There are 20 qualifying matches across Europe this weekend as the battle for places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ intensifies. Adding to the tension, some 12 teams have unbeaten records to defend, including England, the Netherlands and Spain, all three of whom have collected maximum points so far.
Several of Europe's other major powers will need to guard against complacency when they take on seemingly inferior rivals anxious to boost their reputations. One heavyweight facing a potential pitfall are injury-ravaged Italy, who face an awkward mission in Montenegro, while France have little margin for error on their trip to Lithuania.
The big game
Israel-Greece, National Stadium, Ramat Gan, Saturday 28 March, 21.00 (local time)
Israel are in with a realistic chance of returning to the FIFA World Cup nearly 40 years after their one and only appearance. To maintain their hopes of qualifying automatically from Group 2, Dror Kashtan's side need to preserve their unbeaten status in a double-header with direct rivals and leaders Greece, the first instalment of which takes place on Saturday. Much will depend on whether Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun can make a full recovery from his injury niggles.
The Greeks, meanwhile, will be keen to erase memories of a 2-1 home defeat by Switzerland last October, and an uninspiring 1-1 friendly draw with Denmark in February. Their task will be made harder by the absence of experienced defender Kostas Katsouranis through suspension.
The other games
After a solitary win in their opening four games in Group 1, Portugal cannot afford to slip up at home to a Sweden side equally in need of points. Carlos Queiroz has beefed up his attacking options by bringing in AEK Athens forward Edinho, and will also expect his defenders to show more steel than they have recently. With nearest challengers Hungary and Albania meeting in Tirana, leaders Denmark can consolidate their position at the top if they win in Malta.
Switzerland made a speedy recovery from their astonishing home defeat by Luxembourg last September, and will be looking to young marksman Eren Derdiyok to fire them to victory away to Moldova and bolster their position in Group 2.
Group 3 pacesetters Slovakia have a day off on Saturday, giving the four teams behind them - all of whom are tied on seven points - the chance to take over at the top. Second-placed Northern Ireland entertain Poland, while Slovenia receive a visit from a Czech Republic team continuing to rebuild and still without Tomas Rosicky.
In Group 4, the top three of Germany, Russia and Wales should remain unchanged following their respective assignments against Liechtenstein, Azerbaijan and Finland. The Germans will be under some scrutiny, however, following defeats in their last two friendly outings.
European champions Spain have yet to drop a point in Group 5, and are aiming to keep that record intact in the first half of their double date with Turkey. La Roja should not expect to have things all their own way in Madrid on Saturday, though. Turkey are unbeaten in their four games and welcome back talismanic goalscorer and captain Nihat Kahveci. Belgium lost 2-1 at home to the Spanish in their last match, and can stay in contention for second place if they beat Bosnia-Herzegovina in Genk.
While the combatants in Group 6 enjoy a rest day, the two big guns in Group 7 have plenty of work to do to relaunch their qualification bids. Having accrued only four points in three games, France need to win in Kaunas against section revelations Lithuania, who could be sitting top of the group come the end of the evening. Sitting one place off the bottom, Romania's situation is even more alarming, which makes victory in their home meeting with leaders Serbia imperative.
Italy will battle it out with Republic of Ireland for the leadership of Group 8 next Wednesday. Beforehand, however, the Italians, minus eight first-choice players, face a stern test against the young Montenegrins, while the Irish play host to Bulgaria, the pool's third undefeated team after three consecutive draws.
Finally in Group 9, Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands side can take a major stride towards automatic qualification at home to Scotland, who have been denied the services of Stephen McManus and James McFadden through injury.
Player to watch
Nihat Kahveci (Turkey)
Having made a timely recovery following an operation on his right knee, the forward is aiming to halt Spain's seemingly inexorable march to South Africa 2010, and add to his international haul of 26 goals in 58 matches. The Spanish know all about the threat Nihat poses. In 136 La Liga appearances with Real Sociedad and Villarreal, he has scored an impressive 82 goals.
200 - Germany have scored 199 goals in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and will fancy their chances of breaking the 200 barrier when they host Liechtenstein. The honour of posting their century fell to Klaus Fischer some 18 years ago.
What they said
"The match against Serbia is vital because if we don't win, our chances of qualifying will be over," Romania forward Adrian Mutu.
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