England and Serbia on the verge
© AFP

England and Serbia can clinch their places alongside the Netherlands at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ if they beat Croatia and France respectively on Wednesday evening. Denmark, Slovakia and Spain can also advance to the global finals with a month to spare, though they all need other results to go their way.

A total of 22 fixtures are on the midweek card in the European Zone, including several games that will go a long way to deciding the identity of the eight teams that will contest the play-offs. FIFA.com previews an exciting evening on the old continent.

The big game
Serbia-France, Group 7, Marakana Stadium, Belgrade, 21.00 (local time)

Boasting the best attack and the tightest defence in the section, and having won their last three home games without conceding a single goal, Radomir Antic's Serbia will have the support of a capacity 60,000 crowd as they set about the task of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time as a nation in their own right. Opponents France have made heavy weather of the section. Even if they win in Belgrade, Raymond Domenech's misfiring side still need the Serbs to drop points in their final two games to have any chance of topping the group.

"France have some superb players and we shouldn't overestimate or underestimate them," said Serbian defender Aleksandar Lukovic. The fact is, however, Les Bleus are still searching for a style of their own three years after the retirement of Zinedine Zidane at Germany 2006.

The other games
Denmark can qualify directly from Group 1 if they beat Albania, Sweden lose or draw in Malta, and Hungary lose at home to Portugal. The Danes are four points clear of the Hungarians, who lost in unfortunate circumstances on Saturday and have the task of picking themselves up against a Portugal side now in need of a minor miracle to qualify. The Swedes are five points off the pace but are gathering steam ahead of the Scandinavian showdown in Copenhagen on 10 October.

Switzerland have made the best possible recovery from their wholly unexpected 2-1 home defeat by Luxembourg last September, racking up four straight wins to take to the top in Group 2. Should they win in Latvia, one of their victims in that four-game run, the Swiss will take a major stride towards winning the section, especially with their two direct rivals, Latvia and Greece, facing off on 10 October.

Group 3 leaders Slovakia are another side in with a chance of qualifying on Wednesday. To do that they need to beat closest challengers Northern Ireland in Belfast and then hope for Slovenia and Poland to draw in Maribor. Vladimir Weiss's charges have already bettered their performance in the Germany 2006 qualifying competition when they finished runners-up to Portugal before losing out in the play-offs to Spain. Anything is possible in a wide-open pool, however, with fifth-placed Czech Republic, who entertain San Marino, still in contention for second.

It should be as you were in Group 4 with top dogs Germany taking on Azerbaijan at home and second-placed Russia travelling to Wales. Victories for both sides would set up a tantalising group decider in Moscow on 10 October.

Despite their flawless record of seven wins out of seven in Group 5, frontrunners Spain are still not assured of their place in South Africa. To advance two games early, the European champions need to beat Estonia at home and hope Bosnia-Herzegovina drop points against Turkey.

Two years on from their surprise failure to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008, England have a fine chance to make amends when they play host to Group 6 rivals Croatia. Under Fabio Capello, the revitalised English have posted seven consecutive group wins, including a 4-1 romp in Zagreb last September, and have notched 26 goals in topping the section. And even if the Croatians win at Wembley for the second time running, England will still qualify automatically for the finals if they win one of their remaining two games.

World champions Italy have been making steady if unspectacular progress in Group 8, a pool in which the top three, remarkably, are all still unbeaten. Victory over Bulgaria in Turin will give the Italians the luxury of a four-point cushion when they visit second-placed Republic of Ireland next month.

Finally, Group 9 comes to a conclusion this week, with the Netherlands having long since qualified and Scotland hoping to advance their claim for a play-off place with victory over the Dutch at Hampden Park. That would give the feisty Scots a total of 13 points and keep them in with a chance of earning a play-off slot at the expense of one of the runners-up in the six-team groups.

Player to watch
Wayne Rooney (ENG)

The Manchester United forward has flourished more than anyone under Fabio Capello's tutelage. Rooney has hit ten goals since the wily Italian's arrival in England, a marked improvement on a tally of three goals in the three previous years.

The stat
0 -
The number of goals scored by Italy players in their last four matches. The Italians were indebted to a brace of Kakha Kaladze own goals in Saturday's 2-0 defeat of Georgia and the last man in blue to hit the back of the net was Giuseppe Rossi in their 3-1 win over USA at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 in June.

What they said
"As long as it remains mathematically possible, we will continue to believe," Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz

Have your say
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