After three curtain-raising games last month, UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying gets under way in earnest this week with a full programme of matches on Saturday and Wednesday. And for the first time since the expansion to a 16-team finals in 1996, there will be no play-offs so the 50 contenders in the seven groups know exactly what they need to do - finish in the top two to join co-hosts Switzerland and Austria in the finals.
Three groups kicked off a fortnight ago. In Group A, tournament debutants Kazakhstan held Belgium 0-0; Georgia defeated Group B rivals the Faroe Islands 6-0; and F.Y.R. Macedonia launched Group E with a 1-0 win in Estonia. Among Saturday's enticing encounters are Group C holders Greece beginning their defence in Moldova, Germany's Group D meeting with the Republic of Ireland and Serbia's first competitive fixture since separating from Montenegro, against Azerbaijan in Group A.
World Cup rematch
On Wednesday comes the FIFA World Cup final rematch between France and Italy in Group B. Guus Hiddink has his first competitive outing in charge of Russia against Croatia in Group E; and 2004 runners-up Portugal go to Group A rivals Finland.
With a record entry of 52 sides, six of the groups contain seven nations, meaning 12 games for each between now and 21 November 2007, while Group A has eight contenders and 14 matches apiece. One pool comprises four countries that qualified for UEFA EURO 2004™ - Denmark, Spain, Latvia and Sweden in Group F, while a trio of teams from Portugal, England, Croatia and Russia, are in Group E. Champions Greece's other opponents along with Moldova are Hungary, Norway, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Malta.
Following this week's ties, fixtures follow this year on 7/11 October and 15 November, and continue in 2007 on 7 February, 24/28 March, 2/6 June, 22 August, 8/12 September, 13/17 October and 17/21 November. The final-tournament draw is in Lucerne, Switzerland on 2 December, and the competition takes place in Basel, Geneva, Zurich, Berne, Klagenfurt, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna from 7-29 June 2008, concluding at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in the Austrian capital.
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