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Qualifying for Euro 2012, African Cup Of Nations goes down to wire

Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have already qualified for next summer's European Championship in Ukraine and Poland. Six more group winners will join them, plus the runner-up with the best record against the teams finishing first, third and fourth in the standings, with the eight other runners-up playing off for the four remaining slots. Here's a look at key upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers:

1. Montenegro vs. England. England's draws at home to Montenegro and Switzerland left the door open, but Montenegro drew at home with Bulgaria and then lost to Wales to leave England needing just a point in Podgorica to secure its place in next summer's tournament. Even were Montenegro to win, it would still need a victory in Switzerland next Tuesday to supplant England at the top of the group. England has been wildly inconsistent in qualifying, far more impressive away from home than at Wembley. The linkup of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young provides cause for encouragement, while Scott Parker and Gareth Barry form an effective barrier in front of the back four, although Fabio Capello has given every indication that he would recall Owen Hargreaves should he prove his fitness. It remains open to debate whether Theo Walcott's pace outweighs his indifferent use of the ball, while it's far from clear who England's preferred center forward should be. Montenegro, meanwhile, has a new coach -- Branko Brnovic having been promoted from assistant following the baffling dismissal of Zlatko Kranjcar after the defeat in Cardiff. Dejan Savicevic, the president of the Montenegrin football federation, claimed that Kranjcar's "commitment" had waned since February, but the question now is whether the players will be as committed for the new man as they were for the old.

2. Greece vs. Croatia. Croatia leapt over Greece into top spot with a home win against Israel last month as Greece was held in Latvia. A win in Greece on Friday would secure top-spot in the group; anything else and it goes on to Tuesday when Croatia host Latvia and Greece go to Georgia. After a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, this qualifying series has been about rebuilding for Croatia. Mario Mandzukic has begun to emerge as the ideal link man between a highly creative midfield and the center forward -- either Eduardo or Nikica Jelavic -- while Luka Modric's increasing comfort in a deep role gives Slaven Bilic greater flexibility in midfield. An away game in Piraeus will be a test of just how secure Croatia is at the back of midfield, the area in which it has struggled since the retirement of Niko Kovac.

3. Slovakia vs. Russia. Group B is spectacularly unpredictable. Russia, without playing particularly well, grinds on and remains top, with the advantage of a home game against Andorra on Tuesday to come. A draw away to Slovakia would probably be enough to secure top spot; it had looked the most difficult fixture to come, but Armenia's 4-0 win in Zilina last month has changed perceptions. Essentially this is still the same Russia side that reached the semifinal of Euro 2008, which perhaps explains the air of staleness about it. The old chemistry between Alexander Kerzhakov and Andrei Arshavin doesn't seem to be there any more, Konstantin Zyryanov is beginning to look his age, the Berezutsky twins are as lumbering as ever, while Yuri Zhirkov was diminished by his long spell as a reserve at Chelsea. And Russia desperately misses the one player who has gone from the squad: Sergei Semak, whose energy and intelligence at the back of midfield has never been replaced. Armenia represent the opposite extreme; it has a very young squad -- the 37-year-old goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky and the 38-year-old centre-back Sargis Hovsepyan excepted -- and if it beats FYR Macedonia at home, it will go to Dublin to face the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday needing a win to take second in the group.

4. Other issues. Serbia will seal second place and a playoff spot in Group B if it beats Italy at home (the game in Italy, of course, was awarded to the Azzurri following serious crowd trouble). Estonia is away to Northern Ireland needing a win (and a Serbia defeat) to keep its qualifying hopes alive. In Group D, Bosnia host Luxembourg and France host Albania; assuming both win, they will faceoff next Tuesday in Paris to determine who takes top spot. A win for Sweden away to Finland would confirm second place in Group E. In Group H, wins for Denmark in Cyprus and Portugal at home to Iceland would set up a head to head for top spot in Copenhagen on Tuesday and, realistically if not mathematically, end Norway's hopes of qualifying. Scotland could move into second in group I with a win in Liechtenstein, if the Czech Republic lose at home to Spain. However, given Scotland plays away to Spain on Tuesday, while the Czechs face Lithuania in Vilnius, that may not be overly significant.

This weekend sees the final round of games in a typically complex qualifying system for the Cup of Nations, which begins in January. There are 11 qualifying groups. The top side in each group qualifies along with the two hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The second team in Group K (which grew to five sides when Togo were readmitted after their ban for quitting the last Cup of Nations following the terrorist attack on their team bus was overturned) also qualifies, as do the two best second-placed teams from the other 10 groups excluding Group F, which was reduced to three sides with the withdrawal of Mauritania. In determining the best second-placed teams, results against the side finishing bottom of the group are discounted.

1. Egypt vs. Niger. Egypt has won the last three Cups of Nations, but it won't be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to defend its crown, having lost all three away of its away games and drawn both it has played so far at home. The political upheaval has played its part, of course, but this is a side that grew old together, something tacitly acknowledged in the decision to go into the Niger game with an U-23 squad. New coach Bob Bradley's goal, it has been made clear by all sides, is to qualify Egypt for the 2014 World Cup and, given Egypt's impressive showing at the World U-20 championship in Colombia, in which it drew with the eventual champion Brazil and was unlucky to lose to Argentina in the last 16 after two controversial penalty decisions went against it, it makes sense for him to look at youthful options. His problem, though, will not merely be integrating young players into the senior side, but also deciding on a shape. Under his predecessor, Hassan Shehata, Egypt tended to play 3-4-1-2; Bradley has always been a 4-4-2 man, so one party is going to have to change. Bradley's decision to use his U-23s may be logical for Egypt, but South Africa is understandably less impressed. For South Africa to top the group, it needs to win at home against Sierra Leone, with whom it is level on points, and hope that Niger fails to win in Cairo -- although a win for either South Africa or Sierra Leone could take it through as a best second-place team. For Niger, this has probably already been its best qualifying campaign. It has never previously qualified for the Cup of Nations -- and, when it briefly came close to qualifying for Angola two years ago, its football federation admitted it wasn't sure if it could afford the trip. Only two of the squad play at the top level in Europe (the left-winger William N'Gounou, plays in the Swedish third division with Limkamn Bunkelfo): the midfield holder Olivier Harouna Bonnes is at Nantes, while the forward Ouwu Moussa Maazou, who's scored four goals in qualifying, is at CSKA Moscow.

2. Nigeria vs. Guinea. Cameroon, who won the Cup of Nations in 2000 and 2002 is also out, South Africa is in trouble, while Tunisia, winners in 2004, must get a better result at home to Togo than Malawi achieve in Chad if it is not also to fail to qualify. That means it's possible that the winners of the last eight Cups of Nations will not be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea while Nigeria, who won the one before that, must beat Guinea at home if it is to qualify. Kevin Constant's goal was enough to win the sides' meeting in Conakry last October, a win that effectively secured Guinea's progress; even if it loses and so surrenders top spot in the group, it is still certain to make it through as one of the two best runners-up. Guinea's sports minister Aboubacar Titi Camara has stirred the pot by saying he is sure his side would "stun" Nigeria, something that would surely have been taken as the offhand comment of a gleeful underdog had Nigeria's coach Samson Siasia not felt the need to respond, insisting it was "glaring" that his side is stronger. "This is our game and we just have to beat Guinea come rain or sunshine," he said. He is right, of course: Nigeria does have a better squad, but it's all too obviously not as superior as it would have been a decade ago.

3. Other issues. Mali will top group A if it wins away in Liberia, while whoever wins between Cape Verde and Zimbabwe has an outside chance of the second best runners-up slot. Zambia and Libya go head-to-head for top spot in Group C, with a draw enough for Zambia; a point could also give Libya qualification as best runners-up. All four teams could still make it through Group D, and all four could end on eight points if Tanzania win in Morocco and Algeria beat Central African Republic at home. Ghana go to Sudan in Group I needing a draw to top the group, a result that could put Sudan through as a best runner-up; a win for Sudan, though, would see them qualified and leave Ghana hoping for a best runners-up slot. A win for Angola in Guinea-Bissau would guarantee its qualification, whether as a best runner-up, or as Group-winner, if Uganda fails to beat Kenya.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.

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