Portugal will go into qualifying for South Africa 2010 as favourites to top Group 1 although they can expect tough competition, particularly from the Nordic duo of Sweden and Denmark.
The Portuguese, semi-finalists at Germany 2006, are enjoying arguably the most successful era in their history, their name having appeared in five successive major tournaments from UEFA EURO 2000 through to EURO 2008. The aim will be to extend that sequence to six and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will believe he has the resources to do that, not least in midfield where he can call on the creative talents of players like Ricardo Quaresma, Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa.
Sweden may have less flair at their disposal but their team
ethic has brought them equal success in qualifying campaigns over
the past decade. They got the better of neighbours Denmark en route
to EURO 2008 and will be aiming for more of the same this time. The
Danes will be hoping for the contrary, of course, having missed out
on the last FIFA World Cup finals in addition to the 2008 European
Portugal boast a FIFA World Cup-winning coach in Luiz Felipe Scolari and a production line of talented youngsters that is the envy of most countries in Europe. In addition to their aforementioned star names, they also have emerging young talents like winger Nani and defensive midfielder Miguel Veloso who are eager to make their mark.
Denmark: The Danes have endured a lean time since they exited EURO 2004 at the quarter-final stage but they will be keen to make amends for recent disappointments by securing a place at what would be their fourth FIFA World Cup finals.
Hungary: The legacy of the great Ferenc Puskas-led team of the 1950s has weighed heavily on the shoulders of subsequent generations of Hungarian players. You have to go back to 1986 for Hungary's last finals appearance but that will not stop the more romantic-minded football watchers hoping for signs of a Magyar revival on the road to South Africa.
The players to watch
Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Miguel Veloso (POR), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE), Nicklas Bendtner (DEN)
The crunch match
If Portugal are favourites to progress then the meetings between Sweden and Denmark could well determine who provides Scolari's team with their greatest competition. In EURO 2008 qualifying, the Swedes took four points off Denmark to ensure they advanced alongside Spain and the latest round of Nordic derbies should prove just as telling.
A look back
Denmark 3-3 Sweden (match abandoned), 2 June 2006, Copenhagen
A low point for Danish football came in this EURO 2008 qualifier, which was abandoned in the final minute when a fan ran on to the pitch at the Parken Stadium and attacked referee Herbert Fandel following his decision to award the Swedes a last-minute penalty. Sweden were handed a 3-0 victory and the Danes' campaign dealt a fatal blow.
13 - The number of goals that Sweden put past Malta in qualifying for Germany 2006. Lars Lagerback's side prevailed 7-0 in Malta in September 2004 - Ibrahimovic scoring four of them - and then 6-0 at home the following June.
Did you know?
Sweden and Denmark have met 100 times before, with Sweden recording 46 victories to their rivals' 36.
Portugal and Sweden are two of the continent's most consistent sides when it comes to reaching the big tournaments. Can they both continue their impressive recent records or will another contender - most likely, Denmark - upset their plans?