no catching the flying dutch

LONDON - The Netherlands seem likely to be the first European team to secure a place at next year's World Cup and can move even closer to that goal if they beat Macedonia tomorrow.

LONDON - The Netherlands seem likely to be the first European team to secure a place at next year's World Cup and can move even closer to that goal if they beat Macedonia tomorrow.

The Amsterdam match is one of 23 in European qualifying for the 2010 tournament in South Africa and though England, Germany, Spain and World Cup holders Italy also appear well on track, it is the Netherlands who are setting the pace.

The Dutch beat Scotland, their closest rival in Group 9, 3-0 on Saturday to stretch their lead to eight points halfway through qualifying.

Victory at home over Macedonia coupled with a draw between Iceland and Scotland in Reykjavik would leave only Norway with a theoretical chance to overhaul the Netherlands.

"I think it will be really strange if we fail to qualify," Dutch striker Robin van Persie said.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored the opening goal against Scotland, agreed.

"It feels really good to get four straight wins," Huntelaar said. "We haven't qualified yet, but it should now be easy from this position.

"However, it is always dangerous to be complacent."

Still, the Netherlands shouldn't have too many problems against a team with just three points from three matches.

Van Persie scored against Scotland after replacing regular starter Wesley Sneijder in his favoured attacking midfield role and is likely to play again tomorrow.

"The coach makes his decisions based on current form. He looks at the details," said Van Persie, who has scored 16 goals for Arsenal so far this season. "It makes me extra sharp."

Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk may be without Atletico Madrid defender John Heitinga because of a head injury, but otherwise has a full-strength squad.

Scotland and Iceland each need a victory to keep alive their fading hopes of even being one of the eight best group runners-up to earn a spot at the 32-team World Cup.

Like the Netherlands, Spain and England also have perfect records in their groups. European champion Spain visit Turkey in Group 5, four days after beating the Turks 1-0 in Madrid.

England should be too strong for Ukraine, which is second in Group 6 along with Croatia, but will be light in attack after strikers Emile Heskey and Carlton Cole were injured in Saturday's 4-0 friendly win over Slovakia.

Germany are at Wales and also on course for qualification from Group 4 after a 4-0 win over Liechtenstein. The three-time World Cup winners have 13 points from five games, four more than second-place Russia, who visit Liechtenstein.

"Our aim is three points, so that we can go into the summer break as the commanding leader in the table," Germany coach Joachim Loew said.

Loew said he expects Wales to react positively to Saturday's home loss to Finland, which effectively ended its chances of qualifying.

"They must win against us if they want still to have a theoretical chance, so they will have to play more offensively than usual," Loew said. "I hope that will give us more space and that we will use it."

World Cup holders Italy took the sole lead of Group 8 on Saturday and can take full control of their destiny if they beat second-placed Ireland in Bari. France, who lost the 2006 final to Italy, need a win over Lithuania to close on Group 7 leaders Serbia.

Denmark's surprising surge to the top of Group 1 continued Saturday with a 3-0 win over Malta, the first time the small Scandinavian country has scored three goals in three straight World Cup qualifiers.

But Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner could miss tomorrow's game against Albania because of a sore knee that forced him off the field after just 20 minutes against Malta.

"It worries me that he left the match so early with lots of pain," Denmark doctor Soren Kaalund said. "It's possible that he will have to return to London."

Greece coach Otto Rehhagel described as positive the point that the Group 2 leaders gained with a 1-1 draw at Israel on Saturday, but he made it clear that his team must work hard for a positive result in the return match tomorrow.

The game will be played on the southern Greek island of Crete and the coach called for a big attendance to make the players' task easier.

"Saturday's game is over," Portsmouth midfielder Angelos Basinas said. "Now we're looking ahead to Wednesday's match to gain the three points."

The Czech Republic's attempt to catch surprise Group 3 leader Northern Ireland will be hampered by the absence of two key players against Slovakia.

Defender Tomas Ujfalusi is suspended after another yellow card in Saturday's 0-0 draw at Slovenia and midfielder Radek Sirl injured a knee in the same game. - Sapa-AP