Holland eye early qualification

MILAN - Netherlands, one of the greatest football nations never to win the World Cup, would become the first European country to reach next year's finals with victory in Iceland on Saturday.

The Group Nine clash in Reykjavik gives Bert van Marwijk's side the chance to move 11 points clear of second-placed Scotland, who are not playing but have only three games left and would not be able to catch the 1974 and 1978 runners-ups.

Netherlands, who have won all five qualifiers, moved up to second place in the FIFA rankings on Wednesday for the first time in nearly four years.

England have risen to sixth thanks to their run of five qualification wins in a row under Fabio Capello in Group Six.

The group leaders travel to Kazakhstan on Saturday with a home game against Andorra following on Wednesday.

Six more points would leave England needing just three from their last three qualifiers to make South Africa next June.

"We want the job done as soon as possible, with all due respect to Kazakhstan and Andorra, these are games we should win so we need to approach them with the right attitude," midfielder Steven Gerrard told a news conference.

"The majority of the time when England play these type of teams we are expected to win very comfortably but these teams can be very organised and difficult to beat and everyone wants to beat England."


Gerrard will be joined in midfield by Gareth Barry, who has just joined Manchester City from Aston Villa, and striker Wayne Rooney must put behind him a poor display in Manchester United's Champions League final defeat by Barcelona last week.

In case of a slip-up in Almaty, England will hope second and third-placed Croatia and Ukraine cancel each other out in Zagreb on Saturday where a win for the visitors would bring them level with Slaven Bilic's side.

Group One provides a Scandinavian derby between group leaders Denmark and struggling Sweden, who are fourth and trail their rivals by seven points.

With only the group winners automatically qualifying, the Swedes had been eyeing one of the eight best runners-up spots but Hungary are on 13 just like the Danes.

Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic must put thoughts of leaving Inter Milan to one side for the Stockholm clash if Lars Lagerback's side are to re-enter the qualification race.

Third-placed Portugal are level with Sweden and cannot afford to drop points in Albania on Saturday.

World champions Italy, who top Group Eight, host Northern Ireland in a friendly in Pisa on Saturday with Marcello Lippi poised to play a very experimental lineup.

Ireland can leapfrog the Azzurri with a qualifying victory in Bulgaria and Slovakia would take over from the Northern Irish as Group Three leaders with a home win over San Marino.

Serbia would consolidate their grip on Group Seven by seeing off Austria in Belgrade.