The tension is mounting - the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is approaching fast. After the qualifying groups were drawn in Durban at the end of November 2007, the European teams have been busy drawing up a fixture list, with the matchdays for Groups 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 now set in stone.
England fans will already have noted down 10 September in their diaries. That is the date when the first of the Group 6 revenge matches will be played, pitting the Three Lions against the team that sent them crashing out of the UEFA EURO 2008 qualifiers. New England coach Fabio Capello will be taking his squad to Croatia with a lot of painful memories to erase.
The third matchday has thrown up a number of absolutely cracking ties. On 11 October 2008, Sweden will host Portugal in Group 1 while in Group 7 on the same evening, FIFA World Cup runners up France will head to Romania and Germany will face Russia in Group 4. Champions Italy also travel to Bulgaria. These will be the first real tests for the favourites, some three-and-a-half months after the final of EURO 2008 which will be held on 29 June in Vienna.
Group 1 will see an all-Scandinavian showdown on the penultimate matchday (10 October 2009) between Denmark and Sweden. Portugal, who finished fourth at Germany 2006, are in the same group and finish their campaign with home ties against Hungary and then Malta on 14 October 2009. Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates will have a tougher time of it at the beginning of the qualifiers, facing Denmark on 10 September before having to travel to Sweden straight afterwards.
The date 6 September will be a case of déjà vu for the French. After taking part in the UEFA EURO 2008 in Switzerland and Austria, Les Bleus will travel straight back across the Alps to Austria for their opening South Africa 2010 qualifier. The final three matchdays should provide some fireworks in this particular group: on 9 September 2009 France travel to Serbia, with the latter hosting Romania on 10 October 2009. Four days later, the 1998 FIFA World Cup winners will finish off their campaign with the return match against Austria.
Part two of England's revenge mission against Croatia will take place on the ante-penultimate matchday, with Capello's men at home this time. There will then follow a nervous 30-day wait from 9 September until 10 October 2009, when the 1966 world champions travel to Ukraine for their last-but-one match. Italy also face a nervy hiatus as they will play host to Bulgaria and then have to travel to the Republic of Ireland on the same dates.
Germany's toughest match on paper will come on the penultimate matchday, when the hosts of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ have to travel to Russia in a match which could well decide who goes to South Africa. Michael Ballack and Co. then face Finland at home for their final group match. Coincidentally, Finland it was who hosted Germany in the final qualifier for Korea/Japan 2002, holding them to a goalless draw. Rudi Voller's team had to be content with the play-offs but still managed to qualify after winning their two-legged tie against Ukraine.
In Group 9, top seeds The Netherlands will be playing catch-up right from the off, since they do not have a game on the opening matchday on 6 September. Marco van Basten's team will face their first big test on 15 October when the two-time FIFA World Cup runners-up travel to Norway, before playing host to the Scots on 28 March 2009.
Norway and Scotland should, on paper, be the closest rivals of the Oranje, and these two teams meet on 11 October 2008 - the same matchday which will see the favourites in a number of other groups clashing for the first time. And as was the case with the recent Euro qualifiers, Scotland's fiercely passionate Tartan Army may have to endure another dramatic showdown on the final day when their side host The Netherlands on 9 September 2009.
Groups 2 and 5 could not find an agreement for the fixture list of the preliminary competition, so FIFA will conduct a draw during the UEFA Congress in Zagreb on 30 January 2008.
The full match calendar for these five European qualifying groups can be found here in PDF format.