There are 14 games in seven groups in the European Zone this weekend as the battle for places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is rejoined. Attracting most of the attention will be the Netherlands, who boast a 100 per cent record after five games in Group 9 and can become the continent's first team to qualify for the finals if they win in Iceland.
The big game
Iceland-Netherlands, Laugardalsvollur, Reykjavik, Saturday 6 June, 18.45 (local time)
After taking over from Marco van Basten a little under a year ago, Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk has engineered a tightly knit side that is organised at the back and ruthless up front. The charismatic 56-year-old has also brought some order to a dressing room filled with star names and some big personalities, helping the Oranje to put together a flawless qualification campaign so far. In scoring 12 goals and conceding just the one, the Dutch have taken maximum points from their opening five games and stand top of the section.
Eight points clear of second-placed Scotland, Van Marwijk's side are already virtually assured of a place in South Africa and can make absolutely sure of that objective with victory in Reykjavik tomorrow. 2-0 winners in the first group meeting between the teams, the Dutch will be hindered by the absence of Real Madrid playmaker Wesley Sneijder and PSV midfielder Ibrahim Afellay through injury. Poised to make his international debut in their place is young Twente striker Eljero Elia.
The other games
Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Denmark face off in a high-stakes encounter in Group 1. Lars Lagerback's team have collected one win and three goalless draws in their four matches so far and are seven points adrift of the table-topping Danes, albeit with a game in hand. Defeat could thus be fatal for the Swedes, who are looking to 37-year-old captain Henrik Larsson and Inter Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to lead them to an urgently needed triumph.
Tied on points with Sweden are a misfiring Portugal side that have played the same number of games as the Danes. Cristiano Ronaldo and Co travel to Albania this weekend intent on making up for last October's goalless draw between the two sides, a result made all the more disappointing by the fact the Albanians played most of the second half with ten men. And while the eastern Europeans have no chance of qualifying, Lorik Cana and his team-mates will no doubt be anxious to impress their new Croatian coach Josif Kuze.
Slovakia will have their sights set on taking over at the top of Group 3 when they entertain minnows San Marino. The Slovakians are one point behind section leaders Northern Ireland having played two games less. Victory tomorrow will also take them five points clear of Poland in third and seven ahead of Czech Republic and Slovenia with four games remaining.
The picture is a good deal clearer at the summit of Group 6. Fabio Capello's improving England side have taken a leaf out of Netherlands' book by winning their first five games, a run that upcoming opponents Kazakhstan and Andorra, who have conceded 30 goals between them so far, seem powerless to halt.
In Zagreb, meanwhile, Croatia and Ukraine will continue their duel for second place. The men from the Balkans salvaged some pride following their 4-1 home defeat to England by earning a notable 0-0 draw in Kharkov in October. Still without the goalscoring services of Eduardo da Silva, the Croats need three points on Saturday, however, to keep some kind of pressure on the English.
Group 7 pacesetters Serbia can open up a five-point lead over France if they beat the fading Austrians, while Romania, who are now engaged in a rebuilding process under Razvan Lucescu, will pit their wits against third-placed Lithuania.
And in Group 8 Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland side face another stern test after April's creditable 1-1 draw in Italy. The Irish, who lie second in the section, travel to Sofia to take on Bulgaria, who are in urgent need of a win to maintain their play-off chances.
Player to watch
Ivica Olic (Croatia)
The 29-year-old Croatia striker has already appeared in two FIFA World Cup finals (2002, 2006). Yet, if Olic is to complete a hat-trick, he and his team-mates will need to beat Ukraine. As he told FIFA.com in an interview earlier this week: "We can't afford any more slip-ups."
0 - the number of games Netherlands have lost to Iceland in nine meetings. The Dutch, who have the incentive of qualifying for South Africa 2010 if they win on Saturday, have won eight of those games and drawn one, scoring 31 goals in the process and conceding just three.
What they said
"If we don't win in Albania, we won't be at the World Cup," Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo.
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