World Cup European Qualifying Round up.
Group One produced undoubtedly the game of the weekend in the international qualifiers in Europe. The Czech Republic looked an excellent attacking force overcoming Finland in an epic 4-3 victory.
Tottenham target Tomas Rosicky was the inspiration for the Czechs scoring one and looking a threat throughout the afternoon.
Finland were well organised and had touches of class which pierced the frail defence of the Czechs on three occasions, a weakness which could cost them dear come the summer of 2006 in Germany.
Meanwhile, Tthe Dutch continued their impressive unbeaten qualification campaign under Marco Van Basten, with Philip Cocu putting the Dutch ahead against Romania after just 36 seconds with a well placed header.
Romania after this defeat look to be struggling to progress, with the group becoming a two horse race with the Czechs only a point behind Holland, if both of their current form continues there will be an exciting and crucial game in October between the two.
Armenia hosted Andorra and picked up a comfortable 2-1 win, but it seems that along with Macedonia, they are just playing for pride. It looks like this group is heading for an irresistible climax in October when the Czechs entertain the Dutch, unless Finland and Romania can start to upset the front runners in Group one.
Turkey have been the surprise strugglers in Group Two, but the team that finished third at the 2002 World Cup got their qualification campaign back on track recording only their second win in the group against a below par Albanian side.
Turkey are level pegged on points with Denmark who strolled a 3-0 win over Kazakhstan, who have now lost four in a row and only scored two goals in their qualification campaign, the hero on the day for Denmark was Peter Moller grabbing a brace of goals.
Unfortunately with the great competition in this group it is unlikely the Danes will progress without picking up a win against the leaders Ukraine this wee, as well as hoping results go their way elsewhere in the group.
The other club joining the Danes and the Turkish in the pursuit of the Ukraine is Greece, the European champions. The Greeks came from behind to against Georgia to record a 3-1 win in Tbilisi, Bolton Wanderers forward Stelios Giannakopoulos rapping up the points on the 54 minute mark.
Group two seems to be heading to a three team hunt of the Ukraine, with Greece, Denmark and Turkey all vouching for that coveted second spot.
In Group Three, Slovakia moved level on points with Portugal following their 2-1 win over Estonia, and they could overtake the group favourites if they win the top of the table clash on Wednesday.
The Slovaks had to come from behind to deny Estonia a shock victory, it was super sub Lubos Reiter who netted on 66 minutes to keep ambitions of topping the group very much alive.
Slovakia have looked extremely competent in their qualifying campaign, unbeaten and having scored 17 goals in five games, the game this week against also undefeated Portugal is the game to watch in Group Three, with the prize of topping the group at stake.
Russia travelled to Liechtenstein and returned with a solid 2-1 victory against the minnows – Alexander Kerzhakov and Andrei Kariaka grabbing one a piece.
Group Three is still very open and with Russia only three points behind the Slovaks and the Portugese, there is still everything to play for.
In Group Four the Republic of Ireland were denied three points by substitute Abas Soan, who cancelled out Clinton Morrison’s early goal on the Four minute mark.
The draw leaves Brian Kerr’s men top of the group but only on goal difference, France and Israel are also on nine points as well.
France entertained Switzerland at home and missed the opportunity to go top of the group. This was another poor performance from the French who seem to be suffering from a number of retirements. Only last week Fabien Barthez announced he would hang up his gloves after the 2006 World Cup, providing France make it to Germany.
France missed countless opportunities to take the lead, the main culprits being Patrick Vierira, David Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord. Switzerland did not look outstanding or threatening, but Arsenal’s Phillipe Senderos made his debut and looked very accomplished, the youngster has been one of the shining lights in an unfortunate season for Arsenal, he is a boy maturing quickly into a man.
Switzerland look outsiders for qualification, but they are only three points off the three that head the group. France have a huge game in the week away to Israel,and with a partisan arena awaiting their qualification campaign could come into question.
Italy continued their impressive unbeaten campaign with a comfortable win over a tenacious and spirited Scotland side.
Scotland looked better organised under new coach Walter Smith and their was definitely a renewed sense of pride and passion in their performance. Unfortunately where the Scots had spirit the Italians oozed class. The performance of Andrea Pirlo was superb, he netted twice from free-kicks to notch a win for the Italians.
In the second half the Scots came out fighting with Nigel Quashie forcing a good save from Gianluigi Buffon. The Scots hope of qualification has died but with their pride still intact, the future under Walter Smith looks promising.
The battle for second place in the group will be contested by Slovenia and Norway. The pair have games against Belarus and Moldova respectively in the week, and the group will start to take shape following this week’s matches. There is a possibility that Belarus may emerge as a candidate for second place, stranger things have happened in Football.
The question in Group Six is who will top the group and gain the automatic qualification spot. England or Poland?
Poland recorded a stunning 8-0 win over Azerbajan, with one of the highlights a hat-trick from Tomasz Frankowski. The Poles were in good form, they will be hoping they can take this form into the Northern Ireland game later this week.
It became mathematically impossible for Wales to qualify from the group after they put in a dismal display losing 2-0 to Austria at the Millenium Stadium.
New coach John Toshack and his assistant Roy Evans have a difficult job on their hands, it seems like France, Wales are suffering from from a few key retirements from their ranks.
In Manchester, at Old Trafford, England put in a solid performance, but the goals did not come until a sixteen minute spell after half time. Northern Ireland had looked solid in the first half, especially the unorthodox Colin Murdock.
The class of England ultimately shone through with Joe Cole opening the scoring with the pick of the goals. Cole’s performance prompted the question: is he the answer to England’s left sided problems? Only time will tell. In Group Six, apart from Poland and England, the other countries are just playing for pride.
There is still plenty of drama left in Group Seven, with Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania and Spain all unbeaten.
Belgium were playing catch up at the weekend with a 4-1 win over Bosnia Herzegovina. Belgium went behind to a shock first minute goal by Zlatan Bajaramovic but they recovered well, with striker Emile Mpenza grabbing a double.
Attention will turn this week to the top of the table clash between Spain and Serbia and Montenegro, whoever wins this one will take pole position in the group.
Luis Aragones, the Spain manager will decide whether to play the injury-prone, out-of-favour Spanish legend Raul, a decision which will definitely be a gamble.
Serbia and Montenegro will be difficult to break down having not conceded a goal in qualification.
In Group Eight, Sweden and Croatia seem to be leading the race to the World Cup in Germany. They both picked up wins at the weekend.
Sweden travelled to Bulgaria and put in a professional performance with a 3-0 win, Arsenal star Freddy Ljunberg grabbed a brace. Rumours are circulating that Mr. Ljunberg is considering retirement from international football, although the speculation did not phase him at the weekend though.
Other challengers for the number one spot in the group Croatia ran home 4-0 winners against an average Iceland side, which had no Eidur Gudjonsson. Croatian attacking midfielder Niko Kovac was in fine form for Croatia, grabbing two goals in a fun afternoon for the Croatians. Croatia need to keep pushing Sweden by picking up a result at home to Malta, later thus week.