Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's most expensive footballer, faces a tense FIFA World Cup™ survival battle this weekend as Portugal, semi-finalists in 2006, desperately seek to prevent their South Africa 2010 campaign from suffering a humiliating derailment.
Ronaldo is one of a host of superstars who have seen their national teams splutter through qualifying while 1998 champions France are also about to face a testing back-to-back examination. Portugal are third in Group 1 on nine points, trailing leaders Denmark by seven points and Hungary by four with four games left.
On Saturday, coach Carlos Queiroz, a former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, takes his team to Copenhagen to tackle the Danes and then to Budapest next Wednesday. Only Europe's nine group winners are assured of places in the finals; the eight best runners-up have to play-off.
"We still have every chance of qualifying. None of us wants his only experience of the World Cup to be watching it on TV," Portugal striker Hugo Almeida said. "We've dropped vital points, largely because we have a lot of new and young players in the team. We're ushering in a new generation, and the process isn't complete, but I'm certain we'll pull it off."
Denmark coach Morten Olsen admits he is surprised by his team's progress which has yielded five wins and a draw. "I think most people would have expected Portugal to be on top at this stage, especially as they've started with more home games," said Olsen, in charge for almost a decade.
No margin for error
France, who welcome Romania to Paris, are second in Group 7, five points behind Serbia but with a game in hand ahead of a testing trip to Belgrade on Wednesday. Despite boasting the likes of Thierry Henry, Karim Benzema and Nicolas Anelka, France have managed just four goals in seven matches since last November.
Fans have made their dissatisfaction known, but coach Raymond Domenech has called for patience. "If they boo us at the end of the match because of the result, that doesn't shock me," he said. "If I've paid to watch the game, I thought it was rubbish, I have the right to boo. But not during the match. At the very worst, you get up and you go."
Croatia, third-place finishers at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, are seven points behind runaway Group 6 leaders England, who have a perfect record of seven wins in seven outings. They face Belarus before travelling to Wembley on Wednesday to take on Fabio Capello's England, who face Slovenia in a friendly on Saturday.
In Group 5, Spain also have a perfect record of six wins in six games and are six points clear of second-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina with four games to go. A win over Belgium on Saturday coupled with a Bosnia loss at bottom side Armenia would see Spain go nine clear. "Saturday is a big game against Belgium but we know it will be difficult because it is their last chance (to qualify) if they beat us," said experienced midfielder Marcos Senna.
Turkey, FIFA World Cup semi-finalists in 2002, are third in the group, ten points behind Spain and four off second-placed Bosnia. "There are 12 points still to play for and I don't think Bosnia will take all of them," said Turkey striker Nihat Kahveci.
Champs go steady
World champions Italy lead Group 8 by one point from Republic of Ireland and have a game in hand. Italy go to Georgia while Ireland are in Cyprus, who still harbour outside hopes of making the play-offs while, in Group 4, Russia look to cut the gap on leaders Germany to just one point with a win at home over Liechtenstein.
The Netherlands are the only team in Europe who have already made sure of qualifying with a perfect 21 points from seven matches leaving FYR Macedonia and Scotland, who are second and third respectively, 14 points behind, to battle for a potential play-off spot. They meet in Glasgow on Saturday with the Scots still smarting from their recent 4-0 defeat in Norway.
Terry Butcher, who is manager George Burley's assistant and who captained England to a 1990 FIFA World Cup semi-final in Italy, says a Scotland win would be his finest moment in football. "I'm not being flippant, but after everything we have gone through in this campaign, this means as much to me now as any game I ever played in - just as much as a World Cup semi-final."