Soccer powers rising, except England |

Soccer powers rising, except England

AP PhotoEngland's David Beckham, top, celebrates with his captain John Terry after Terry scored against Brazil during an exhibition soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London on Friday.

LONDON ” Qualifying for the 2008 European Championship is just past the halfway stage, and most of the leading teams are rising to the top of their groups.

In Wednesday’s qualifiers, three-time winner Germany can go five points ahead in Group D, while World Cup winner Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, France and defending champion Greece all are well positioned to finish in the top two spots in their groups and advance.

England is the exception. It is fourth in Group E and likely to stay there even if it wins at Estonia.

With David Beckham playing his first competitive game for England since last year’s World Cup, coach Steve McClaren’s team is at least three points behind the top three teams.

Leader Croatia, which is unbeaten in 32 competitive games at home, hosts third-place Russia and second-place Israel will be confident of winning at Andorra, which is last after losing all six of its games.

Estonia also has lost all six matches, so if England doesn’t win it could end McClaren’s 10-month stint as coach. Midfielder Steven Gerrard says it’s up to the players to help McClaren keep his job.

“A manager can only do so much,” Gerrard said. “We’ve got to get out there and take the heat off him. We are the so-called best players in England. We’re getting picked to go out there and do a job. To be honest, Steve has been good since he took over.”

Meanwhile, German coach Joachim Loew wants one more big effort from his players to beat Slovakia in Hamburg at the end of a long season. Germany leads the Czech Republic and Ireland by two points and has played one fewer game.

“We’ll need to dig deep into our reserves of energy,” Loew said. “We’ll have to give 100 percent one more time. Then they can enjoy their vacation.”

After starting slowly, World Cup finalists France and Italy have edged ahead of Ukraine and Scotland in Group B.

France plays Georgia at home. Italy, which is two points behind France but a point ahead of Ukraine and Scotland, hopes to make it five victories in a row by winning at Lithuania.

“We’re the world champions and our clubs dominate Europe,” Italian defender Marco Materazzi said. “We need to go to Kaunas as winners and do what we know how to do.”

Greece moved atop Group C by beating Hungary 2-0 on Saturday while Turkey was losing 3-2 at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Greece can go five points ahead of Turkey by beating Moldova at home on Wednesday.

Bosnia hosts Malta and Norway welcomes Hungary, with Bosnia and Norway trying to move into a tie with Turkey in the standings.

Group F has been complicated by referee Herbert Fandel’s decision to abandon Saturday’s game between Denmark and Sweden. Fandel was attacked by a Danish fan in Copenhagen after sending off Denmark midfielder Christian Poulsen and awarding Sweden a penalty in the 89th minute with the score at 3-3.

UEFA will decide both the result and Denmark’s punishment Friday, with the likelihood that Sweden will be awarded a 3-0 victory. Leader Northern Ireland is idle Wednesday, while Sweden hosts Iceland, Spain visits Liechtenstein and Denmark goes to Latvia.

Group A leader Poland will be eight points ahead if it wins at Armenia on Wednesday, because Portugal and Serbia don’t have a game. But Poland will have played two more games than both its rivals.

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