Auld enemies aim to edge closer
With only Germany assured of taking their place alongside hosts Austria and Switzerland, the last three rounds of qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2008 are sure to set nerves on edge across the continent.
This Wednesday brings the next instalment of games and even though several teams could end the suspense with time to spare, the chief objective for many of Europe's heavyweights will be to avoid slipping up against tricky opponents.
While unbeaten Croatia continue to set the pace in Group E, second-placed England travel to Moscow with a seemingly healthy five-point lead over Russia. The visitors have, though, played one game more than their hosts, which leaves Wednesday's encounter looking decisive in terms of who will snatch the runners-up spot.
With the stakes so high, there was good news for England coach Steve McClaren at the weekend when Michael Owen returned to the starting line-up to face Estonia, a match which saw England record their fifth straight 3-0 triumph in qualification. Their previous 3-0 success came at home to the Russians in September, thanks in large part to an Owen brace, and the Newcastle striker will relish the chance to torment the same defence. Likewise, Wayne Rooney will be high on confidence after scoring against Estonia to end a three-year barren spell in competitive matches for his country.
For their part, the Russians will be anxious to avenge their Wembley defeat and have yet to be beaten at home, but they have let crucial points slip there in the past - notably in the goalless draw against Croatia and the 1-1 stalemate with Israel. This time, nothing less than the maximum haul will suffice if they wish to stay in touch with the leaders.
Close-up: Installed in the Russian hot-seat
following his heroics with Australia at Germany 2006, Dutch coach
Guus Hiddink will be able to enjoy Wednesday's contest knowing
that his long-term future is secure, having just extended his
contract until 2010.
Head-to-head: Wayne Rooney-Aleksandr Kerzhakov
Flashback: On 12 September 2007, England thrilled a packed Wembley stadium with a stylish 3-0 victory over Hiddink's men, Owen marking his return to form with a double and Rio Ferdinand adding a third late on.
Quote: "I'll be England's biggest supporter," proclaimed Croatia coach Slaven Bilic recently. Either a win or a draw for McClaren's charges will send Croatia through, as they boast a three-point lead over the English and an eight-point cushion over Russia.
Having hit rock-bottom as recently as 2005, Scotland have recorded some stunning results of late and are the surprise frontrunners in Group B. That is no mean feat in a pool that just happens to contain the two finalists from the last FIFA World Cup ™, Italy and France, as well as quarter-finalists Ukraine.
Alex McLeish's team still have some way to go, of course, and they face a delicate trip to Georgia next up, knowing defeat is simply not an option ahead of their final outing at home to Italy on 17 November. Should the Scots come away with all three points, there will be nervy times ahead for the top two sides at Germany 2006.
Scotland have negotiated their campaign with real poise so far, securing eight wins - including home and away successes against France - and suffering just two losses, in Italy and Ukraine. With seven goals in the last 12 matches, James McFadden has been one of the keys to their revival, and he is fully focused on edging Scotland closer to the promised land. "We've got the ability to get a win in Georgia and to beat the world champions," he said. "Italy are never totally comfortable against us." The entire country is hoping he is right as they dream of seeing Scotland back in the international limelight.
Close-up: Ones of Georgia's most glaring
weaknesses has been their failure to hold on to a result in the
dying minutes, whereas the Scots never stop believing until the
Head-to-head: Zurab Khizanishvili-James McFadden
Flashback: Facing the same opponents at Hampden Park on 24 March 2007, Scotland had to wait until the 89th minute for substitute Craig Beattie to give them a precious 2-1 triumph. Kris Boyd initially gave the hosts the lead, but Shota Arveladze's leveller for the tenacious Georgians had the locals resigned to a draw until Beattie's late intervention.
Quote: "We don't like the idea that people see us as destined to lose," warned AC Milan defender Kakha Kaladze recently. "We've got nothing against the Scots, but we'll fight right up until the end to prove that, in our country, nobody just gives up."
The other matches
Despite dropping several points at home, Portugal can close in on Group A leaders Poland with a win in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, France need to beat Lithuania to stay on track in Group B, even if they will have one eye on events in Georgia.
Further south, an intriguing derby lies in prospect between Group C rivals Turkey and Greece, with the European champions out to avenge their humiliating 4-1 reverse in Athens earlier this year. The Turks will do everything they can to prevent them, as they lie just one point clear of third-placed Norway, who travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In contrast, the Czech Republic's lead over third-placed Ireland in Group D is a sturdy five points, but they will still be determined to pounce on any lapses in concentration from Germany in Munich, where they hope to collect at least a draw.
Elsewhere, Sweden can guarantee themselves a berth in next
summer's tournament with victory at home to Group F challengers
Northern Ireland, while Romania ought to consolidate their position
at the Group G summit in Luxembourg. In the same section, the
Netherlands entertain Slovenia and will also be paying close
attention to the meeting between Bulgaria and Albania.
The full programme
1-. Poland, 24 pts
2-. Finland and Portugal, 20
4-. Serbia, 17