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Euro 2012 Update
We’re in an odd-numbered year, which means that soccer in summertime is basically limited to watching the MLS, keeping an eye on the Intertoto Cup, and waiting for the first rounds of Champions League qualifiers in August.  Come one year from now, however, we’ll have more interesting things to follow, specifically Euro 2012, whose qualifiers are now moving into their later stages after a flurry of matches in early June.

Indeed, the field for Poland and the Ukraine next June is finally beginning to take shape.  Remember, the winners of each of the nine qualifying groups, plus the second-place team with the best record (counting only matches against first, third, fourth, an fifth place teams), will qualify directly into the field of 16 alongside the co-host Polish and Ukrainians.  The remaining eight runners-up from group play will then be paired up in a head-to-head, two-legged knockout format, with the winners of those elimination matchups earning the final four tickets to Euro 2012.  Note, too, that Euro 2012 will be the last such tourney conducted with 16 teams.  When Euro 2016 rolls around in France, it will consist of a 24-entry field.

Following are updates on each group play, along with current point standings for the top contenders, plus updated group winner and runners-up projections.

GROUP A: Germany 21, Belgium 11. Turkey 10, Austria 7.  Germany are all but home and hosed as the winners of this group, with confirmation a near-certainty in early September.  Jogi Low’s squad eased past Azerbaijan by a 3-1 count on June 7 to protect its perfect record in group play.  The only drama remaining here is for second place; a slight edge at the moment is granted Turkey, a point behind 2nd-place Belgium but with a game in hand over the Belgians, not to mention a win and draw vs.  Belgium and a win vs. fourth-place Austria earlier in the competition.  The Turks will also get a rematch at home vs. the Germans on October 7 after Deutschland will have likely locked up this group.  If still alive on the final qualifying day October 11, the Belgians will likely have to get max points in Munich vs. the Germans to keep their hopes alive.  Updated group forecast: Germany (winner), Turkey (2nd place).

GROUP B: Ireland 13, Russia 13, Slovakia 13, Armenia 8.  This has turned into quite a 3-team horse race in Group B between Ireland, Russia, and Slovakia.  At the moment, a slight edge in the head-to-heads to the Slovaks and electric Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik, who won on the road vs. Russia on Moscow last September and played Ireland to a 1-1 draw in October.  Russia also owns a 3-2 win at Dublin, momentarily giving them an edge in that head-to-head matchup vs. the Irish.  Despite Hamsik’s explosiveness, however, the Slovaks have not been scoring too many goals, with just 6 of them through 6 matches.  Meanwhile, with Robbie Keane (five goals in the qualifiers) in fine form, Ireland has displayed a lot more bite in attack.  The Irish hopes are going to ride upon a crucial back-to-back set at home vs. the Slovaks and at Russia in early September; Slovakia hosts the  Russians on the penultimate match day of October 7.  Given Ireland’s near-miss at qualifying for the last World Cup (Thierry Henry’s hand ball in Paris...remember?), we somehow think the Irish at least make it into the knockout qualifiers.  Updated group forecast: Russia (winner), Ireland (2nd place).

GROUP C: Italy 16, Slovenia 11, Serbia 8, Estonia 7, Northern Ireland 6.  With a 14-1 goal differential and now sitting comfortably atop this group with a game in hand over 2nd-place Slovenia, Italy looks almost assured of booking its place to Poland and the Ukraine.  New coach Cesare Prandelli has altered a lineup that went stale under Marcello Lippi at World Cup 2010, with Valencia’s Guiseppe Rossi and the enigmatic Antonio Cassano now assuming the bulk of the scoring load; both scored in last week’s 3-0 cruise vs. Estonia.  The runner-up spot from this group could come down to a last-day match between the Slovenians and the Serbs, who played to a 1-1 draw in their first matchup last September in Belgrade.  Although the Serbs have a game in hand, they’re also at a -1 in goal differential, compared to Slovenia’s +5.  We can’t see the Serbs advancing unless they get max points in that rematch.  Updated group forecast: Italy (winner), Slovenia (2nd place).

GROUP D: France 13, Belarus 12, Bosnia-Herzegovina 10, Romania 8, Albania 8.
  France continues to make hard work for itself, with Eric Abidal’s own goal giving Belarus the goal it needed to forge a 1-1 draw on June 3.  At least Les Bleus have looked a bit more menacing under Laurent Blanc in the qualifiers than they did when humiliating themselves at the World Cup last June for Raymond Domenech.  Blanc is focusing the attack around Franck Ribery’s assaults from the flanks and Karim Benzema’s cool demeanor on the frontline, and results have generally been good since dropping the opening match vs. the same Belarus in Paris last September.  Meanwhile, Hugo Lloris has been solid in goal (and it wasn’t his fault that Abidal knocked in that own goal on June 3).  France still has more firepower than either Belarus or Bosnia-Herzegovina, the latter two meeting in an eliminator of sort on the next Matchday, September 2.  Making a late move into a contending position could be Romania, which used a brace by Stuttgart striker Ciprian Marica to bury the Bosnians by a 3-0 count on June 3, avenging a 2-1 loss on March 26.  If the Romanians can take max points from their September 6 rematch vs. the French at Bucharest, they’ll be in position to at least nab a runner-up spot.  Updated group forecast: France (winner), Romania (2nd place).

GROUP E: Netherlands 18, Sweden 15, Hungary 12.  The Dutch seem to be in very good shape to advance from this group, having taken max points from all six previous matches, including an emphatic 4-1 win over 2nd-place Sweden back on October 12 at the Amsterdam ArenA.  So, even if the Swedes can pull level with a win over the Dutch on the final qualifying day at Stockholm, they’re going top have to make up a significant goal difference to go top of the group.  Second-place looks a better bet for Sweden, but to be safe, the Swedes will want to at least get some sort of result vs. 3rd-place Hungary in their next match in Budapest on September 2.  After beating the Hungarians 2-0 in an earlier matchup, Sweden is well-positioned to at least make it into the knockout qualifiers as the group runner-up.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hat- trick in the 5-0 rout of Finland on June 7 suggests the Swedes should not have too much trouble holding on to the second-place spot in Group E and perhaps gaining automatic entry into Euro 2012 with the best qualifying record of the group runners-up.  Updated group forecast: Netherlands (winner), Sweden (2nd place).

GROUP F: Greece 14, Croatia 13, Israel 13, Georgia 9.  Along with Groups B and H, this remains one of the most wide-open races in the qualifiers.  A slight edge at the moment to post-Otto Rehhagel Greece, and Croatia, each with a match in hand over Israel in the logjam at the top of this group.  We’ll have a much better idea about the Israeli’s fate after the next two Matchdays in early September, home in Tel Aviv vs. Greece than on the road at Croatia.  Previous losses to both the Greeks and the Croats, however, suggests that Israel will have a hard climb to get into one of the top two spots in this group.  It’s likely that the Greece-Croatia matchup on October 7 in Athens will decide the group winner here.  Projecting ahead, perhaps a slight edge to the Croats, who have displayed a bit more cutting edge in attack, especially with Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic (who scored the equalizer in Croatia’s eventual 2-1 win over hard-fighting Georgia on June 3) emerging as a new force to watch on the Croatian frontline.   Updated group forecast: Croatia (winner), Greece (2nd place).

GROUP G: England 11, Montenegro 11, Switzerland 5, Bulgaria 5.  Much like France in Group D, England seems determined to make it as difficult as possible on itself in the group stage.  Despite landing in what many believed was the most-forgiving group of the qualifiers, Fabio Capello’s men have yet to break clear from the pack, and are in danger of having to go the playoff route to reach Euro 2012 after being forced to rally for a 2-2 draw vs. the battling Swiss at Wembley on June 4.  Failure to secure max points has kept the Brits level at the top of the group table with Montenegro, which also missed an opportunity to take control of the group when being held 1-1 by the Bulgars on the same day.  The group winner probably comes down to the England-Montenegro rematch in the Balkans on October 7, although the Montenegrans are going to have to come right back against a capable Switzerland side, on the road, 96 hours later.  Updated group forecast: England (winner), Montenegro (2nd place).

GROUP H: Portugal 10, Denmark 10, Norway 10.  After a slow start last fall when Cristiano Ronaldo missed action due to leg injuries, Portugal has climbed back into a spot where it can at least control its own destiny in this group.   The big result was the recent 1-0 win over visiting Norway at Lisbon on June 4, with veteran striker Helder Postiga netting the all-important match-winner in the 53rd minute.  That avenged a loss (minus Ronaldo) in Oslo last September, and with the next two matches looking quite winnable vs. Cyprus and Iceland, sets up the likelihood that the Portuguese will probably at least be into a position where they will be looking at no worse than a second-place finish heading into the final Matchday at Copenhagen vs. the Danes on October 11.  Denmark also gets to host Norway on September 6 and can gain the upper hand on the Norwegians after battling them to a 1-1 draw at Oslo in late March.   Updated group forecast: Portugal (winner), Denmark (2nd place).

GROUP I: Spain 15, Czech Republic 9, Scotland 4, Lithuania 4.  Any chance for a bit of drama in this quintet effectively ended back on March 25 when Espana took down the Czech Republic 2-1 at the Bernabeu in Madrid.  That paved the way for the Euro and World Cup holders to cruise into Euro 2012 as a group winner, and Vicente del Bosque’s men figure to qualify on top even if they lose the match vs. the Czechs at Prague on October.  As for the Czechs, they are sitting quite comfortably in 2nd place and should easily make it into the knockout qualifier stage next November.  The only potential banana peel could be the September 3 match vs. a desperate Scottish bunch at Glasgow’s Hampden Park.  But if the Scots can’t take all three points, the Czechs should be clear in the second slot.  Updated group forecast: Spain(winner), Czech Republic (2nd place).

As always, stay tuned... Euro Soccer Rankings (Final 2010-11 season...)
Ranking Club Country
1 Barcelona Spain
2 Real Madrid Spain
3 Manchester United England
4 Borussia Dortmund Germany
5 Chelsea England
6 AC Milan Italy
7 Porto Portugal
8 Manchester City England
9 Valencia Spain
10 Inter Milan Italy
Ranking Club Country
11 Arsenal England
12 Lille France
13 Bayern Munich Germany
14 Bayer Leverkusen Germany
15 Villareal Spain
16 Sevilla Spain
17 Napoli Italy
18 Athletic Bilbao Spain
19 Tottenham Hotspur England
20 Marseille France
21 Liverpool England
22 Atletico Madrid Spain
23 Ajax Amsterdam Holland
24 Udinese Italy
25 Lyon France EURO National Rankings (as of June 17...)
Ranking Country
1 Spain
2 Germany
3 Netherlands
4 Portugal
5 Italy
6 England
7 Sweden
8 Denmakr
9 Russia
10 France

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: (Euro 2012 qualifiers June 3-7): Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden...Although he has fallen in and out of favor with the national team over the past couple of years, there's no question that Ibrahimovic, who once upon a time scored the goal of Euro 2004 with an audacious back-heel volley against Italy, can be a load if the mood strikes. Which was definitely the case on June 7 in Stockholm against Finland, when the AC Milan hit man delivered a powerful hat-trick to help see off the outgunned Fins by a 5-0 scoreline, and increasing the chances that Sweden, even though trailing the Netherlands in the Group E table, can qualify for Euro 2012 as the best of the second-place group finishers.

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