Breaks for international football don’t do a lot for the average English fan. The national side can be relied upon to flatter during qualifying under Fabio Capello and we don’t get to enter into the lottery of the playoffs. November every two years gives fans the opportunity to experience what Irish and Scottish fans go through every so often and this year it’s no different
Of the games taking place the most eye-catching pits Bosnia and Herzegovina against Portugal. The attentive will remember these two met in the playoffs before the last World Cup with Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese prevailing. Nerves were present in the Bosnian camp then and now will be no different. Unlike last time, Bosnia host the first game and taking a two-goal lead to Iberia would be huge. You worry about indiscipline here given Bosnia picked up 12 more bookings (20) than Portugal (8) in the group stage. Any injury to talismanic front man Edin Dzeko would be huge in terms of scoring goals. Portugal played two less qualifying games but managed four more goals than the hosts and it will be a surprise if they keep a potent forward line featuring Ronaldo and Nani at bay.
Players to watch: Edin Dzeko (Bosnia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
A distinctly Eastern flavor runs through these play-offs and it doesn’t stop in Sarajevo. The cauldrons of Istanbul and Zagreb vie to be the most ferocious as Guus Hiddink’s Turkey host Croatia. Turkey was lucky to make it this far as Belgium tailed them right to the last. For Croatia it was different. Greece pipped Slaven Bilic’s charges to top spot and Sweden did the same for the best-placed qualifier berth. These two met in the quarter final in 2008 and it took penalties to separate them. As close encounter is expected and no-one would be surprised were it to make extra-time. If the performances of Croatian midfielder Luka Modric in the Premier League this season are anything to go by he’ll be the difference. In layman’s terms: get your money on Croatia.
Players to watch: Luka Modric (Croatia) and Arda Turan (Turkey)
The third match is an all-Eastern affair with Czech Republic taking on the Montenegrin dark horse. The situation in qualifying for the Czech’s was a dire one – they were almost pipped to the post by the Scots. Montenegro battled it out with England for top spot in group G. If the former Yugoslavian nation prevails it’ll be their first time in a major tournament. For a country that has a population roughly the size of Sheffield it’s impressive. Don’t expect a lot of goals here and it could be an ugly affair with both sides up there as far as reds, yellows and fouls are concerned.
Players to watch: Stefan Jovetic (Montenegro) and Michael Kadlec (Czech)
Then there were two and it wouldn’t be the playoffs without a home nation. Ireland finds itself in unknown territory. Usually they’re drawn against one of the tournament’s big guns. We can hardly count Estonia in this bracket and come 10pm tonight you’d have expected them to have all but qualified for Poland and Ukraine next summer. Ireland got the dream draw everyone else wanted and you’d back them to “do an England” and qualify. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni and many of the senior players are on borrowed and a defeat over two legs would mean the end for Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and number of others. If they actually qualify who knows what might happen. A berth in England’s group would be quite the tonic.
Players to watch: Jon Walters (Ireland) and Joel Lindpere (Estonia).