Europe begins crucial double dates

[WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING] Europe enters rounds three and four of 2010 World Cup qualifying with every group still an open book. But the next six days will be crucial for almost every country that still wants be in the reckoning when group play resumes next spring. We take a glance at the key games in each group.

GROUP ONE: Sweden vs. Portugal (Saturday, 2pm ET)
Albania is the surprise early leader in Group One, while Portugal will be relying on the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to make up for the shock home defeat last month by Denmark. Another loss against a realistic competitor for a qualifying place would seriously damage its chances of making the next World Cup. Sweden, meanwhile, should be fighting to cleanse the reputation it built at Euro 2008 of being one of the dullest national teams in Europe.
Other games (all times ET): Saturday October 11 -- Hungary vs Albania (1:45 pm), Denmark vs Malta (2 pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Malta vs Hungary (1:30 pm) Portugal vs Albania (3:45 pm).
Standings: Albania (4 points), Denmark (4), Sweden (4), Portugal (3), Hungary (1), Malta (0)

GROUP TWO: Greece vs. Switzerland (Wednesday, 2:30 pm)
Few will be thrilled to see Otto Rehhagel's stultifying Greek side at the top of a group with no obvious dominant country. Switzerland will have to show a positive attitude in Greece to try and make up for its staggering loss at home to Luxembourg last month. It also has a home game with Latvia on Saturday to try and prove that result was a freak one-off. Both Israel and Latvia must fancy their chances of progressing as semi-outsiders in an evenly balanced group. And maybe even Luxembourg too.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Switzerland vs Latvia (11:45 am), Luxemburg vs Israel (2:15 pm), Greece vs Moldova (2:30 pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Latvia vs Israel (12 pm), Luxemburg vs Moldova (2:15 pm).
Standings: Greece (6 points), Israel (4), Latvia (3), Luxemburg (3), Switzerland (1), Moldova (0).

GROUP THREE: Poland vs. Czech Republic (Saturday, 2:30 pm)
Two teams that qualified but then disappointed at Euro 2008 meet in a game that could see the Poles start to build a healthy lead over the Czechs, who have played one game less. The Czechs are still missing the creative spark of the injured Tomas Rosicky, and have yet to find consistent successors to the aging Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller. Poland, though, started sluggishly with a draw against Slovenia and a paltry 2-0 win over the pointless (in every sense of the word) San Marino. Both Slovenia and Slovakia, and even Northern Ireland, should be sniffing at the more than outside chance of sneaking into second spot.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- San Marino vs Slovakia (2.30pm), Slovenia vs Northern Ireland (2.45). Wednesday October 15 -- Czech Republic vs Slovenia (11.30am), Slovakia vs Poland (2.30pm), Northern Ireland vs San Marino (2.45pm).
Standings: Poland (4 points), Slovenia (4), Slovakia (3), Czech Republic (3), Northern Ireland (1), San Marino (0).

GROUP FOUR: Germany vs. Russia (Saturday, 2:45 pm)
Neither of the group's big two teams, who meet in Dortmund Saturday, have convinced so far. Germany tied in Finland 3-3 in a game that was entertaining for neutrals, but worrying for German fans in defensive terms. It's also been dogged by a petty dispute played out in the press between captain Michael Ballack, who returns after injury, and team manager Oliver Bierhoff. Russia, meanwhile, scraped past Wales 2-1 last month, and will look to Andrei Arshavin to have one of his big games and not disappear for the afternoon. Wales and Finland must win easy home games with Liechtenstein and Azerbaijan respectively to keep in touch.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Finland vs Azerbaijan (10 am), Wales vs Liechtenstein (12:30 pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Russia vs Finland (11 am), Germany vs Wales (2:45 pm).
Standings: Germany (4 points), Russia (3), Wales (3), Finland (1), Azerbaijan (1), Lichtenstein (1).

GROUP FIVE: Belgium vs. Spain (Wednesday, 2.45pm)
The toughest group of them all, featuring European champion Spain, Euro 2008 semifinalist Turkey, once threatening Belgium, and an emerging Bosnia-Herzegovina, which served notice it's not to be taken lightly by trouncing Estonia, 7-0, last month. Belgium, by contrast, could only edge the Estonians, 3-2, at home, and has the tall order of beating Spain to stand a chance of challenging for a World Cup place. Still, it followed the Estonia result with a creditable tie in Istanbul. Turkey's home game with Bosnia Saturday will also be key to the group's mid-term shape.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Turkey vs Bosnia (2pm) Belgium vs Armenia (2:45pm), Estonia vs Spain (2:45pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Bosnia vs Armenia (2.15pm), Estonia vs Turkey (2:30pm).
Standings: Spain (6 points), Turkey (4), Belgium (4), Bosnia (3), Armenia (0), Estonia (0).

GROUP SIX: Ukraine vs. Croatia (Saturday, 1pm)
Croatia, so impressive at Euro 2008, caught a reality check when its was outplayed at home to England last month in a 1-4 defeat. Coach Slaven Bilic has probably learnt his lesson about talking down to opponents pregame, and now has to concentrate on getting a result on the road at in-form Ukraine, for whom Serhiy Nazarenko has scored three goals so far. Not to mention striker Andrei Shevchenko. England, meanwhile, should clinch top spot over winter if it beats Kazakhstan at home (a certainty) and Belarus away -- by no means a certainty, but certainly expected now after the Croatia result. It should have the depth to cover for injury doubt John Terry.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- England vs Kazakhstan (12:15 pm).
Wednesday October 15 -- Croatia vs Andorra (2:15 pm), Belarus vs England (2:30 pm).
Standings: England (6 points), Ukraine (6), Belarus (3), Croatia (3), Kazakhstan (3), Andorra (0).

GROUP SEVEN: Romania vs. France (Saturday, 2:40 pm)
Romania made a putrid start by losing its opening game at home to surprise group leader Lithuania, 3-0. France lost 3-1 at Austria, the side that could barely score on its own turf at Euro '08. Romania then scraped a 1-0 win at the Faroe Islands, while France edged past Serbia, but the two pre-qualifying group favorites will be desperate to lose no further ground by dropping points when they clash in Constanta. Still, some grim-faced French fans would welcome defeat if it meant the end for coach Raymond Domenech, bafflingly retained after France's disastrous European Championship. This game can certainly be no worse than the 0-0 tie the two teams hacked their way through in Zurich during that tournament.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Faroe Islands vs Austria (11 am), Serbia vs Lithuania (2.:15 pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Lithuania vs Faroe Islands (noon), Austria vs Serbia (2:30 pm).
Standings: Lithuania (6 points), Serbia (3), Austria (3), France (3), Romania (3), Faroe Islands (0).

GROUP EIGHT: Ireland vs. Cyprus (Wednesday, 2:45 pm)
The only real question in Group 8 is who will finish second behind Italy, so in that sense the Ireland-Cyprus meeting is more important than either of the games involving the world champion. Ireland made a solid start by winning on the road in Georgia, though it may end up regretting two dropped points in Montenegro. Cyprus' only game so far was an unlucky last-minute home defeat to the Italians, but it will certainly cause surprises in this group. Georgia hosts Bulgaria in what is already a must-win game for both sides.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Georgia vs Cyprus (12.30 pm), Bulgaria vs Italy (2:15 pm). Wednesday October 15 -- Georgia vs Bulgaria (12:30 pm), Italy vs Montenegro (2.50 pm).
Standings: Italy (6 points), Ireland (4), Montenegro (2), Bulgaria (1), Cyprus (0), Georgia (0).

GROUP NINE: Scotland vs. Norway (Saturday, 10am)
Again, the real question is, who will finish runners-up to the Netherlands? Scotland partly atoned for losing in Macedonia by edging Iceland in Reykjavik. Norway could only tie with Iceland at home. Norway will want at least a point from this, and may defend accordingly, as is their habit. Scotland will press for all three, backed by a vocal home crowd in Glasgow. The only guarantee is that it won't be pretty. The Netherlands can stride away at the top with a home win over Iceland and, on Wednesday, victory in Norway.
Other games: Saturday October 11 -- Netherlands vs Iceland (2:45 pm).
Wednesday October 15 -- Norway vs Netherlands (1 pm), Iceland vs Macedonia (2 pm).
Standings: Netherlands (3 points), Macedonia (3), Scotland (3), Norway (1), Iceland (1).

Format: Nine group winners qualify directly for South Africa 2010. Eight best runners-up compete in a home-and-away series for the final four spots.

Times are U.S. Eastern


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