Europe's leading powers look to restore order in qualifying
LONDON (AP) Some of Europe's less-heralded football nations are on a roll in qualifying for the 2016 European Championship - and leaving many of the continent's traditional powers struggling to keep up.
Heading into the second half of qualifying for next year's tournament in France, few would have predicted Spain would be trailing Slovakia in their group; that Netherlands would be a distant third to the Czech Republic and Iceland; and that world champion Germany would be engaged in a four-way fight for two automatic qualifying places.
A glance at the list of group leaders makes refreshing viewing, with Austria, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia, Poland and the Czechs among those in first place. The question is, can they hold on?
The sixth of 10 qualifying rounds takes place Friday to Sunday, with Germany and the Dutch in particular needing to kick-start their campaigns.
The Netherlands have only won two of their five games in Group A ahead of their qualifier in Latvia on Friday -another slip-up and it will be difficult for last year's World Cup semifinalist to qualify automatically. The top two countries from nine groups advance to the largest-ever European Championship finals, along with the best third-place finisher. The other third-place finishers go into the playoffs.
Germany is second in Group D, behind Poland and tied for points with Scotland, and looking nowhere near as impressive as it did in winning the World Cup in Brazil. However, the Germans should rack up the goals against tiny Gibraltar on Saturday.
Only two teams have 100 percent records after five matches - England in Group E and Slovakia in Group C, where Spain lies points adrift in second.
There are five 1st-vs.-2nd matches in this round of qualifiers, including Croatia against Italy in Group H and Belgium at Wales in Group B.
Here are some more things to know about the upcoming games:
Spain travels to Belarus without playmaker Andres Iniesta, who dropped out of the squad after experiencing muscle pain following Barcelona's 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final.
For the many Barca players in Spain's squad, the match will mark the end of a long but fruitful season in which they won the La Liga-Copa del Rey-Champions League treble.
''What we want to do is give our maximum so we can then go away and rest having done our work properly,'' Spain and Barcelona left back Jordi Alba said.
Slovakia is at home to Macedonia.
TROUBLE FOR CAPELLO
Russia is another supposed group favorite in some trouble, in third place behind Austria and Sweden in Group G. Russia hosts Austria on Sunday.
Russia coach Fabio Capello is under pressure after just one win from his side's last eight competitive matches, not counting a victory by default when Russia's last qualifier against Montenegro was abandoned due to crowd trouble.
With one eye on the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Capello is focusing on developing young players and was rewarded Sunday when two 19-year-old debutants scored in a 4-2 friendly win over Belarus.
However, Austria is a much tougher opponent and beat the Russians 1-0 in Vienna in November.
Netherlands coach Guus Hiddink doesn't plan to make major changes to the team that slumped to its first-ever defeat to the United States last week in a friendly.
The shaky Dutch defense conceded three goals in the final 20 minutes to lose 4-3 to the Americans on Friday, and Hiddink will again be without central defender Ron Vlaar (calf). Also out through injury is winger Arjen Robben, the Netherlands' best player at last year's World Cup.
Midfielder Wesley Sneijder said the loss to the U.S. was ''a wake-up call'' for the Dutch to avoid complacency against Latvia. The Netherlands beat Latvia 6-0 in their earlier group meeting in Amsterdam.
''We have to win to keep alive our chances of direct qualification for the Euros,'' he said.
Associated Press writers James Ellingworth in Moscow, Harold Heckle in Madrid and Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.