get behind their team, intimidating the English in particular. They seem fairly capable in defence too, important in these two-legged games.
The Czech Republic aren’t quite the team that they used to be, and as a result of a huge slice of luck against the Scots, they scraped 2nd place in Group I behind World and European champions Spain. In said match, they were awarded a dubious penalty for a dive, whilst Scotland were denied a pretty blatant penalty, with that saving the Czechs a point. This, for a nation once rated 4th in the world, shows how far they’ve fallen. They still have capable players with the likes of Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky, but these are ageing stars who are not as sharp as they used to be. That being said, it’ll be tight in both games, as both sides, Montenegro for the first time, will want to desperately be there in Poland & Ukraine next year.
Star Man: Mirko Vucinic Prediction: Montenegro 1-0
Bosnia-Herzegovina v Portugal
Bosnia have been quietly going about their work in the last few years, only being denied a place in South Africa last summer due to the same opponents defeating them over a two-legged play-off. Since then, star man Edin Dzeko has changed clubs, now drawing attention to the mega-rich Manchester City, and the team really pushed Group D winners France all the way, finishing only 1 point off the Blues. They’ll have been gutted to draw Ronaldo and co, but will fancy a home victory at the fortress that is the Bilino Polje Stadium in Zenica, a tight, small stadium that provides a cracking atmosphere.
Portugal come into the play-offs after a lacklustre campaign, finishing second to Denmark, losing to the Danes and Norway along the way. Their hopes mainly rest on superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, with supporting stars like Nani, Danny and Fabio Coentrao there to set the Real Madrid man up. It all depends on which Portugal side will turn up on the day, will Ronaldo step up to the plate to deliver the amazing form which has seen him score 12 hattricks in 2 seasons for Madrid, or will it all go wrong, leaving the Portuguese failing to qualify for a major championship for the first time since the 1998 World Cup? Only time will tell, but this is by far the tightest match out of the four.
Star Man: Cristiano Ronaldo My Prediction: 2-1 Portugal