While much of the football world's attention has understandably been drawn by the imminent start of UEFA EURO 2012, the next generation of stars are showcasing their talent over the next week or so as Under-21 qualifying reaches a crucial stage.
Israel is getting ready to stage next summer's tournament, and the race to join the hosts in June 2013 is hotting up as teams try to secure their spots in November's play-off ties. UEFA.com looks at the situation in each of the ten groups.
After not even making the play-offs when defending champions in the last edition, Germany are already assured of progress to that stage this time after winning their first eight games. Bosnia and Herzegovina sit second on ten points from six matches, the same record as Belarus, who they meet in Sarajevo on Friday in a vital game for both teams' best runners-up prospects.
Slovenia and Sweden lead the way on 13 points, although the latter do have a game in hand. They also play three times between now and 13 June starting in Ukraine on Friday. Slovenia have two games of their own over the next two weeks, but both sides play Finland, who are lurking five points back and by no means out of it; the picture could be even tighter at the top come the next round of fixtures in August.
In terms of points, this is the closest section with two separating the top four. However, frontrunners the Czech Republic have games in hand on all their pursuers and play twice in June. The first meeting is at home against Montenegro, who are just a point behind in third, before they play Andorra. Two wins would make them huge favourites to win the group, while Armenia can also overtake Wales – currently second – with victory against Andorra.
Serbia are out in front, but the big game in the next week is between Denmark and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A second v third meeting, both sides sit on eight points, three behind Serbia with a game in hand on the pacesetters. They drew 1-1 in their November tie in Skopje, and victory will leave the winners well placed going into the autumn fixtures. FYROM warm up against the Faroe Islands, who also play Serbia.
Both last year's finalists have away games to negotiate, but whereas holders and group leaders Spain play at bottom-of-the-table Estonia, Switzerland have to visit third-placed Croatia – who are four points behind their guests. If Spain win and Switzerland do not, then Luis Milla's side are sure of a play-off berth.
Russia defeated Portugal in October and are now four points clear of them with a game in hand. Friday brings the rematch in Barcelos and victory for Nikolai Pisarev's side would mean that another success at home against Albania 11 days later would be enough to secure first place.
Like Russia and Germany, Italy have a 100% record so far and lead Turkey by three points having played a game fewer. Turkey travel to point-less Hungary on Friday, while the third-placed Republic of Ireland offer Italy a stern test three days later. Anything less than victory for Turkey would mean the Azzurrini could seal top spot with a win in Sligo.
With their two games in hand coming up – both of which are played at home – Norway have an opening to overtake Belgium in second place and close the gap to three points on section leaders England. The frontrunners and Belgium do not have a fixture in June.
France are another side who boast a perfect record and two victories in their upcoming ties with Latvia and Kazakhstan would be enough to claim a play-off place as group winners. However, Slovakia have won three of their four games and wins in their back-to-back matches against Romania would put the pressure on Les Bleus if they slipped up.
The Netherlands have come under some pressure of their own from Scotland in this pool, but have two games to the Scots' one in June and can increase the one-point gap between them. The subplot is that both teams play Bulgaria, who are only another point further back in third meaning these matches will go a long way to deciding the outcome in Group 10.
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