European teams try to copy flying Dutchmen

LONDON - World champions Italy could lead a procession of as many as seven European countries into next year's World Cup in South Africa over the next few days.

LONDON - World champions Italy could lead a procession of as many as seven European countries into next year's World Cup in South Africa over the next few days.

The Netherlands are the only European side certain of a place in the finals and Italy, Denmark, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England and Serbia are well placed to join them.

All nine group winners qualify for the finals with the eight best runners-up entering the two-legged playoffs in November.

But Italian coach Marcello Lippi, whose side visit bottom-placed Georgia tomorrow and host Bulgaria in Turin next Wednesday in Group Eight, is taking nothing for granted.

"If we play well and are lucky enough to beat Georgia and Bulgaria, we could go to Ireland (on October 10) with a four-point advantage. This is almost a decisive moment," he said.

European champions Spain, with a perfect record after six straight wins in Group Five, will also qualify if they win their home matches against Belgium and Estonia, and Bosnia fail to beat Armenia and Turkey.

England are also within touching distance of the finals after winning their opening seven matches in Group Six and will qualify if they beat Croatia at Wembley next Wednesday.

England, who beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb a year ago, are out to avenge the shattering 3-2 home loss to Croatia in 2007 that cost them a place in Euro 2008.

Germany, hosts in 2006, are also odds-on to reach the finals, but can only make sure of their place this month if results go their way.

Though they have won six and drawn one of their seven Group Four matches, they will probably not be certain of their place even if they beat lowly Azerbaijan in Hanover next Wednesday.

Denmark, bidding for a return to the World Cup after missing out in 2006, could achieve that aim if they beat Portugal in Copenhagen and Albania in Tirana.

The situation in Group One is tight, however, with second-placed Hungary, three points behind Denmark, still in contention for a first finals appearance for 24 years.

Group Three leaders Slovakia and Group Seven leaders Serbia also have outside chances of securing places in the finals in the next week.

Matters should become clearer in Group Two after Switzerland host Greece in a top-of-the-table clash in Basel tomorrow . - Reuters

X