The cast list for Euro 2008 will be completed on Wednesday with England, Northern Ireland and Portugal among those nations scrapping it out for one of the four remaining places.
The treacherous business of qualifying began 15 months ago and now, after more than 3 000 minutes of play, it’s make or break time for a team like England, who face Croatia at Wembley, requiring a point to avoid the humiliation of missing the Euro boat.
After a roller-coaster journey Steve McClaren’s side are lying second in Group E on 23 points, three behind already qualified Croatia and two clear of Russia.
McClaren said: ”This is the last game. There are no excuses. We have got ourselves in this position and we have to get the job done.”
With strike pair Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen injured, Peter Crouch has been handed the task of leading England’s attack against the Croats with McClaren contemplating a 4-5-1 formation.
”Of course I relish the responsibility. I’ve done it before in big games with Liverpool and England,” said Crouch. ”I’ve always managed to cope and I’m sure I’ll do it again if I’m selected on Wednesday,” he added.
If things go pear-shaped at Wembley McClaren knows he could well find himself searching out his local job centre.
While England are once again masters of their own destiny thanks to Israel’s upset win over Guus Hiddink’s Russians in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Northern Ireland’s fate is out of their hands.
Back in the frame for a trip to Austria and Switzerland after defeating Denmark on Saturday, they need to beat Group F winners Spain and pray that Latvia ”do an Israel” by defeating Sweden.
Manager Nigel Worthington will be without suspended duo Keith Gillespie and Jonny Evans but on the plus side Kyle Lafferty returns after a ban.
His side are arguably favourites, having dished out a 3-2 beating of Luis Aragones’s team at Windsor Park in the first leg in September last year, with David Healy memorably getting a hat-trick.
But Spain are anxious to wind up as group leaders with Valencia striker David Villa saying: ”Against Northern Ireland we will fight to be first in the group.”
In Group A Euro 2004 hosts and beaten finalists Portugal are in pole to qualify as runners-up behind Poland, who secured their first-ever ticket to a European championships on the weekend.
The Portuguese need a point against Finland in Porto to ensure their presence at next year’s finals.
Serbia have an outside chance of pipping this duo if they come away with wins against Poland on Wednesday and Kazakhstan on Saturday and Finland take all three points in Porto.
Elsewhere Greece, who stunned Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portugal to win Euro 2004, have ensured they’ll be in place to defend their title as winners of Group C, leaving Turkey and Norway chasing second spot.
The Turks, semifinalists at the 2004 World Cup, are in the driving seat after beating Norway on Saturday.
Victory over Bosnia will do it for Fatih Terman’s men while the Scandinavians need to beat Malta and hope Bosnia take at least a point off their Group C rivals.
The 12 nations already in possession of their boarding passes to next year’s finals are: Poland, Italy, France, Greece, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, Spain, Romania, The Netherlands and co-hosts Austria and Switzerland. — Sapa-AFP