San Nicola, Italy (Sports Network) – The defending World Cup champions did not get off to a great start in qualifying for Euro 2008, earning just one point from two games. However, Italy has won its last two matches and faces a surprising Scotland team on Wednesday that is tied atop Group B with France.
Italy and France were the clear favorites to advance when the groups were announced, but the Italians are currently in fourth place and need to start making up ground. Italy has a chance to cut into their five-point deficit at the San Nicola on Wednesday with a big win.
The Scots have been the surprise of the group to this point, posting a 4-1 record through five games, including a 1-0 win against France. Scotland is coming off of a 2-1 win against Georgia on Saturday and needed a Craig Beattie goal in the 89th minute to grab the maximum points.
Despite having an inferior roster to teams like France and Italy, Scotland has made up for its lack of talent with hard work. However, that will only get the club so far, and Italy’s strike force of Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Del Piero could give the visitors problems.
With a number of qualifying matches still to play, Scotland must keep its strong form going to hold off a competitive field, while Italy needs to take all three points to get back into the race and avoid an embarrassing exclusion from the competition next summer.
In the group’s other two contests, third-placed Ukraine tries to keep itself in the race with a home fixture against Lithuania, while the bottom two clubs, Georgia and the Faroe Islands, hook up at Lokomotivi Stadium.
Poland moved to the top of Group A on Saturday with a big 5-0 win, and now tries to keep that momentum going as they welcome Armenia. Finland sits just two points behind Poland with a game in hand and will keep their qualification hopes on track with a win at last-placed Azerbaijan. The biggest game of the group on Wednesday is between Portugal and Serbia. The two clubs are level on points in third place, just three behind leaders Poland, and get together at Stadion Crvena Zvezda.
Group C has been dominated by Turkey, which has won all four of its matches to this point. The club welcomes fourth-placed Norway to Commerzbank Arena on Wednesday with a chance to put further distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. Greece is sitting in second place in the group and visits Malta, while the bottom two clubs, Hungary and Moldova, meet up.
The Czech Republic dropped into second place after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Germany and tries to rebound with a win against Cyprus that would bring the team back level on points with the Germans. Ireland also has a chance to move into a tie at the top if they can beat Slovakia on home soil. Lowly San Marino will try to pick up its first points of the campaign when they visit Wales.
Group E features just two contests on Wednesday, as Israel welcomes Estonia to Ramat Gan Stadium and England faces a must-win against Andorra. Israel and England played to a 0-0 draw on Saturday, leaving both teams level on points in third place. Both teams need wins on Wednesday to stay in contention, but England manager Steve McClaren needs a win just to try and avoid being fired.
The top two teams in Group F get together at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland hosts Sweden. Sweden is a perfect 4-0 in qualifying thus far, and holds a two- point advantage over their hosts. Northern Ireland is coming off of a 4-1 thrashing of Liechtenstein on Saturday, but just doesn’t have enough firepower to contend with the powerful Swedes. Liechtenstein will try to avoid its fifth loss in five games when they host Latvia and Spain goes for its second- straight win with a home contest against Iceland.
In Group G, the top three teams meet the bottom three teams and could put even more separation between themselves and the bottom half. Group-leaders the Netherlands travel to fifth-placed Slovenia, second-placed Romania, just three points behind the Dutch, host bottom-feeders Luxembourg and Albania visits Bulgaria, who trail Romania by only one point.