Just as a gulf has formed and grown between the very top clubs and the rest, the same seems true on the international scene.
With only three rounds of play in qualifying for the 2012 European Championships remaining a sense of drama regarding the group winners at least, is sadly lacking.
Germany (group A) became the first qualifier on Friday. Italy (group C), Netherlands (group E), England (group G) and Spain (group I) seem certain to follow – some as early as Tuesday.
Russia (group B) and France (group D) are in the driving seats despite losing at home to Slovakia and Belarus in the early stages. Both will take significant strides if they can defeat Ireland and Romania tomorrow. Slovakia and Bosnia Herzegovina would then be the only countries left to shake loose.
Group F is likely to be decided in October when Croatia travels to play Greece. The only possible threat is from Israel and that will require an Israel win over Croatia on Tuesday and an extraordinary series of other results to upset the Greece/Croatia apple-cart.
That leaves us with Group H which remains the best hope for a true 3-country race for two spots from now until qualifying wraps up in October. Portugal and Norway have both played six games and have 13 points; Denmark three points fewer and on fewer game played.
Denmark would however, appear to hold an edge. They are home to Norway on Tuesday and Portugal has to travel to play in Copenhagen in the final round of play. It might even come down to a tie breaker with head-to-head the first criteria.
“1. Higher number of points obtained in the group matches played among the teams in question
2. Superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question
3. Higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question
4. Higher number of goals scored away from home in the group matches played among the teams in question
5. If, after applying criteria 1) to 4) to several teams, two or more teams still have an equal ranking, the criteria 1) to 4) will be reapplied to determine the ranking of these teams. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria 6) and 7) will apply –
6. Results of all group matches:
(1) Superior goal difference
(2) Higher number of goals scored
(3) Higher number of goals scored away from home
(4) Fair play conduct
7. Drawing of lots”
As it stands Portugal edges ahead in a Denmark, Norway tie breaker with 6 points from 3 games; Norway has 4 points from 3 games; Denmark has just one point from 2 away matches.
There is also one second place finisher that is going to automatically qualify. The best second place finisher (groups with six teams will have the result against the country finishing last expunged) moves on and avoids the play off nightmare.
Things can change quickly based on who finishes bottom of the six country groups but at the moment the eventual runner-up from group E (probably Sweden, possibly Hungary) might have a points total that is difficult to beat.
Of course any sense of excitement or upset is not going to increase come Euro 2016. In five years time we will have the host nation France joined by 23 other countries as the number of countries qualifying will increase by 50%.
Word is that the nine qualifying groups will remain with the top two finishers along with the best third place finisher moving on. The remaining eight third place finishers will play off for the remaining four spots.
The chance of a big established country missing out will be reduced to almost zero.
How long till we see the top countries fielding under-21 teams in a macabre mimicking of top clubs cruising through the Champions League group stage?
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