Tonight will be the most sustainedly tense, thrilling
night of international football since Thierry Henry's sleight of hand gave
France the ultimate hollow victory against Ireland two years ago.
It is the final act of Euro 2012 qualifying, and across the
continent buttocks are being clenched in anticipation of a nerve-shredding,
Sure, England might be through, but there is ample
excitement to be had, not least in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland's efforts
to reach the play-offs.
In any case, England fans might consider the superb 2008 tournament
(and indeed the latter stages of every other one) as evidence that things are
often more enjoyable without the Three Lions.
Everything seems primed for another night of the acute
heartbreak that peppers Scotland's sporting history.
Craig Levein's side hold second place in Group I, but will
only reach the play-offs if they match or better the Czech Republic's result
Problem is, Scotland play Spain in Alicante while the Czechs
face a Lithuania side with just one win so far.
This time it might be different. Just might. But as any
member of the Tartan Army will attest, it's the hope that kills you.
Barely less accustomed to painful near-misses are the
Irish, still reeling from a Gallic mugging so blatant it may as well have been perpetrated
by an onion-toting mime artist by the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Ireland have an outside chance of getting their shot at
revenge against Les Bleus in the play-offs - the most hotly-anticipated rematch
since Rocky versus Clubber Lang.
First, Giovanni Trapattoni's men only need to avoid defeat
at home to Armenia, a task that ought to be fairly straightforward - but on
nights like this nothing is simple.
They could even win the group, but only if Russia lose at
home to an Andorra side with one goal and no points to show from their first
nine matches. One for the dreamers.
Football in these islands could very much do with a
non-English qualifier for a major tournament, something that has not happened
since Ireland reached the 2002 World Cup.
The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have made
qualifying a fiendishly difficult process. But when Montenegro,
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia are still in the hunt, there is no reason why
Scotland and Ireland should not be.
Elsewhere, there are live issues in eight of nine groups,
with four group winners yet to emerge.
France and Portugal are among the big names still to book
their place, and both are in a straight fight for group supremacy - against
Bosnia and Denmark respectively.
Then there is a mind-meltingly complex battle to be the
top-ranked runners-up, who qualify directly for the finals.
Teams are ordered based on their record against the top five
teams in their group, and presently Denmark lead the way with 16 points from
If the Danes win tonight, they will push Portugal into
second in Group H - also on 16 points.
Should Denmark draw, their 17 points will still leave the
door open for Sweden (15 points) who have to play Holland.
If Denmark lose and Sweden do not win, it could let in
Croatia if they win big against Latvia tonight.
Bosnia-Herzegovina also feature in the table - but if they
win tonight they will win Group D ahead of France, whose 14 points against the
top five will not be enough to avoid the play-off.
Everybody clear? No? Good. The table is here, if you can
(And yes, Wikipedia was the best resource I could find.)
In a few hours, five qualifying places and eight play-off
berths will be decided. It will be fast-paced, frantic and fantastic.
Follow all the Euro 2012 qualifying action live on
Eurosport-Yahoo! from 17:00 UK time.