After more than a year of matches, the group stage of UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying is down to its final two matchdays. Co-hosts Poland and Ukraine, reigning European and world champions Spain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands are all set for next summer’s tournament, but by Tuesday evening, we’ll know who the other six automatic qualifiers are, along with the eight sides who’ll duke it out in two-legged playoffs in November for the final four spots.
There’s certainly a lot to look forward to at Euro 2012, but before we look ahead too far, there are several key matches on Friday and Tuesday that stand to play a role in how everything shakes out.
Here, we take a look at the three most important matches of that bunch.
Group B: Ireland v. Armenia
Irish fans might not be surprised that their Euro 2012 hopes could come down to Tuesday’s match in Dublin, but what’s surprising is that Armenia could go into the match still mathematically in the equation to finish second, or even first.
Group B is the most wide-open group there is, as Russia, Ireland, Armenia, and Slovakia all still have a chance to win the group. Russia top the group with 17 points, with Ireland in second on 15. Those two are the favorites for first and second, but Armenia are in with a shout after last month’s shock 4-0 win in Slovakia. That win has them third on 14 points, ahead of Slovakia due to two head-to-head wins.
The picture should become a lot clearer on Friday, as Ireland are away to super-minnows Andorra, Slovakia host Russia, and Armenia host fifth-placed Macedonia. At the same time, it could remain every bit as muddled, especially if Slovakia beat Russia. Slovakia need that result, but Ireland and Armenia need it also. Ireland need it to put themselves in the driver’s seat for top spot because they’d lose out on the all-important head-to-head against Russia. Meanwhile, Armenia need it because with two wins and two wins by Slovakia, Armenia would, quite stunningly, win Group B and reach their first-ever European Championship.
It’s a long shot, but it’s still a fantastic story nonetheless, given Armenia’s previous minnow status. While Armenia need help plus the performance of their lives, Ireland have some control over their destiny, as two wins will ensure them of no worse than a playoff spot. You’d have to back them to do it, but if Armenia come to Dublin still in the race, they’ll hit the pitch with belief, and crazy things can happen when you believe. At the very least, Ireland wouldn’t be able to underestimate Armenia and could have to really fight for three pivotal points. Who’d have expected that when the draw was revealed?
Group B: Slovakia v. Russia
As mentioned above, Friday’s meeting in Zilina is not only important for Slovakia and Russia, but it‘s also every bit as important for Ireland and Armenia.
For Russia, it’s fairly straightforward. A win or a draw plus a win over Andorra on Tuesday, and they win Group B. But if Slovakia win, they will be in position to at least finish second if they win away to Macedonia on Tuesday, and with the right results, they could still automatically qualify for Euro 2012.
If Slovakia hadn’t capitulated in the second half against Armenia, their path to first or second would be at least somewhat clearer, but Friday’s match is now a must-win for their Euro 2012 hopes.
Group F: Greece v. Croatia
Greece are unbeaten, but Croatia head into their crunch clash in Piraeus on top of Group F. Croatia sit on 19 points, with six wins, one draw, and a lone defeat to Georgia, and they’re one point ahead of Greece, who have won five and drawn three.
Greece are already assured of a playoff spot, but anything less than a win on Friday dampens their hopes for automatic qualification. An away win for Slaven Bilic’s side will render Tuesday’s matches completely meaningless, but even a draw for Croatia will all but book their place in Euro 2012, as their final group match is on home soil against Latvia, who are fifth in the six-team group.
However, Croatia will still fancy their chances to win the group even if Greece nab all three points. Greece finish up with a tricky away tie against Georgia, and considering that Croatia should dispose of Latvia in Rijeka, Greece will need to beat Georgia to finish first. That might not be easy, seeing as how Georgia drew 1-1 in Greece and notched a 1-0 home win over Croatia.