After more than a year of qualifiers, it’s time to get serious in the race for Ukraine and Poland.
With the co-hosts and four other sides having already booked their places at Euro 2012, this weekend’s matches across Europe will see another six countries join them, with another eight getting a second bite of the cherry in next month’s playoffs.
Holders and World champions Spain are the overwhelming favourites once again, but is there anyone that can stop La Furia Roja this time around?
Vicente del Bosque’s side secured their place at the finals in the last round of matches, making light work of a weak group that included Czech Republic and Scotland.
Whether they can make it look so easy in June next year remains to be seen, although there is no doubt Iker Casillas and co. are the team to beat. The weight of history is stacked against them, however, with no team having ever retained the title since the competition began in 1960.
But this Spanish team has a habit of breaking records.
A young, vibrant team playing free-flowing football under the guidance of the experienced Joachim Loew. Perhaps, next year will see this German team finally come of age?
Two successive 1-0 defeats to Spain in the final of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup semifinal in South Africa will no doubt have left a bitter taste in the mouth of Europe’s most successful football nation.
They wasted no time in winning Group A, and with young talents like Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Gotze and Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos coming through, revenge is very much on the cards.
The losing finalists at the 2010 World Cup have carried on where they left off in South Africa by winning all eight of their qualifiers to date, scoring 34 goals in the process.
With Bert van Marwijk still at the helm and the likes of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder at the peak of their powers, the Oranje will go to eastern Europe next summer fancying their chances of winning a first continental title since 1988. A creaky defence may be their biggest obstacle, but with so many quality attacking options, ignore them at your peril.
The fourth side to have already made it through the qualifiers are desperate to make up for their World Cup flop in South Africa.
Seven wins and a draw in Group C means that Cesare Prandelli’s Azzurri booked their place in Ukraine and Poland with plenty to spare, but he will know the real test is to come next year. After ruling the world in 2006, a new generation has taken time to emerge, and it will be interesting to see if youth is given its chance in the heat of competition.
Paulo Bento’s side are still not sure of their spot after a disastrous start to the qualifying campaign that included a 4-4 home draw with Cyprus and defeat in Norway.
Wins over Iceland and Denmark will guarantee Portugal have a chance of emulating their proud record of reaching at least the quarterfinal stage of the last four editions of the tournament.
The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks certainly increases the chances that they can go all the way, and the Real Madrid man has a point to prove on the international stage after a disappointing World Cup in South Africa.
Laurent Blanc seems to have resolved most of the issues that so hampered previous incumbent Raymond Domenech, and Les Bleus are on the verge of qualifying with two home fixtures remaining.
Mind you, given that they begun the campaign with a 1-0 defeat to Belarus in Paris, you can never take anything for granted. Some of the team that were involved in the infamous mutiny in South Africa still remain but an exciting group of young players including Yann M’Vila and Bafetimbi Gomis make France a decent outside bet to go all the way in Ukraine and Poland.
A point in Montenegro will be enough to ensure England make it to Euro 2012 after missing out on qualification last time.
Convincing away wins over Switzerland and Bulgaria have been the highlight of the campaign so far, but performances at home were less than impressive. Talisman Wayne Rooney has been joined by a number of promising new faces like Manchester United teammates Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck, although there are still major doubts about some of the more experienced campaigners.
But with Fabio Capello set to leave his post after the tournament, the question is whether he can go out on a high?
Semifinalists in Austria and Switzerland four years ago, the Russians failed to make it to the World Cup in South Africa but know a victory over Slovakia in Bratislava will almost seal qualification.
Dick Advocaat’s team are a far cry from his compatriot Guus Hiddink’s side that dazzled at Euro 2008 but still possess a number of quality players who have tended to shine for country rather than club.
That could make them very dangerous opponents, especially given that the tournament will be taking place in such close proximity to Moscow. Definitely potential dark horses.
Tipped to perform well four years back after knocking England out in qualifying, Croatia won all three group stage matches but ended up losing on penalties to Turkey in the quarterfinals.
Coach Slaven Bilic managed to hold on to his job despite failing to steer his country to South Africa and that continuity appears to have paid off. They still face a tricky trip to Athens to face second-placed Greece in Group F but will fancy their chances with Luka Modric looking back to his best.
If they make it, an excellent tournament record bodes well for one of Europe’s most creative teams.
The hosts always tend to have a say in major tournaments, but this time, it’s unclear which one will stand a better chance.
Poland only made their first appearance in a European Championships final stage four years back and only picked up one point, while Ukraine will be appearing at their very first continental tournament.
A 2-1 victory over Argentina back in June suggests the Poles may be best-equipped to make it at least past the group stages especially given Ukraine have lost their last four, including three at home.
They did at least make the quarterfinals at the 2006 World Cup, but time will tell whether either eastern European country can get one over the traditional western powerbases.