European qualifiers preview
© AFP

Expect tension and intrigue in the penultimate round of European Zone qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, with three top-of-the-table showdowns in store along with another three potentially decisive encounters.

No fewer than 13 teams will represent the Old Continent in South Africa next summer, but so far only the Netherlands, Spain and England have sealed their places. Defending champions Italy need a solitary point to join them, while Denmark, Switzerland, Serbia and Slovakia are also well placed.

The qualifying picture is less clear in Group 4, however, where supporters of Germany and Russia may have to wait until the final whistle of their last outings on Wednesday to know who will advance, should Guus Hiddink's side overcome Joachim Low's tomorrow.

The last four teams to book their tickets will emerge on 18 November, following the play-offs between the eight best second-placed sides. The draw for those contests will take place at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on 19 October.

The fixtures:

Group 1
Denmark-Sweden
Portugal-Hungary

Group 2
Luxembourg-Switzerland
Israel-Moldova
Greece-Latvia

Group 3
Slovakia-Slovenia
Czech Republic-Poland

Group 4
Finland-Wales
Russia-Germany
Liechtenstein-Azerbaijan

Group 5
Estonia-Bosnia-Herzegovina
Belgium-Turkey
Armenia-Spain

Group 6
Belarus-Kazakhstan
Ukraine-England

Group 7
Serbia-Romania
Austria-Lithuania
France-Faroe Islands

Group 8
Montenegro-Georgia
Cyprus-Bulgaria
Republic of Ireland-Italy

The big game
Russia-Germany, Group 4, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, 19.00

In-form Arsenal playmaker Andrei Arshavin and the ever-dangerous Roman Pavlyuchenko are readying themselves to provide the attacking menace for an ambitious Russia team that is "alive again", according to coach Hiddink, who is no stranger to prevailing in must-win games. Opponents Germany boast a one-point advantage in the section, however, and Low, who has again chosen to overlook midfielder Torsten Frings, will field Rene Adler between the posts and will likely employ a counter-attacking approach. A draw would almost certainly see the Germans progress as group winners since they host Finland in their final fixture, but a triumph for the hosts would leave Russia two points clear ahead of their trip to bottom side Azerbaijan.

The other games
Victory over neighbours and closest challengers Sweden would send Denmark through in Group 1, and the unbeaten Danes will go into the match as favourites, despite having let their momentum slip of late. They boast the most-prolific attack in the pool and possess the additional advantage of hosting Albania in their final game. For their part, Portugal entertain Hungary still hopeful of earning themselves a qualification berth, despite lying five points off the summit.

Switzerland look set to sew up top spot in Group 2 as they head to Luxembourg, knowing success against the team that recently shipped seven goals in Israel would end all suspense. The race for second place continues to provide plenty of drama, on the other hand, with rivals Greece and Latvia locking horns on Saturday and Israel facing Moldova. A draw in Athens would allow Israel to pull level on points with their fellow hopefuls.

In Group 3, Slovakia's superb form throughout the campaign has left them requiring no more than a point against second-placed Slovenia to qualify, but tomorrow's visitors are the only side to have beaten them since qualifying began and they have not given up on first place themselves. The task for new Slovakia coach Vladimir Weiss, installed in June, has been complicated by the suspension of top scorer Stanislav Sestak and an injury to regular forward Filip Holosko, yet despite those absences, Bratislava is bracing itself to celebrate an historic moment. As for the play-off place, Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Poland have all set their sights on leapfrogging the current incumbents.

Five points behind untouchable Group 5 frontrunners Spain, the runners-up berth is at present the preserve of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who travel to Estonia eager to promote their cause. Four points further back, however, Turkey still hope to stage a late comeback and need to win in Belgium to keep their dreams alive.

England rule the waves in Group 6, where Ukraine have designs on finishing second and are plotting to become the first side to take points off Fabio Capello's charges. Victory would lift Andriy Schevchenko and Co above Croatia and leave them in pole position to clinch a play-off berth ahead of their journey to Andorra.

As for Serbia, a home triumph over a Romania team strengthened by the return of Adrian Mutu would confirm them as Group 7 winners, consigning 2006 runners-up France to a place in the play-offs no matter how Les Bleus fare at home to Faroe Islands.

Although Marcello Lippi insists it would be a mistake "to go out looking for a draw", a point against Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland team in Dublin would send Italy through to South Africa as top dogs in Group 8. The world champions look suitably equipped to guarantee their progress, too, particularly as the hosts will be deprived the services of Damien Duff, Darron Gibson, Steven Reid and Caleb Folan.

Player to watch
Captain and spiritual leader of his country's international team, 38-year-old Vitalijs Astafjevs will celebrate his 157th cap for Latvia against Greece on Saturday and move level with Martin Reim as the most experienced outfield player in the history of the European game - a record his Estonian counterpart has held alone since 2007.

The stat
17 - If they can collect the remaining points they need on Saturday, Germany and Italy will each be able to look forward to their 17th appearance at a FIFA World Cup. Only Brazil boast a better record, A Seleçao having contested every edition so far and due to make their 19th participation in South Africa.

What they said
"Derbies between Denmark and Sweden are always a big event in Scandinavia and the one on Saturday will be even more heated because qualification for the World Cup is at stake," Jon Dahl Tomasson, Denmark forward and captain

Have your say

What will be the outcome of the Russia-Germany and Denmark-Sweden games? Will Republic of Ireland keep their hopes of topping Group 8 alive with victory over Italy? Can Ukraine end England's 100 per cent record? Will Hungary cause an upset in Portugal? Let us know your thoughts by clicking on 'Add your comment'.