And then there were two. Just two automatic tickets to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ South Africa remain available from the European Zone ahead of Wednesday's final round of qualifiers, and while Switzerland and Greece will vie for top spot in Group 2, Slovakia and Slovenia are set to do likewise in Group 3. The two eventual section winners will join Denmark, Germany, Spain, England, Italy, Serbia and the Netherlands in the finals next summer.
This last instalment of 24 qualifiers will also yield four more play-off contenders to enter the 19 October draw with Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France and the Republic of Ireland, all of whom have already clinched a spot among the eight best second-placed teams.
The big game
Poland-Slovakia, Group 3, Silesia Stadium, Chorzow, 20:30
Following on from their surprise 2-0 loss at home to Slovenia, Slovakia find themselves very much with their backs to the wall. Vladimir Weiss's side possibly fell into the trap of believing their first ever qualification for a FIFA World Cup finals since independence was all but secured, and now they must triumph in Poland to extinguish Slovenia's reignited hopes. Slovakia just about saw off Poland 2-1 at home earlier in the campaign, but their opponents were well-placed themselves until dropping off the pace in recent weeks and kicked off their bid by holding Slovenia to a 1-1 draw.
The other games
Portugal now stand every chance of pipping Sweden to the Group 1 runners-up spot after moving into position at the weekend. With home advantage on their side, Carlos Queiroz's men need only see off a Malta team without a point and having conceded 22 goals to be sure of cementing themselves in second spot, though Cristiano Ronaldo is injured and will be absent. Dismay abounds in the Sweden camp, meanwhile, with Saturday's 1-0 loss in Denmark leaving plenty of scars. Coach Lars Lagerback has announced he will stand down "either after the World Cup in South Africa, after the play-offs or after the match against Albania", and chances are that Wednesday will spell the end of his reign.
In Group 2, uncertainty persists as the final hurdle approaches. A single point at home against Israel would be enough to take Switzerland through to their ninth FIFA World Cup finals, but their opponents will come hungry to claim a play-off berth. Closest rivals Greece are unlikely to slip up either as they welcome Luxembourg while keeping one ear open for news from Basel.
Four sides can still hope for something in Group 3, with Slovakia, Slovenia, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic all competing for the play-offs at the very least. Currently second, Slovenia travel to San Marino looking to add to the 44 goals their hosts have conceded and improve their goal difference in the hope that Slovakia fall short in Poland, while the Czechs take on Northern Ireland desperate to do all they can to keep their faint play-off hopes alive.
Ukraine are favourites to finish runners-up in Group 6, meanwhile, needing a win away against an Andorra team that has shipped 33 goals to keep themselves out of Croatia's reach, no matter how their rivals fare in Kazakhstan. Slaven Bilic's troops no doubt owe their predicament to home-and-away defeats by England, Wayne Rooney and Co having exacted a measure of revenge for Croatia's role in denying them a trip to UEFA EURO 2008 last year.
Elsewhere, all matters have been settled in Groups 4, 5, 7 and 8. At least one match ought to provide plenty of interest, though, with Group 5 winners Spain heading to second-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina looking to win their tenth consecutive match in the campaign, despite the absences of injured trio Daniel Guiza, Carlos Machena and Xavi, suspended defender Carles Puyol and midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who misses out for family reasons.
Player to watch
Having contested just three international matches since his naturalisation, Portuguese striker Liedson da Silva Muniz - or Liedson for short - has already plundered two goals. Should he find the back of the net against Malta, he will improve that already impressive ratio and no doubt help his adopted nation grab a definitive hold on a play-off place.
9 - Scorer of four goals on Saturday, Theofanis Gekas joined Wayne Rooney at the top of the scoring charts in European qualifying, but both will need to be wary of eight-goal Bosnian marksman Edin Dzeko. Who will come out on top after Wednesday's encounters?
What they said
"We've achieved nothing for the moment and first we need to finish the job." Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland coach
Have your say
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