Romania off to a strong start in Europe's World Cup qualifying play
There are nine groups battling for Europe's 13 places at the next World Cup; the nations in each group play one another home and away. Here's your guide to how things stand between this month's fixtures:
This was the group that nobody quite fancied calling -- as former Belgium boss Georges Leekens put it: "Every team is capable of beating everyone else, but also of losing points to everyone else." Now run by Marc Wilmots, Belgium gave further evidence of its potency with a 3-0 victory over Serbia that put it on top of the group Friday. Scotland will not be looking forward to Tuesday evening's trip to Brussels, where Craig Levein's team will have to beat Belgium to stand any chance of qualifying. Scotland led going in to the last 15 minutes of Friday's 'Battle of Britain' encounter with Wales, but then had a goal disallowed and succumbed to the relentlessness of Gareth Bale to lose 2-1. Now only FYR Macedonia keeps the Scots off the bottom of the group, after losing to Croatia for the second time in a month, this time 2-1. Croatia, second in the group on goal difference, now faces Wales at home; the Welsh have already travelled to the Balkans and lost 6-1 to Serbia.
Italy tops the table, having extended its unbeaten run in international qualifying matches to 33 with a 3-1 win over Armenia. The Italians have yet to really click into gear, but their coach, Cesare Prandelli, is happy with seven points from three matches in what he calls "a particularly tricky group." In second place is Bulgaria, which managed a 1-1 draw with Denmark on Friday despite having Ivan Bandalovski sent off with less than half an hour played. Czech Republic is close enough to tap Italy on the shoulder, however, with four points from two matches after Friday's 3-1 win over Malta; Bulgaria arrives in Prague on Tuesday needing a win to stay ahead of the Czechs. The Danes will be disappointed with a return of two points from two matches in which they have played well enough to fancy themselves deserving victors (Christian Eriksen hit the bar in the second half against Bulgaria), which puts extra pressure on Tuesday's visit to Milan.
Did Joachim Low have his tongue in his cheek when he said qualifying from this group would be "tough, but it's certainly doable"? The Germany coach has been under pressure since Bastian Schweinsteiger's complaints about the spirit in the camp, but he cannot really have feared Friday's meeting with Ireland, which comprehensively lost all three of its Euro 2012 group games this summer. A 6-1 win leaves Germany on maximum points at the top (though Ireland has three points from beating Kazakhstan and has a winnable match with Faroe Islands coming up). Sweden, in second, is also unbeaten in the group, but had to come from behind to get a 2-1 win over Faroe Islands on Friday. Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to be the Swedes' biggest threat, but could have a tougher time making an impact in Berlin on Tuesday. The bottom half of the table looks a bit of a scrap: Austria and Kazakhstan each have one point thanks to Friday's goalless draw and play one another again on Tuesday in Vienna. The Austrians created almost all of the chances in the first meeting so will hope for a first win in the group on home soil.
Romania was supposed to be battling Turkey and Hungary for second place in this group, but is instead shoulder-to-shoulder with the Netherlands, which also has nine points after three matches to lead the group. On Friday the Dutch strolled to a 3-0 win over Andorra without even needing to field Robin van Persie; Romania had a few more scares as it defended a 1-0 lead against Turkey, but prevailed with its spotless goals-against column intact. Tuesday will start the process of shaking this group out, with the Netherlands in Romania and Turkey traveling to Hungary. The Hungarians have already had to face the Dutch and lost 4-1, but were comfortable as they beat Estonia 1-0 on Friday. Andorra and Estonia are fodder in the competition between the other four teams in this group, but have a chance to register their first points when they face one another on Tuesday.
When this group was drawn, Norway coach Egil Olsen was disappointed to see Iceland in the same pot. "Iceland is like the annoying little brother who loves getting one over on his older sibling," he said. "We've found them difficult to play against." In fact it was 25 years since Iceland had beaten Norway, but that changed in the opening round of fixtures in this group last month, and Iceland made it two wins out of three when Gylfi Sigurdsson's free-kick beat Albania 2-1 on Friday. That puts the annoying little brother second, two points ahead of Norway -- though the Norwegians have already faced the group leader, Switzerland, and took a point from an exciting 1-1 draw on Friday in which the woodwork took a battering. Iceland has the visit of the Swiss to come. Slovenia's 2-1 win over Cyprus puts both teams level on three points at the bottom of the table, but Slavisa Stojanovic's side was supposed to be vying for automatic qualification and needs points against Albania on Tuesday.
The matches between Russia and Portugal were always likely to prove decisive in a group in which the two are strong favorites, and Russia claimed first blood with a 1-0 win on Friday that put to rest to any concerns over Fabio Capello's decision to drop Andrey Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak; Alexander Kerzhakov (who famously missed plenty of chances at Euro 2012) struck the winner. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev made a couple of smart saves to frustrate Portugal, which must now make the most of the visit of Northern Ireland, already beaten in Russia. Similarly, the Russians host Azerbaijan on Tuesday looking to better the three goals that Portugal put past them last month. Israel always looked like the strongest of the remaining teams in one of the least competitive qualifying groups; Portugal coach Paulo Bento said, "they are very dangerous opponents." So it proved for Luxembourg on Friday, which shipped six goals, including a hat-trick for Tomer Hemed, and even managed to miss a penalty late. And it gets to do it all over again on Tuesday in Tel Aviv.
"Unfortunately, there are no real crackers in there." Such was the reaction of Hans-Peter Zaugg, the Liechtenstein coach, when the draw pitched these six sides together. Three straight defeats to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia and, on Friday, Lithuania, which won 2-0 in Vaduz, are not quite so heroic as the defeats to Germany and Russia that saw off Liechtenstein's attempt to qualify for the last World Cup. Still, Bosnia, Greece and Slovakia won't be too concerned about the drabness of this group, exemplified by the goalless draw between the former two on Friday; the three currently share the lead with seven points apiece. Slovakia enjoyed the greater share of possession and menace as it defeated Latvia 2-1 on Friday, with Marek Hamsik typically difficult to handle throughout. He and his teammates host Greece on Tuesday with a chance to pull away.
England did not put up the cricket score against San Marino that some had been demanding (goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini had, as was excruciatingly frequently reported, conceded 114 goals in his 24 appearances, prompting former England defender Gareth Southgate to suggest, only partly in jest, that the first half ought to bring England not two but "two dozen" goals), but a 5-0 win leaves it at the top of the group with a +10 goal difference, nonetheless. Next up on Tuesday is Poland, which has four points from its opening two matches, as does Montenegro. Ukraine trailed having drawn its opening match and had a difficult build-up to this weekend after losing its coach, Oleg Blokhin, first to the vacant post at Dynamo Kiev and then to a blood clot that needed surgery. Friday's goalless draw with Moldova saw his players miss a number of chances -- Roman Zozylya being among the worst of the culprits -- to take the points tally to four.
The smallest group of the lot, with only five teams, and only two of them really likely to prosper: Spain, the reigning world and European champion, and France, which lost to Spain in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 having recovered from its nightmare in South Africa in 2010. After their first two fixtures, the pair tops the group with six points, Spain walloping Belarus 4-0 on Friday with a hat-trick from Pedro, who set up Jordi Alba's opener with a back-heel. That result, plus a 1-1 draw with Georgia that got Finland off the mark, combined to put Belarus at the bottom of the pile without a point. All eyes will be on Madrid on Tuesday, when Spain hosts France looking to force the first break in the pair's fortunes. Didier Deschamps has attracted praise for the changes he has made to France's squad, but a friendly defeat to Japan on Friday -- Yasuyaki Konno hitting on the counterattack with minutes of the match remaining -- might have undermined confidence. "You can't win when you don't score from your chances," said Deschamps. Spain had eight shots on target on Friday and put half of them away.