Fifty one teams set off on the road to Poland and Ukraine in late summer 2010 and it is no surprise to see holders and world champions Spain on maximum points along with Germany and the Netherlands. Russia and Norway, revived by Egil Olsen, have also made a perfect start, while Montenegro have been hugely impressive in their debut campaign.
Germany's four wins included a 3-0 against Turkey in Berlin which featured two of Miroslav Klose's six goals so far. Worse was to follow for Turkey four days later with a 1-0 defeat in Azerbaijan that coach Guus Hiddink described as "one of the worst days of my career". Austria sit second after maintaining their unbeaten start with a 4-4 draw in Belgium on 12 October, Martin Harnik equalising in the 93rd minute.
Dick Advocaat's Russia top the section thanks to three away victories, the most recent an impressive 3-2 success against the Republic of Ireland, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Alan Dzagoev and Roman Shirokov securing a three-goal lead before Ireland's belated response. The Russians lost their only home game, 1-0 against Slovakia in September, yet Vladimír Weiss's team subsequently lost 3-1 in Armenia and lie fourth after a 1-1 home draw with the second-placed Irish.
Italy's campaign began with a scare as they trailed Estonia 45 minutes into coach Cesare Prandelli's first competitive fixture but the Azzurri responded with strikes by Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci. After their 12 October fixture with Serbia was abandoned because of crowd trouble in Genoa, UEFA awarded Italy a 3-0 forfeit win that gives them 10 points from a possible 12. Italy's only dropped points came in a goalless draw in Northern Ireland. Nigel Worthington's side had already upset Slovenia 1-0 in Maribor but were held 1-1 by the Faroe Islands, whose hero turned out to be goalkeeper Jákup Mikkelsen. The 40-year-old had come out of international retirement after an injury to Gunnar Nielsen.
France's new coach, Laurent Blanc, made the worst possible start with a 1-0 home reverse against Belarus, Sergei Kislyak scoring with four minutes remaining. However, Les Bleus responded with successive 2-0 victories over Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania and Luxembourg. Belarus remain unbeaten in second after finishing their autumn programme with a 2-0 home win over Albania, hitherto the group's surprise package.
The FIFA World Cup runners-up boast 12 points and the competition's eight-goal leading scorer in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – the last two in a 4-1 victory over Sweden on 12 October. New Sweden coach Erik Hamrén saw his side leapfrogged into second spot by Hungary, who responded to an opening loss to the Swedes with three straight wins including a 2-1 success in Finland achieved by Balász Dzsudzsák's 94th-minute winner and an 8-0 rout of San Marino, who went down by the same scoreline to Finland.
Croatia are firmly on course for the finals with ten points from four matches – the latest a 3-0 defeat of Malta leaving them two points clear of unbeaten Greece. Fernando Santos had a scare in his opening qualifier when Greece trailed Georgia for 69 minutes before Nikos Spyropoulos's leveller. Temuri Ketsbaia's third-placed Georgians have kept the positive results coming: they held Israel, beat Malta and would have won in Latvia but for an added-time goal.
Zlatko Kranjčar's Montenegro have made a dream start, heading the group after collecting three wins – all 1-0 – and a goalless draw against England. Mirko Vučinić captured the headlines for his goals against Wales and Switzerland but the Balkan team drew at Wembley without him, and are still to concede together with Belarus. England have beaten Bulgaria and Switzerland, who bounced back with a 4-1 win against a Wales side seeking a new coach after John Toshack resigned in the wake of the September loss in Montenegro.
It was Egil Olsen who took the Norwegians to their first World Cups in the 1990s and 'Drillo' has got them dreaming again after overseeing wins against Iceland, Portugal and Cyprus. "I am the first to admit our attacking play leaves a lot to be desired, but defensively we are world class," said the 68-year-old after September's 1-0 home success against Portugal. For the Portuguese that defeat followed a 4-4 home draw with Cyprus under Agostinho Oliveira's temporary stewardship, but since Paulo Bento's appointment as full-time successor to Carlos Queiroz, wins against Denmark and Iceland have rekindled their hopes.
Spain picked up where they left off in South Africa by starting their European title defence with wins over Liechtenstein (4-0) and Lithuania (3-1). They faced sterner resistance against Scotland at Hampden Park on 12 October, substitute Fernando Llorente striking a 79th-minute winner after their hosts had fought back from two down. The Czech Republic sit second after recovering from a home loss to Lithuania – Darvydas Šernas headed the only goal and Žydrūnas Karčemarskas saved Milan Baroš's penalty – with victories against the Scots and Liechtenstein.
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