Every four years, UEFA hosts the European Football Championships -- a prestigious international soccer championship that is considered by many to be second only to the World Cup Finals. The tournament pits European national teams against one another, all vying to earn their chance to call themselves the best club on the continent.
The format works like this -- 51 national clubs from Europe are randomly drawn together into nine groups. Teams play home and away matches against everyone in their group and the group winners, as well as the second-place team with the best record, move on to the Euro 2012 Finals.
The eight remaining second-place teams are paired up and play home and away matches. The four winners on aggregate join the aforementioned ten teams, Poland and the Ukraine (the tournament hosts) as entrants in the Euro 2012 Finals. These 16 teams will then begin play on June 8, 2012 in a format that looks a lot like the World Cup, culminating in the Euro 2012 Final on July 1, 2012.
For the last 13 months, teams have engaged in a grueling round of qualifying matches that have seen several upsets. Here in the United States, we Yanks love a good underdog story and since we can't get into the melee across the pond, the next best thing is to root for guys who have the best shot at throwing a wrench into the whole thing.
No one's going to catch Germany, who's leading Group A by 10 points and has already secured a place in the Finals, but Belgium has an excellent chance at overtaking Turkey as the second-place team in the group.
With two matches to go, Belgium is only two points out of earning a spot in the second-place playoffs. Turkey plays Germany and then Azerbaijan while Belgium plays a much easier Kazakhstan team and then Germany. If Germany defeats Turkey, and Belgium can overtake a Kazakhstan squad that has only scored five goals in eight matches, then Belgium will be in the driver's seat going into the last match of qualifying.
Then, if Azerbaijan can at the very least draw with Turkey, Belgium will go on based on goal difference tiebreakers. Seem crazy? About as crazy as the fact that Azerbaijan defeated Turkey 1-0 back in October 2010.
Given who Belgium would have to play in their second-place playoff, they could really cruise into the Euro 2012 Finals. In their last 10 matches (including friendlies) they're undefeated and have only suffered two defeats in the entire round of qualifying. The team has scored 16 goals, led by the sure foot of forward Marvin Ogunjimi, who has four goals in five appearances.
When the draw for Group B came out, everyone thought that this was going to be a one-horse race, with Russia winning by a wide margin. But with Ireland's recent draws against Slovakia and Russia, and with Armenia's 4-0 trouncing of Slovakia, only three points separate the group's top four spots.
In October, the Boys in Green will go to Andorra to try to beat a team that has scored one goal all tournament (while still finding time to concede 17). They will then host Armenia, who overachieved against an overconfident Slovakia team. In the last six months, Armenia has lost to Russia, Lithuania and Georgia while in that same time period, Ireland hasn't conceded a goal.
Goalkeeper Shay Given is at the top of his form in net for the Irish, while captain Robbie Keane is also in top form, scoring five goals in the tournament.
Like several other groups, Group C had a clear favorite in Italy cruise to an automatic seeding in the Euro 2012 Finals. But the rest of the group has been a joy to watch.
Serbia and Slovenia are as gritty as you'd expect any Eastern European soccer club to be, but it's Estonia that has surpassed expectations and already shocked the world by coming within a point of second place in the group. With a victory against Northern Ireland in October (the Estonians put a 4-1 whooping on the Green and White just last week), the team can overtake Serbia as second place in Group C.
But Serbia still has two matches remaining—at home against Italy and on the road against Slovenia.
Italy may rest its starters, allowing Serbia a better chance. But Estonia can rest in the fact that Italy's reserves are most likely better than Slovenia's starters. Slovenia will do nothing of the sort as it will still be scratching and clawing its way towards victory.
If Estonia can beat Northern Ireland and Serbia loses to Italy and draws with Slovenia, Estonia will have a chance to turn international soccer on its head and play for a chance in the Euro 2012 Finals.
Yes, I know. It hardly seems surprising that a team like France will win Group D and succeed in the Euro 2012 Finals. But let's examine the last 18 months of French soccer:
For the 2010 World Cup Finals, France was held scoreless until 20 minutes remained in its last match against hosts South Africa (who were also pretty dreadful themselves). They only managed to secure one point, drawing 0-0 with Uruguay, and left disgraced and disorganized. They returned home only to face shame and ridicule at the hands of their countrymen, government and national football federation. Their entire team was dissembled, and their coach was fired. To say they were lost was an understatement.
In a friendly match leading up to Euro 2012 qualifying, they lost to Norway. New head coach Laurent Blanc didn't play any members of the 2010 World Cup squad, instead opting for 13 uncapped players and 16 French league players.
Then in their first qualifying match for Euro 2012, they lost to a Belarus team that was ranked 38th in the world. Not a bad team, but France was still a top-20 club. To lose out of the gate was an embarrassment.
Since their loss, the French have gone on an unbelievable run. They are undefeated in their last 13 matches (including friendlies). Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is one of the best in the world, conceding only three goals in eight matches. Look for France to reclaim some of its pride in Poland and the Ukraine next summer.
I don't think there's any doubt that The Netherlands, Group E's leader, will be one of the favorites to win the Euro 2012 Finals. It also looks like Sweden is on cruise control to the second place playoffs. But when Sweden is paired with another second-place team, look out.
Sweden is an offensive powerhouse. Yes, the team had San Marino to play twice (the country, which is landlocked in northern Italy, has given up an incredible 49 goals so far in the tournament) but the Swedes and their 26 goals would make them leader of any other group. In fact, it more than doubles 39 of the 50 other countries participating.
Forward Zlatan Ibrahimović is leading the team with five goals in seven appearances, and five other players have at least two scores (And one of them is a defender!). Depending on Sweden's draw in the Euro 2012 Finals, look for them to cruise. I'm predicting they make it to the Final 8.
There are no surprises when it comes to Group F—Croatia and Greece (both top-15 international soccer programs) have already secured the top two spots. The team that will shock the world with its final match in October (and, quite frankly, has already shocked the world) is Georgia.
As recently as 2009, Georgia was ranked 124th in the world. When your neighbors are Bahrain, Guyana and Nepal, you're not doing anything right. But in the last 18 months, Georgia has rebuilt its national soccer program, climbing to 63rd as of the second week of September. They weren't predicted to be anything but exhibition for Croatia, Greece and Israel, but Georgia opened its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign by drawing with Greece and Israel, defeating Malta and then ruining everyone's Euro 2012 bracket (do those exist?) by beating Croatia.
Sadly, after defeating Croatia, Georgia didn't win any more matches. They made the rest of Group F interesting though, not losing by more than a goal. As they host Greece in October, they're playing for no more than pride. But it's pride that helped them believe they could do better than 124th in the world. And it's pride that will make things interesting for the Greeks.
Quick: What's the capital of Montenegro? What are two countries that border Montenegro? What colors are Montenegro's flag?
Could you answer any of those? Yes? Well, I didn't know my readership extended to Montenegro.
Montenegro is a tiny (population just above 600,000) Eastern European country that borders Serbia, Albania, Bosina-Herzogovina and Kosovo (remember that whole thing?) As recently as 2007, the country was ranked 172nd in the FIFA World Rankings. The country didn't participate in Euro 2008 qualifying because it didn't hand in its paperwork on time.
But The Little Country That Could started its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign by defeating Wales, Bulgaria and Switzerland, and drawing with England. Even more surprisingly, they didn't concede a goal until their fifth match. They have clawed their way to second place in Group G with only five goals all campaign. How? They've given up only three. Their back-line is near impenetrable and goalkeeper Mladen Božović has led them to a 4-1-1 record.
An incredible scenario would be if Montenegro could draw Bosnia-Herzogovina in its second place playoff. The neighboring countries would go bananas, not only with rivalry, but with the assurance that one of their own would advance to the Euro 2012 Finals.
In what is the most stacked of Euro 2012 qualifying, Group H has three top-20 soccer programs—Portugal, Norway and Denmark—who are tied for the lead.
There's only one problem. Norway has only one match left. Portugal and Denmark have two apiece. On October 7, Portugal gets to practice against Iceland and Denmark gets to kick around Cyprus. Should both of them win, they will both get locked in the first two places and play on October 11 to see who automatically gets in and who has to play in the second place playoff.
One team had to get left out and it's a good thing it was Denmark. Beowulf was the last thing this country had to feel good about. They were predicted to finish third in the group, but they have a chance to cruise to the Euro 2012 Finals. Their defense is playing incredibly well, conceding only four goals in six matches. Goalkeepers Thomas Sørensen and Anders Lindegaard have gone back and forth in front of the net because of club commitments, but the Danes have not lost a step. With a solid back-line, look for Denmark to do everything they can (short of asking Odin) to beat Portugal in their final match.
I promise, I'm not UK homer—I really do believe that Ireland and Scotland will both make a splash in the Euro 2012 Finals.
In Group I, Spain is running away with the lead. But it's Czech Republic who's bringing up the rear, with Scotland just two points away. Both clubs have two matches remaining the second week of October.
The Czech Republic will face Spain and then Lithuania. Scotland will play Liechtenstein and then finish out with Spain. Lithuania and Liechtenstein have a combined two victories so I think we know how those two matches will turn out. So what's the more likely to happen—the Czech Republic drawing with Spain or Scotland beating them?
My money's on Scotland. It's the last match of the tournament and after Spain defeats the Czech Republic on October 7, they will have nothing to play for. Scotland has been formidable this qualifying campaign. Led by forwards Steven Naismith and Kenny Miller (four goals combined in six matches), the Scots will be playing very aggressively. I see them upsetting Spain.