Euro 2012 Qualifying Playoffs: 10 Bold Predictions
While all of Europe's top sides will also be in action during the upcoming round of international fixtures, the attention will for the most part be on some of the less fashionable teams.
Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Italy will all be in action as they contest their respective double-headers of friendlies, safe in the knowledge they have already booked their place at next summer's European Championships without suffering defeat in their qualifying group (Spain and Germany, finalists four years ago, both did so with 100 percent records).
Plenty of other nations have already failed to reach next year's finals in Poland and Ukraine, but there are eight countries still in international purgatory—otherwise known as the playoffs. Whether they have already exceeded expectations (Montenegro, Estonia) or failed to meet them (Portugal, Croatia), eight into four simply won't go.
Here are 10 scenarios we can look forward to across the four two-legged ties over the next week.
1. There Will Be an Upset
There were no playoffs for the qualifying round of Euro 2008, but there is certainly a recent precedent which will fill any of the four unseeded teams—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Montenegro, Estonia—with confidence.
In 2009, minnows Slovenia were drawn against the mighty Russia, who were semifinalists in Austria and Switzerland just a year before and boasted stars such as Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov. Matjaz Kek's side looked well beaten in the first leg in Moscow courtesy of goals either side of halftime from Everton's Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, but in the 88th minute Nejc Pecnik gave Slovenia a sliver of hope.
In the return leg in Maribor, it was Zlatko Dedic who became a folk hero for this young nation when he scored the only goal to send a team representing just two million people to the biggest sporting event on the planet.
In South Africa, they were one of several small nations who performed admirably—beating Algeria, drawing with USA and only losing 1-0 to England—and in doing so gave hope to all the underdogs of international football.
2. There Will Be a Refereeing Shocker
This is the part where every Irishman will wince. Just the mere mention of the phrase "playoff" will be enough to send a shudder down the spine of every fan supporting Giovanni Trapattoni's boys. Which, given they are preparing for one right now, means here's a whole lot of shaking going on.
The reason for the playoff-phobia is one of the most shocking moments of unsporting behaviour ever seen in the international arena—Thierry Henry's extra-time handball which set up William Gallas's injury-time goal that settled the tie in the most dramatic of circumstances. Both the name of the French striker and referee Martin Hansson will forever be mud from Clare to Cork, as well as every Irish bar across the globe.
While we will unlikely see such an aberration of officiating this time—UEFA now have extra linesmen behind each goal—the chances are that at least one of the eight matches will have one refereeing trick or another. It only remains to be seen how costly it is.
3. A Chance for Revenge?
This time two years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina were preparing to face Portugal in a playoff for World Cup qualification.
The 2004 European Championship semifinalists were missing their star man and reigning World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, with an ankle injury, but they still managed to prevail with two 1-0 wins courtesy of goals from Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles. Portugal ended up being eliminated in the second round by eventual champions Spain, but they never looked like World Cup winners.
This time, however, Bosnia are two years older and wiser, with stars like Edin Dzeko, Zvjezdan Misimovic, Miralem Pjanic and Vedad Ibisevic approaching their peak years.
The Portuguese are of course still favourites, but Bosnia are well equipped to gain revenge for two years ago if Cristiano and Co. do not get their act together. Which, let's face it, is why they are in the playoffs in the first place.
4. A Star Will Be Born
Most of the eight teams in the playoffs can boast at least one genuine star among their ranks. Portugal have players dotted around many of Europe's top clubs, most of the Ireland squad play in the Premier League while Croatia and Turkey have their fair share of famous names too.
But what of Konstantin Vassiljev, the Amkar Perm attacking midfielder and Estonian Footballer of the Year, whose five goals helped fire his country into this two-legged shootout from Group C ahead of Serbia and Slovenia, two countries who reached the last World Cup?
Or how about Ivan Strinic, the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk left-back who has helped veteran defenders Vedran Corluka and Josip Simunic concede just seven goals in Group F, the best defensive record of the eight playoff contenders?
Or even Sercan Yildirim, the promising young Galatasaray striker who already has a Turkish league title under his belt from his days at Bursaspor?
All it takes is one impressive display, or even one game-changing moment, in the playoffs to announce a new star on the football world.
5. A Tournament Dark Horse Will Emerge
If all four of the seeded teams are the ones to come through their respective ties, then Portugal would immediately have to be considered as dark horses, simply by dint of being good but not as good as Spain, Germany or Netherlands.
But Croatia or even Ireland have the potential to go on a run and upset the odd giant. Before you scoff at the suggestion of a grinding, obdurate Ireland making the semis, remember Greece won in 2004 doing much the same.
Even among the unseeded sides, two sparkling performances in the next week would certainly make people's interest raised and bookies' odds lowered. Turkey made it all the way to the last four in thrilling style four years ago, while Bosnia have all the ingredients needed to spring a real surprise next summer.
6. A Coach Will Be Fired
Come the end of any qualification campaign or major tournament, there is always a slew of managerial casualties. Some have simply come to the end of their contracts and their departure is suitable for all, it's true, but there are usually one or two more acrimonious partings as well.
Paulo Bento inherited a Portugal squad way short of the sum of its parts when he took over from the sacked Carlo Queiroz in September of last year. He led them to five straight wins which rescued their qualification hopes, but fell at the final hurdle by losing to Denmark and having to settle for a playoff place. His current runs until August 2012, which is a much of an incentivised deal as you could imagine. Fail to qualify and he'll be packing up his desk long before then.
The same goes for Guus Hiddink, whose contract with Turkey expires next summer. While the avuncular Dutchman has made international management his forte, he experienced failure last time out with Russia. Should that happen again, the Turkish FA, who had to deal with plenty of speculation over their man leaving for Chelsea this summer and were even resigned to his departure, may decide that is the opportune moment to call it quits.
Croatia boss Slaven Bilic was hailed as the next exciting young manager in world football when he helped mastermind reaching the 2008 Euros at the expense of England, but such are expectations now that failure to reaching back-to-back tournaments may lead the Croatian governing body to decide they have outgrown him.
Before the tournament kicks off in earnest next summer, heads will roll.
7. There Will Be Drama
The very nature of the playoffs, given what is at stake, lends itself well to dramatic circumstances, and those for international tournaments have always delivered somewhere or other.
In the battle for a place at Euro 2004, Croatia looked on their way out on away goals after they were held to a 1-1 draw with Slovenia in Zagreb, only for Dado Prso to score in Ljubljana and continue that emerging nation's record of punching above its weight.
At the same time in Istanbul, Turkey had overturned their 1-0 deficit in Latvia with two goals at home, only for the Latvians to turn the tie back on its head 14 minutes later and go through. There is a corner of the world where the name Maris Verpakovskis will never be forgotten.
In 2006, Turkey again looked to be going through after responding to a 2-0 defeat in Berne by going ahead 4-1 at home, only for Marco Streller's 84th-minute penalty to send the Swiss through.
While there was no playoff required for Euro 2008, the thrills and spills provided by France vs. Ireland and Slovenia vs. Russia two years ago more than compensated in the drama stakes.
Come the second legs, a compelling narrative promises to play out in front of us.
8. There Will Be Rows
International football just wouldn't be the same without the rows and general unrest within a squad at just the moment when unity and humility are required the most.
The Dutch used to be masters of the major championship meltdown, so much so that it became something of a biennial tradition of sorts. While the Oranje got their act together long enough to reach the World Cup final last year, many other countries have had good stabs at emulating them. Roy Keane storming out of the Ireland camp at the 2002 World Cup and the car crash that was the France mutiny against Raymond Domenech in South Africa last year are just two such examples.
In the Portugal squad there are already rumblings of discontent, with Jose Bosingwa refusing to play for his country again while Bento is manager after the boss said publicly that the Chelsea right-back did not meet the necessary requirements to be in his squad, "especially the emotional and mental ones."
With a squad full of stars all nervous at the prospect of humiliation, tensions will run high and a few more players could fall out with the boss before the tie is through.
9. Only One Tie Will Be High-Scoring
The jeopardy of the four playoffs, the away-goals rule and the possibility of extra time and penalties should be enough to make all of these ties exciting. Which is just as well, because not all of them come with the promise of a glut of goals.
Between them in 16 group games, Czech Republic and Montenegro have scored 19 goals and conceded just 15, so that does not look like hitting double figures. Ireland's campaign has been based in their stingy defence (seven goals shipped in 10 games), and with Kevin Doyle suspended for the first leg and Shane Long and Leon Best injured the entire goal-scoring burden appears to rest on Robbie Keane's shoulders.
Croatia's defensive record (seven conceded) and Turkey's goals scored column (13) threaten to cancel each other out, so it is left to Portugal and Bosnia, with their total of 38 scored and two of the world's most in-form forwards to deliver.
10. Regardless of the Results, Some Teams Just Can't Lose
With a population of just 625,000, Montenegro's achievement of reaching as high as 16th in the FIFA world rankings earlier this year must see them as arguably the biggest overachievers in world football.
The nation's FA may be so ambitious that they sacked previous coach Zlatko Kranjcar as they stated their ambition was to qualify, not just make up the numbers. This campaign has seen the Falcons announce themselves on the international scene.
Similarly, Estonia have been another nation to impress over the past 15 months or so which has never qualified for a major tournament, and this is by far their best showing since they regained independence from the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
Just these two sides reaching the playoffs is a great achievement, and has set a high watermark for them to try and beat when the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 begins next year.