The last four places at UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 will be decided over the next two weeks in the play-offs.
Involved in the two-legged ties are some familiar finals faces like Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, plus two teams aiming for debuts at this level: Slovakia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Three of the first legs are on Tuesday with Slovakia facing Croatia on Wednesday and all the returns on 24 September.
Eight teams have already booked their places in the finals in Antwerp from 28 January to 8 February: hosts Belgium, holders Spain and their fellow March main round group winners Italy, Russia, Slovenia, Portugal, Azerbaijan and the Czech Republic. The finals draw is on 4 October.
Romania v Serbia
For the first time, Romania are staging a competitive international in Calarasi, where in February they beat finals hosts Belgium 4-3 and 5-2. After the main round they travelled to Bangkok in May, winning one game and losing two against Thailand. However, last month coach Sito Rivera resigned to take the Hungary job, leaving assistant and former goalkeeper Nelu Stancea in charge. He has an experienced squad mostly familiar from the 2007 and 2012 finals, missing only the injured Tony Safar.
Stancea said: "
It is my first international game as head coach and therefore for me it's a big challenge. We have a chance and we will do our best in order to achieve a prestigious qualification, which would be for me the third as a member of the team and the first as head coach."
Serbia, who have been led to the last three tournaments by Aca Kovačević and are assured of a 2016 berth as hosts, have been preparing in the venue city for the next finals, Belgrade. Kovačević knows the two legs are "the most important matches of 2013", and added: "We have been to the last three EUROs and want to continue that sequence. Our opponents are strong and we respect Romania, but believe in our qualities and the fact that second leg will be played in front of our supporters. A few players changed clubs during summer window, but they are ready for a new challenge in the national team."
Ukraine v Hungary
Two-time runners-up Ukraine have not missed a major tournament since the 2000 World Cup but are in danger of ending that run in the first since the coach that set up the team nearly 20 years ago, Gennadiy Lysenchuk, stepped down to be replaced by Yevgen Ryvkin. His 16-man squad includes nine players from the club he coaches and that are staging the first leg, Lokomotiv Kharkiv. They will get local support from the squad and management team of football's FC Metalist Kharkiv, who will attend the first leg two days after Ryvkin's side went to their crucial league match against FC Dynamo Kyiv.
A change of generations is happening in our team right now," Ryvkin said. "At least half of our players are young," Ryvkin said. "But we can still play for the result. All the lads know what coaches ask for. I hope the players are ready to show their leadership."
Having helped Romania to this stage, Rivera is now at the Hungary helm, leading his new team in the recent Gyor tournament where they lost to the Czech Republic and Poland but drew 3-3 with Slovakia. The experienced Spanish technician told UEFA.com: "It is a very important game, but the best way to learn and improve is playing against great teams, and Ukraine are definitely one of them, so it represents a good chance to be better. They are a well-organised team, with a lethal counterattack, and good strategy. Hungary's strengths, [Ukraine] had to discover by themselves during the game.
"As with Romania, I want to see that when I conclude my contract with the Hungarian national team, they have improved their standard, their position in the ranking and that futsal has developed in all aspects all over the country: futsal for kids and youth, development courses and competitions."
Bosnia and Herzegovina v Netherlands
Bosnia and Herzegovina, hoping to reach their first final tournament, fell in the play-offs for the 2004 and 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup and came close to pipping Azerbaijan to automatic qualification in March, losing a tight game 3-2. Boro Matan's team warmed up last month with two friendlies in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, losing 4-2 and winning 4-3. Key to their team are goalkeeper Bahrudin Omerbegović, Alen Lalić, Maid Ramić, Nermin Kahvedžić, Marijo Aladžić and brothers Dražen and Slaven Novoselac. "
The Dutch are favorites but we will not give up," Matan said. "We have quality and I still hope for a favourable outcome. The winner will be known after the match in Almere [next Tuesday]."
The Netherlands, who last qualified in 2005, have been narrowly pipped in all three qualification campaigns since. Coach Marcel Loosveld, whose team performed admirably in a four-nation tournament in China in June, when they beat the hosts 3-1 and only lost 4-3 to Iran and 1-0 to Russia, said: "It will become a close call, but I we have a chance. Also, we play the return match at home, which is when the tie will probably be decided." Loosveld was assistant coach when the Netherlands were eliminated from 2008 FIFA Futsal World Cup qualifying by Bosnia and Herzegovina, and added: "I remember we did not really stand a chance then. But the current team are much more further in their development. If we play and battle as a team against Bosnia, then we have a good chance of earning a ticket for the EURO."
Slovakia v Croatia
In Wednesday's only first leg, Slovakia will aim to get a step closer to a debut finals. Coach Ján Janík, who replaced Richard Bačo last year, told UEFA.com: "
Croatia will be slight favourites, but we have a chance too." Janík, whose side lost 5-1 to the Czech Republic, beat Poland 3-0 and drew 3-3 with Hungary in Gyor earlier this month, is helped by the fact that his national squad is made up of the same players he coaches at perennial Slovakian champions Slov-Matic Bratislava. "After Tomáš Drahovský, Matúš Kyjovský and Gabriel Rick tranferred to our club, we have the same team, it's true," Janík added. "For me this is an advantage to train together.
"Everything must be in our favour if we want to surprise Croatia, semi-finalists last year on home soil. But it looks like they didn't have the same quality as the best European team, losing 10-0 to Spain in their Group 4 in March is too much. Big teams should not lose this way. They are not Portugal or Italy."
Despite that dip in form since making the 2012 semis in front of record-breaking crowds, Croatia captain Ivo Jukić is confident: "Although Slovakia have achieved some good results, we were very satisfied with the draw and anything but a victory would be a big failure for us," he said. Coach Mato Stanković added: "Our wish was to avoid the best three teams, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, but I think Slovakia are the fourth strongest team we could have got. They have a very high quality team. They are beatable, of course, but we need to have a serious attitude and give our best to win." His team will host the second leg in Dubrovnik, where in 1998 Croatia inflicted Slovakia's record 13-1 defeat.
Reporters: Paul-Daniel Zaharia, Aleksandar Bošković, Igor Linnyk, Matthew Watson-Broughton, Berend Scholten, Fuad Krvavac, Rastislav Hribik & Elvir Islamović
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