There will be tension and excitement aplenty this Saturday as no fewer than 43 international qualifiers are held across Europe and Africa.
For the teams in contention, the goal will be to bolster claims to a berth at next year's continental showpieces, with 20 matches programmed for the eight UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying groups, and 23 for the 12 groups containing CAF African Cup of Nations 2008 hopefuls. Both parts of the world promise some truly enticing encounters as more than a few pacesetters go head-to-head with their rivals.
In Europe, the standout fixture pits Czech Republic against Germany, although England in Group E and Spain in Group F face intriguing must-win outings away to Israel and at home to Denmark respectively. African football fans are in for an even bigger treat, meanwhile, as no less than five group leaders take on their nearest challengers, with the victors set to move tantalisingly close to the promised land of qualification.
As things stand, Germany and Czech Republic both remain unbeaten in Group D with ten points apiece. Separated by just one goal, they enjoy a three-point lead and have a game in hand over Wales's next opponents, Republic of Ireland, making them clear favourites to monopolise the top-two spots. Neither will be taking anything for granted, though, especially as Germany coach Joachim Low must deal with injuries to Mario Gomez, Mike Hanke, Oliver Neuville, Tim Borowski and Arne Friedrich, in addition to suspensions for Miroslav Klose and Clemens Fritz.
To cope with those losses, the 47-year-old has called up four international newcomers in Bayer Leverkusen striker Stefan Kiessling , his defensive club-mate Gonzalo Castro, Stuttgart midfielder Roberto Hilbert and Hanover's Robert Enke, who joins the squad as third-choice goalkeeper. The history books look to favour the visitors slightly, with Germany having won two of the three contests between these sides since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
Must-win for McClaren
In Group E, leaders Croatia have hardly put a step wrong so far, racking up three wins and a draw, and they ought to continue their good run when Macedonia come to town. One team hoping they stumble, though, are third-placed England, who find themselves three points back after a 2-0 defeat in Zagreb only days after a lacklustre goalless draw at home to the Macedonians. In fact, the English need at least a point from their trip to Israel to retain realistic hopes of going through.
Ashley Cole misses the game through suspension, but the return of Owen Hargreaves and Aaron Lennon ought to help under-pressure coach Steve McClaren , who has been sounding bullish in the run-up. "We need to have a positive and attacking team for this match," he said. "We have to put in a performance full of aggression and traditional English determination."
Likewise, Spain cannot afford any more slip-ups in Group F, where they lie fifth, nine points behind Sweden but with a game in hand. Defensive stalwarts Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos are sidelined with suspension, meaning Luis Aragones has turned to Carlos Marchena as his team prepare to take on a solid Denmark side, who have collected seven points in three outings. A win would put the Iberians right back in the mix, but a defeat, or even a draw, would leave them in serious trouble.
The situation is even tighter in Group A, meanwhile, with the top five teams all within four points of each other. That being the case, Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari must surely have been hoping to field his strongest team for the visit of Belgium and Wednesday's trip to Serbia, but he will have to make do without Deco , who is carrying a hand injury, and the suspended Simao Sabrosa. His players know they have little margin for error, not least because rivals Poland and Serbia appear more than capable of taking maximum points in their games at home to Azerbaijan and away to Kazakhstan respectively. Leaders Finland are not in action.
In Group B, France travel to Lithuania without a number of big names, including Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. Despite those losses, they must come back with a positive result, not only to keep up with frontrunners Scotland , who host Georgia, but also to stay two points clear of world champions Italy, who return to the fray at home to the Scots on Wednesday.
Elsewhere, after three Group C games each, both Greece and Turkey boast 100 per cent records and will be disputing top spot in what is sure to be a fascinating match in Athens. And in Group G, Marco van Basten's Netherlands have an excellent opportunity to break clear of fellow hopefuls Romania, who lie three points further back with a game in hand. That game could well feature the international debut of 28-year-old Danny Koevermans, brought into the squad thanks to 19 strikes in 26 appearances for AZ Alkmaar this season.
Egypt and Senegal out for revenge
In Africa, the third round of qualifiers will provide several teams with a great chance of streaking ahead in their section and moving ever closer to a place in next year's continental showpiece. The target for Egypt, on the other hand, must be to kick start their Group 2 bid following a 0-0 draw with Botswana. As the reigning champions and the team with the most victories in the tournament, they will be looking not just to beat Mauritania, but to do it in some style.
Similarly, Senegal need to pick themselves up after their surprising 1-0 loss to Burkina Faso in Group 7. Due to entertain Tanzania, the Lions of Teranga can nonetheless move back to the top of the standings with a win.
In Group A, Didier Drogba can parade his African Player of the Year crown for the first time as Côte d'Ivoire travel to Madagascar. Victory would almost certainly guarantee the Elephants a berth in Ghana next year, while Nigeria can make giant strides of their own if they register a third straight Group 3 win at home to second-placed Uganda. In Group 5, Cameroon can also take a big step forward against Liberia, who will be looking to become the first team to score past their hosts.
Lastly, in Group 9, third-placed Togo will be vying to get their campaign back on track after succumbing to leaders Mali. They take on Sierra Leone, who are yet to find the back of the net, while Mali will be keen to preserve their one-point advantage against Benin. Despite taking four points from two outings, the Malians have registered just one goal so far and may well need a little more efficiency going forward to stay out in front.