By DAVID GUBALA
For a few of Europe's international powers, the European Championship qualifying process didn't go as planned, but there's still a shot to reach next summer's finals.
The final round of Euro 2012 qualifiers gets underway on Friday, starting with the first legs of the home-and-away playoff series. They'll be followed by next Tuesday's second legs, which will determine the final four spots in the 16-team field.
The matches provide nations like Portugal and Croatia — both ranked in the top 12 in the world — a second chance at making it to the summer's grand stage in Poland and Ukraine. They also provide upstarts like Estonia and Montenegro the chance to keep their dreams at qualifying for the prestigious event alive.
Here's a look ahead to the four Euro 2012 playoff ties:
TURKEY vs. CROATIA
Nov. 11 in Istanbul; Nov. 15 in Zagreb, Croatia
The Turkish national team and head coach Guus Hiddink have quite a lot in common. Both have reached the semifinal stages of the 2008 Euro Championships, however it was Russia who Hiddink managed at the time. This time, forces will combine, as the Turks will look to get past a tricky Croatian side and earn the right to play next summer in Poland and Ukraine.
The Croats, meanwhile, enter this game with a sour taste in their mouths. Their rampant run in the 2008 championships was put to and end when they lost to Turkey in the quarterfinal round in penalties. With a handful of world-class players on the roster cards, can Croatia show Europe their worthy of progressing?
Turkey projected lineup: Bolat – Balta, Gonul, Cetin, Kesimal – Hamit Altintop, Emre Belozoglu, Kazim-Richards, Sahin – Halil Altintop, Yilmaz
Croatia projected lineup: Pletikosa – Strinic, Simunic, Lovren, Corluka – Rakitic, Modric, Srna, Krancjar – Olic, Eduardo
ESTONIA vs. REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Nov. 11 in Tallinn, Estonia; Nov. 15 in Dublin
It's been a rollercoaster year for the Estonian national team — which recalled New York Red Bulls midfielder Joel Lindpere for the playoffs — but it looks like they’re finding their form at the right moment. They managed to overturn a six game losing streak and a -14-goal differential, into a three game win streak, including impressive performances over Slovenia and Northern Ireland. Their last two wins came from beating Northern Ireland. Can they tame the Republic of Ireland this time?
The Republic of Ireland has made only one appearance in the European Championships, dating all the way back to 1988. It's been a long time coming for The Boys in Green, and there is absolutely no lack of talent on this side, which includes Los Angeles Galaxy Designated Player Robbie Keane. With a little extra help from Lady Luck, the Republic of Ireland should be able to progress and have a fine showing at the Euros.
Estonia projected lineup: Pareiko – Klavan, Piiroja, Jaager, Palatu – Kruglov, Vunk, Vassiljev, Ahjupera – Kink, Saag
Republic of Ireland projected lineup: Given – Coleman, Dunne, O’Shea, Ward – McGeady, Whelan, Andrews, Duff – Doyle, Cox
CZECH REPUBLIC vs. MONTENEGRO
Nov. 11 in Prague; Nov. 15 in Podgorica, Montenegro
Since claiming their independence, the Czechs have yet to missed out on the European Championships. Although they’re seen as the favorite in this series, they cannot overlook what Montenegro has accomplished thus far. The first leg is in Prague. Can they Czechs get the job done and make it five Euro appearances in a row?
Montenegro is considered the world’s newest international side and they have done a phenomenal job on staying on track to qualify for next summer’s competition. After piling up quite a few impressive wins, time saw them climb to 16th in the July FIFA Rankings. They are a very committed side that will surely prove to be a tough test for the Czechs.
Czech Republic projected lineup: Cech – Gebreselassie, Kadlec, Hubnik, Sivok – Rosicky, Pudil, Plasil, Matejovsky – Baros, Jiracek
Montenegro projected lineup: Mladen Bozovic – Pejovic, Zverotic, Savic, Drincic – Cetkovic, Damjanovic, Beciraj, Batak – Djalovic, Drasko Bozovic
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA vs. PORTUGAL
Nov. 11 in Zenica, Bosnia; Nov. 15 in Lisbon, Portugal
Familiar foes meet again. Much like Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina are on a payback mission. They managed to reach the second round of the 2010 World Cup Qualifying stages but were knocked out by Portugal on a 0-2 aggregate score line. The Bosnians are a force to be reckoned with, particularly because of in-form striker, Edin Dzeko. He will surely be No. 1 on Portugal's man-marking list.
Portugal, a Euro finalist in 2004, is certainly the under-pressure side in this one. Missing out on the Euros would be beyond disappointing, and to avoid that, they have to pull past an inspired Bosnian side seeking revenge. With Pepe, Danny, Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida coming back form injury, can the Portuguese get it together at the right time?
Bosnia & Herzegovina projected lineup: Hasagic – Papac, Spahic, Mujdza, Pandza – Rahimic, Pjanic, Misimovic, Lulic – Medunjanin, Dzeko
Portugal projected lineup: Eduardo – Bruno Alves, Pepe, Rolando, Fabio Coentrao- Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles, Carlos Martins – Nani, Hedler Postiga, Cristiano Ronaldo
Which four teams do you think will progress to next summer's tournament? Which playoff tie are you looking forward to watching the most? Do you see any favorites failing to quailfy for next summer's finals?
Share your thoughts below.