Against all expectations, Scotland sit on top of group B, ahead of World Cup finalists France and Italy, and quarter-finalists Ukraine.
Scotland 21 pts (3 games left)
Italy 20 pts (3 games left)
France 19 pts (3 games left)
Ukraine 13 pts (4 games left)
Pretty tight I'm sure you'll agree. So what are each country's run-ins looking like?
Scotland: The hardest final few games of the contenders. Must play host to the only 2 teams to have beaten them thus far (Ukraine and Italy), along with an away trip to Georgia, who held Ukraine to a 1-1 draw there recently. 7 points to guarantee passage, it's not going to be easy.
Italy: The easiest route of the top 4, with only an away tie to Scotland being their main challenge. That match is sandwiched by 2 home games against Georgia and the Faroe Islands. May need to win all 3 to qualify.
France: France have a very similar route to that of Italy, if slightly harder. They start away to the Faroes before entertaining Lithuania. The last match against Ukraine in Kiev will be key in deciding the fate of who goes through.
Ukraine: Must win every one of their remaining 4 games if they even want a chance of qualifying. The Ukrainians start away to Scotland before hosting the Faroe Islands. They then travel to Lithuania before Le Crunch at home to France. Highly unlikely of qualification.
This weekend is the first of four crucial sets of matches in Group B, so how will it unfurl?
Scotland v Ukraine
It's so hard to call this one. On one hand you have a Scotland side so high on confidence, with a solid defence, a roaring crowd behind them and the ability to score when they have to.
On the other, there's Ukraine, who have defeated Scotland already in the qualifiers, and are very strong unit. There's also the possibility that Scotland will be crushed under their own expectations.
First off, Scotland need to find the right balance between attack and defence. They have been impregnable when focusing on defence heavily, but they will need to score if they want a better chance of progressing. This could lead to them being exposed on the break, which Ukraine are excellent at, so it's imperative Alex McLeish gets this right.
Unfortunately, my head must rule over my heart, and say that Ukraine's defence will withstand Scotland's attacks, while hitting them hard on the break. Although, in fairness, it could swing either way it's that tight.
Scotland 1-2 Ukraine
In the other 2 games, France should beat the Faroe Islands comfortably, and the Italy should overcome Georgia comfortably at home. So even if Scotland win at the weekend, it's still going to be one hell of a task to go through. If they don't win, then it's most likely that they'll have to beat Italy in their last game of the qualifiers.
UEFA have banned AC Milan goalkeeper Dida for 2 games, and fined Celtic £25,000.
I agree with the banning of Dida, his play-acting was dishonourable, embarrassing and worthy of the amount of abuse that he has received over the past week.
But £25,000 for Celtic? That's about as disproportionate as Peter Crouch being subbed for Shaun Wright-Phillips.
When Michel Platini took over as President of UEFA, he promised to crack down on violence and racial abuse within the game with a zero-tolerance policy. So a slap on the wrist then?
The fan who ran onto the pitch could have done a lot worse. If he had any sort of weapon, even a simple hard object, he had the potential to do some actual harm to Dida. The fine should have been at least 10 times that amount, a serious deterrent to Celtic fans, and a wake up call to security at Parkhead.
So why didn't UEFA fine Celtic more?
Firstly, no actual physical harm was done. The fan ran onto the pitch, tapped Dida on the cheek, and then ran off again. If Dida had been injured, the fine imposed would have been very severe.
Secondly, the game wasn't abandoned due to the fan's actions. When Dida was hit by a flare thrown by Inter Milan Ultras a few years ago, the game was abandoned, and Inter were forced to play several games behind closed doors. A similar punishment was handed out when referee Anders Frisk was hit by a lighter during a Roma game. Both these and the Celtic incident were examples of poor crowd behaviour, but the difference was that the Celtic game continued after.
Thirdly, Celtic had taken internal action. They found the man responsible for the 'attack', banned him for life from Celtic Park, and he was then charged by the police for Breach of the Peace. Had they not punished an individual, UEFA may have laid more blame on the club as a whole, resulting in a bigger punishment.
Finally, in my opinion, UEFA are bottlers. Time and time again, racial abuse and violence occurs at football matches, only for European football's governing body to impose ridiculously low fines on the perpetrators. It is hard to understand why, but it is a further worrying sign that Platini could be all talk and no walk.
As for Celtic, they can count themselves lucky.
This is the question I asked myself while wandering around Virgin Megastores. Why not try it? Sure it's no Pro Evo, but you can't argue with loads of proper teams, players and kits, along with a brand new 'play like a pro mode' (the idea of controlling just one player has always intrigued me). Go on, it's bound to be better than FIFA 2005.
So I paid my hard-earned cash on this lovey green box with not so lovely Rooney and Ronnie on the front. As I popped the disc into my 360 I was greeted by nice, slick menus, the traditional popular music in EA games, and a wee feature where you can have a kickabout while things load.
But when I eventually reached playing the game, I'd realised the error of my ways. FIFA is still crap.
OK, before I go all negative on its ass, there are some things to keep you smiling. The fluid graphics makes watching FIFA 08 very pleasing on the eye. Defenders act instinctively, the goalkeepers are better, and the commentary from Martin Tyler and Andy Gray is as realistic as I've heard in any sports simulation.
Now for a list of things that were cack:
The Delay: When will EA Sports learn?!?! You will never be able to complete with Pro Evo while players don't respond to your buttons. Trying to set up a quick one-touch passing move? You press A before the ball reaches your player, but lo and behold he takes a touch first before playing a pass. In your frustration, you press A again, but now the second player plays a pass that you didn't want to happen.
Running down the touchline before crossing the ball? Expect your player to run it out first. First time shots? Make sure to press shoot at least 2 seconds before the ball is at feet. Every FIFA game is like this, and is the main reason why people prefer Pro Evo. It's just not slick enough.
The Replays: The frame rate halves, so it feels like you're watching a set of pictures of the last goal you scored. Terrible.
Also terrible is the fact that slow-motion is impossible in replays. Good one FIFA.
The Faces: Is that Ronaldinho? Since when did he have dentistry work to remove the buckness? Henry looks like Fredi Kanoute, Rooney looks like a serial rapist and don't even get me started on how un-Del Piero Del Piero looks like.
The Options: When changing the camera view mid-game, you'd expect a preview to come up of the angle your getting. Not in FIFA you don't! You have to constantly cycle back and forth through the menu, pressing start and start again every time you want a new view. Rubbish.
The Gameplay: Feels slow, forced with some unrealistic player movements. The antithesis of how football should be played.
If there's one good thing to come out of FIFA, it's made me appreciate and look forward to Pro Evo even more. Give it a miss.
0' - The 3 lions, all eleven of them, line up for the national anthem. McLaren goes with Rooney and Owen up front, Lamps and Stevie G in the middle, and there's the surprise inclusion of Gareth Southgate in the centre of defence following Terry's withdrawal. McLaren beforehand spoke of his 'invaluable experience' and 'excellent heading skills' that he brings to the team.
1' - GOAL! Estonia kick off and try an audacious lob from the half-way line. Robinson has it covered, before an apparent huge divot redirects the ball away from the England 'keeper and into the net. John Motson seems adamant that the ball hit the post.
3' - Michael Owen ruptures something. Out for 6 months. Same old, same old. Peter Crouch is brought on.
22' - Some vague reference is made to 1966 by Motty, followed by an even vaguer reference to the Rugby World Cup.
40' - After Rooney claps his teammates for encouragement, the referee sends him off. Crouch becomes the lone striker. Looks scarily familiar to Smiling Steve's previous tactics...
Half-Time - During the interval, some top quality chat is bounced around between Lineker, Hansen, Shearer and Wright. Shearer's football expertise produces this statement:
"...I agree with Alan Hansen. But you know, we wouldn't be down at half-time if they just had more Portsmouth players. They'll be a top 4 side soon don't you know? Look! All my arrows and circles that I've drawn on the telly prove this... definitely."
60' - GOAL! Lampard, who after misplacing his 43rd pass of the game, scores a lucky deflected goal in the box. Cue scenes of jubilation and comments such as "Who said Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard couldn't play together?" from Lawro.
73' - Not much time left and McLaren, who is simultaneously playing this game on Champ Man, throws his tactical dice. Barry comes on at left back.
85' - Penalty to England! Up steps Southgate who, now aged 57, has a chance to redeem himself after THAT penalty miss against Germany. Unfortunately, Stelios Giannakopolous pops a balloon in the crowd, putting Gareth off, and the ball high into the stands. Southgate is subbed for the more defensively astute Wes Brown.
90' + 3 - GOAL! Crouch leaps high into the air, holding at least 5 sets of dreadlocks before completing an acrobatic scissor kick. "He's not got a bad touch for a big lad" quotes the ever original Wrighty.
While inspecting the current state of qualification for the Euro 2008 Championships, I noticed a once great nation sitting 5th in Group C with a mere 9 points, 4 behind Bosnia. Incredible how a nation that produced one of the greatest teams of all time has managed to fall so low. We start our case study with where it all went right, until a certain miracle happened.
England 3-6 Hungary, Wembley, 25th Nov 1953
In what was dubbed as being the 'Match of the Century', Hungary blew away their opponents, the inventors of football, with sublime passing, revolutionary tactics, and the legend that is Ferenc Puskas. For Hungary, it was no problem for them. After all, they had not lost a game since 1950.
The 1954 World Cup Switzerland
The Magnificent Magyars arrived amongst the Alps boasting an unprecedented record of 39 victories, 7 ties, and 0 losses. They started well, hammering South Korea 9-0 before destroying West Germany 8-3. In their progress to the final, they overcame Brazil 4-2 in the quarter finals, and then defeated Uruguay by the same scoreline in the semis. 43 wins and counting, the World cup was sure to be theirs.
West Germany 3-2 Hungary, 1954 World Cup Final, Bern
How ironic that the team that Hungary beat so comprehensively earlier should beat them in the final. The 'Golden Team' were 2-0 up inside 10 minutes through Puskas and Czibor, before Morlock and Rahn equalised just 8 minutes later. Rahn then completed an amazing comeback for the Germans, with the match later dubbed as the 'Miracle of Bern'.
Hungarian football would never be the same again.
They remained a force after the golden generation, but a slow decline was beginning to emerge. They reached the semi-finals in 4 different tournament, twice in the World Cup in '62 and '66, as well as the Euros in '64 and '72.
However, in the '78, '82 and '86 World Cups, they failed to get past the group stages, and have yet to qualify for a major tournament since.
While in the days of old, the Hungarian's had the likes of Real Madrid's Puscas to look to, these days their most recognised and capped player is Zoltan Gera of West Brom. No offence to him, but therein lies the problem.
Hungary's youth system, for some reason either natural or manual, has failed to compete with those of its European neighbours. It is a shame to see once a great and true footballing power mixing with the likes of Malta and Moldova.
One can only hope for a return to their former selves, and the brilliant, innovative and down-right enjoyable brand of football they once served to the world of football.
It's finely poised at the top of Group E with 3 games to go:
Let's check out the run-ins for each team:
Croatia - At home to Israel first is a potential banana skin, as is away to Macedonia before the final crunch game away to England. They may be top, but plenty of work still to do.
England - Start at home to Estonia which should be easy enough, before travelling to Russia. If they overcome them, England will go through. If not, they face a tricky tie at home to Croatia who will be looking to ensure passage themselves.
Russia - Its starts hard and gets easier for Hiddink's team. At home to England is they key encounter, before difficult trips to Israel and then finally Andorra. If they beat England, most will fancy them to progress.
Israel - To stand any chance, the Israelis need results against Croatia away and then Russia at home. They then entertain Macedonia in the final game, so expect them to still have a major impact on the outcome of matters.
So what's going to happen this weekend then?
England v Estonia
England should cruise to victory over an Estonian side who are currently ranked 127th in the world. They could probably field a B team to conserve fitness for the game against Russia and still win. However, it would be a disaster for England if they assumed that form and position alone is enough to win a match of football.
Remember the 0-0 against Macedonia? Anything can happen, and England need to make sure that they play with the same amount of technical quality, tactical awareness, and, to quote Steve McLaren, 'passion'. If they do that, then they should have no problems.
The key area will obviously be up front for England. Estonia won't pose much attacking threat, and the back 4 are solid, even though Paul Robinson has become somewhat of a liability. If we assume that in the midfield we have Joe Cole, Wright-Phillips and Gerrard, the one remaining place should be filled by Barry or Lampard, but which one?
A lot has been said about this so I won't go into it further. The key question is, do you choose a man with more attacking threat and international experience (Lampard)? Or a man who is on form for club and country, and has demonstrated that he can play very effectively alongside Gerrard for a more balanced midfield (Barry)? It will be most interesting to see the manager's choice.
Up front, Rooney is likely to start up front alongside Owen. Steve McLaren is lucky that Heskey got injured, as he didn't have to choose between him and the returning Rooney. In short, the Manchester United striker has been poor for England recently, and him and Owen never seem to click. Rooney's play, prowess, vision and temperament will be vital if England wish to succeed.
It should be easy for England, but only if key players are firing on all cylinders, and McLaren gets his tactics right (then again, neither of those are certainties).
England 2-0 Estonia.
In the other match between Croatia and Israel, the home side have been dominant on their patch during these qualifiers, and I don't expect that to change against a plucky Israeli team.
Croatia 2-0 Israel.
So the table should then look like...
Very cosy for England and Croatia indeed, with Israel now out of the equation. If England beat Russia on Wednesday, they go through, but if it's the other way around, expect a tense final international week.
Ladbrokes is brilliant, not only can you bet on who will kick the game off, but how many times the woodwork will be struck! You have to be desperate for cash if you put any sort of money on that (or any sort of money on this, you have been warned).
So slightly earlier than usual this week, here's our Euro 2008 Liquid Bet of the Week.
Ukraine to beat Scotland - The last time Scotland were on a high going into key qualifiers, they lost to Belarus at home under huge expectations. I hate to say it, but I see history repeating itself and Ukraine beating us at home.
Romania to beat Holland - The Dutch have been struggling to score recently, and failed to beat their counterparts in the reverse fixture earlier on. I fancy Romania, who are strong at home, to pip this one.
Finland to beat Belgium - The Finnish are above their opponents in group A with some very good recent form, and the Belgians are a shadow of their former selves. Slightly risky with Finland being the away team however...
Total odds - 24/1. Worth a fiver, no?