The club season may have come to a close for many of the continent's top footballers but they cannot disappear on their holidays just yet with some key UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers coming up. Over successive nights on Friday 3 and Saturday 4 June, there will be 20 matches played and the stand-out fixtures are the summit meetings between Belarus and France in Group D, and Portugal and Norway in Group H.
Belarus stunned France by winning 1-0 in Paris in Laurent Blanc's competitive debut as coach last September yet Les Bleus have responded impressively with four straight wins and no further goals conceded. The consequence is a four-point lead over second-placed Belarus who need to win to retain realistic hope of competing for top spot.
Top billing on Saturday goes to the Lisbon showdown between Portugal and Norway, the surprise leaders of Group H. Norway have been absent from the game's biggest stages since UEFA EURO 2000 but with Egil Olsen back at the helm they have taken ten points from four matches, conceding just once. This should be the biggest test yet of their credentials given that Portugal are looking considerably stronger under Paulo Bento than when losing 1-0 in Oslo in September and have the incentive of knowing victory would cancel out the visitors' three-point advantage.
Elsewhere, the Group A programme features not just the visit of leaders Germany to an Austria side needing a positive result to stay in the hunt for the play-offs but, moreover, a key encounter between second-placed Belgium and Turkey, a point behind in third but with a game in hand. Belgium have not competed at a major final tournament since 2002 but victory on Friday would boost their prospects of at least a play-off berth.
Top spot could change hands in Group F where second-placed Croatia host fourth-placed Georgia with both knowing three points would take them to the summit – at least for 24 hours until leaders Greece take on Malta on Saturday. In Group C, leaders Italy will seek to consolidate their position with a home victory over Estonia, while Sweden can go clear of Hungary in second place in Group E by taking three points in Moldova. Their hosts will have other ideas, knowing a win would take them level with the Swedes.
The last-chance saloon beckons for Switzerland and Bulgaria in Group G on Saturday. They both sit six points adrift of England and Montenegro going into the reverse fixtures against teams who beat them at home in September – Switzerland visit leaders England and Bulgaria travel to second-placed Montenegro. Victory for either of the top two would mark a significant step on the road to Poland and Ukraine.
Saturday will also see each of Slovakia, Russia and the Republic of Ireland hopeful of breaking clear at the top of Group B, with all three currently tied on ten points. They are in action against Andorra, Armenia and FYROM respectively. There will be another six games on 7 June – a year and a day before UEFA EURO 2012 begins – and then the summer break begins in earnest.
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