Previewing Euro 2012 playoffs
If the Euro 2012 qualifying playoffs are as dramatic as the European playoffs to get to last year's World Cup, fans will have plenty to ponder.
Co-hosts: Poland and Ukraine
Group winners: Spain (holders), Germany, Russia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Greece, England, and Denmark
Best runners-up: Sweden
Final tournament draw: December 2 in Kiev
Final tournament: June 8 - July 1
Recall that Thierry Henry's "Hand of God II" largely contributed to France edging Ireland, sparking outrage inside -- and outside -- the soccer community.
This time around, Ireland was paired with the lowest-ranked team still in contention, modest Estonia. The flash of Portugal faces a rematch with Bosnia; Guus Hiddink's Turkey meets Luka Modric's Croatia; and tiny Montenegro won't be fazed by tangling with the Czech Republic.
Here are some thoughts on Thursday's draw.
Estonia vs. Republic of Ireland
Anyone who watched Ireland beat Armenia 2-1 in Dublin on Tuesday to lock up a playoff spot knows the result flattered the host. The game turned midway in the first half when Armenian keeper Roman Berezovsky was sent off for, allegedly, handling outside the box. Replays seemed to show he stopped Simon Cox's effort with his chest. Further, Cox -- and there was no debate on this one -- used his arm to control the ball as he raced through on goal just before the penalty on Berezovsky.
Hand of God III?
A comical own goal gifted Ireland the opening tally, and Armenia, which needed a victory to advance to the playoffs, looked much more comfortable on the ball.
Ireland's longtime talisman, Robbie Keane, could miss both legs versus Estonia with a thigh injury, and fellow striker Kevin Doyle, who combines goals with work rate, will be sidelined for at least the first leg because of a suspension. He might be out for both matches. That's a blow. Without the pair, Ireland struggles to score. Damien Duff, 32, remains its best attacking midfielder, while another winger, Aiden McGeady, is all too frustrating.
The Irish, and their good-natured fans, are generally adored. But a few neutrals will probably be pulling for Estonia, formerly part of the Soviet Union (like Armenia). Estonia's population rests at a mere 1.3 million. It finished second in a group that featured Italy, Serbia and Slovenia, which has a history of punching above its weight. Estonia draws inspiration from midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev and has already won in Ireland -- well, Northern Ireland. Mind you, breaking down Ireland's stingy defense, marshaled by Richard Dunne, won't be easy.
Prediction: The edge, but not by much, goes to Ireland.
UEFA EURO 2012
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Czech Republic vs. Montenegro
Sadly, refereeing decisions are still playing a massive role in the outcome of games. Just ask Scotland.
The final standings in Group I show that the Czech Republic nipped Scotland by two points for second place; what it doesn't show is how Scotland was robbed in a crunch clash against the Czechs in September that ended 2-2. A dive earned the Czechs a penalty in Glasgow in the 90th minute -- it was converted -- and then Dutch referee Kevin Blom waved away a more credible Scottish appeal.
Had the Scots triumphed, a playoff berth ultimately would have been guaranteed before Tuesday's doomed visit to world champion Spain. It was enough to elicit a little sympathy for perennially grumpy Scotland manager Craig Levein.
The Czechs were indeed lucky, since the group, behind Spain, was arguably the weakest of them all. Besides benefiting from that helping hand to earn a point in Scotland, they even lost at home to Lithuania. Long gone are stalwarts Pavel Nedved, Patrik Berger, Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller. Striker Milan Baros and midfielder Tomas Rosicky are still around, but are past their primes.
Montenegro, if it qualifies, would trump even Estonia as the feel-good side (population: under 700,000). In Serie A-based pair Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, the Montenegrins possess two capable attacking threats. They managed to hold England to two draws in Group G and also downed Switzerland, which appeared in the past four major tournaments.
Bosnia vs. Portugal
Things were going so well for newish Portugal manager Paulo Bento. He took over from Carlos Queiroz with Portugal slumping in qualifying and steered the team to the edge of automatic qualification. Bento's bust-up with veteran defender Ricardo Carvalhowas the first real sign of trouble, and then Portugal, requiring only a draw to progress on Tuesday, was outclassed by Denmark 2-1. The Danes could have scored five in Copenhagen.
For all its talent, Portugal doesn't have a world-class striker. Helder Postiga started against Denmark and 35-year-old Nuno Gomes entered as a sub. The good news for Bento & Co. is that they beat Bosnia 2-0 on aggregate in the playoffs in 2009. And, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Joao Moutinho can all change games in an instant. The Portuguese also have more depth than Bosnia.
Not so good is that Bosnia has improved in the past two years and has a dominant striker, Edin Dzeko. For much of Tuesday's 1-1 draw at France, the visitor was the better team. Bosnia's starting 11 is no doubt a match for Portugal. Dzeko, though, can't afford to spurn chances, which he's been known to do.
Prediction: Portugal, narrowly
Turkey vs. Croatia
Hiddink usually earns favorable reviews in the infancy of his stints with new teams -- and we all know there have been a few. But some in Turkey weren't too happy with the Dutchman, described as a "mercenary," when he heavily played down Turkey's chances of getting a result against Germany last week. Turkey lost, only to predictably recover against Azerbaijan and pip Belgium for second in Group A.
Croatia has itself to blame for not winning its group, meanwhile, putting in a disappointing display at Greece last week. If Real Madrid's Nuri Sahin is fit after recovering from a knee injury, he'll battle for supremacy in midfield with the superb Modric.Neutrals will certainly be looking forward to Turkey-Croatia after the teams clashed at Euro 2008 and produced one of the most exciting finishes in tournament history. Ivan Klasnic thought he won it for Croatia in the 119th minute, but Semih Senturk leveled the match in injury time of extra time with a stunning strike into the top corner. Turkey prevailed on penalty kicks for a semifinal spot before losing to Germany. Now it's Croatia's chance for revenge.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.