England, Sweden and Czechs hunt finals berths

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BELGRADE, Oct 15 (Reuters) England, Sweden and the Czech Republic can secure Euro 2008 finals berths on Wednesday and join Germany, who became the first nation to qualify with a 0-0 draw at Ireland on Saturday.

After an unimpressive start, England registered a fifth successive 3-0 victory with their triumph over Estonia on Saturday, and a win against Russia in Moscow would secure qualification with a match to spare. Such a result would also see Group E leaders Croatia through.

Croatia, who top the group with 26 points from 10 matches, will also reach next year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland with a Moscow draw before they visit Macedonia and England in November.

Group F front-runners Sweden are a win away from the finals ahead of their home match with Northern Ireland, who have a slim chance of staying in contention after consecutive defeats at Latvia and Iceland.

Sweden have 22 points from nine matches as do second-placed Spain, who have played a game more but still look a safe bet to finish in the top two after a resounding 3-1 win at Denmark at the weekend.

Third-placed Northern Ireland faded after a bright run and have 16 points from 10 games with a home match against Denmark and the final outing at Spain after facing the Swedes in Solna.

The Czech Republic will be looking for a win against old rivals Germany in Munich in Group D to be mathematically sure of finishing ahead of Ireland and Cyprus, who play each other at Croke Park in Dublin.

Germany have 23 points from nine matches followed by the Czechs on 20 from nine and Ireland on 15 from 10. Fourth-placed Slovakia are out with 13 points from 10 matches while Cyprus on 13 from nine can still theoretically finish second.

TRICKY TRIP Elsewhere, the most enthralling of tight three-way battles is in Group B, where surprise package Scotland need four points from their visit to Georgia on Wednesday and the home match against Italy on November 17 to end a decade-long barren spell.

The Scots last played in a major tournament at the 1998 World Cup and Saturday's 3-1 home win over Ukraine will have boosted their confidence ahead of the tricky trip to Tbilisi.

Group A leaders Poland made a big step towards the finals with a 3-1 home win over Kazakhstan as did Portugal in second thanks to a 2-0 success at Azerbaijan.

Poland are top with 24 points from 12 matches, Portugal have 20 from 11 ahead of their home match against Kazakhstan, while Finland kept alive their hopes after a 0-0 draw at Belgium left them in third position on 20 points from 12 games.

Turkey put themselves under pressure with a 1-1 draw at Moldova as it left them only a point ahead of Norway and four behind holders and Group B leaders Greece ahead of their potentially explosive clash in Istanbul.

Greece, beaten by the Turks 4-1 at home in the reverse fixture in March, have 22 points from nine games followed by Turkey on 18 and Norway on 17 with the latter two meeting in Oslo next month.

Romania went three points clear of The Netherlands in Group G after beating them 1-0 on Saturday and also opened the door for third-placed Bulgaria, who are a further two points adrift.

All three sides will hope to keep up their bids on Wednesday with Romania away to Luxembourg, Bulgaria going to Albania and the Dutch entertaining Slovenia.

REUTERS BJR BD1557

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