Three of Europe's leading international sides are gearing up for decisive encounters this weekend. Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic are all desperate for three points to keep them in the hunt for places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Runners-up in the last global showcase, France will also be feeling the heat as they welcome Romania, four days before making the trip to Serbia.
In total, 45 matches have been scheduled for Saturday and Wednesday, taking in two of the last four matchdays in the European Zone. Only the Netherlands are so far assured of representing the Old Continent in South Africa next summer.
The big match
Denmark-Portugal, Group 1, Copenhagen, 20h00 (local time)
Bolstered by the best attack in the section (13 goals) and the most miserly defence (two goals conceded), Morten Olsen's Denmark are still unbeaten in Group 1 following five wins and a draw. That record has given the Danes a three-point lead over closest challengers Hungary, not to mention a healthy seven-point cushion from pre-qualifying favourites Portugal and Sweden. That said, Carlos Queiroz's Portugal are not out of the running yet. Bruno Alves's last-gasp strike in their 2-1 victory in Albania kept their hopes alive and they would give their prospects another major boost with maximum points in Copenhagen.
In an attempt to find a system better suited to getting everything out of his key individuals, Queiroz could decide to finally discard the 4-2-3-1 strategy favoured by his predecessor, Luiz Felipe Scolari. In its place, he may well opt for a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield designed to give as much freedom as possible to Cristiano Ronaldo.
The other games
Surprise contenders in Group 1, Hungary could consolidate their position in the top two spots by seeing off a Sweden team boasting six goals from six games - four of those having come against Malta - and facing three away trips in their final four outings. Erwin Koeman's side must nonetheless fare without vital Debrecen centre-back Laszlo Bodnar, traumatised after causing an accidental death on the road last week.
In Group 2, joint-leaders Switzerland and Greece meet in Basel to dispute sole control of the section, while any eventual winner in the game between Israel and Latvia would leave themselves well-placed in the race for a play-off berth.
The tension will be palpable in Bratislava, meanwhile, as Group 3 strugglers the Czech Republic face a derby match that could deal their chances a definitive blow. Slovakia go into the encounter on a high and averaging almost three goals per game, but in the opposition camp Ivan Hasek has called up former stalwarts Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller, absent since January and June 2008 respectively. Midfielder Jan Polak will miss out through injury. Should the Slovaks slip up and Poland prevail at home against Northern Ireland, the face of the group would change completely, leaving five teams with a realistic shot at sealing first place.
With Group 4 frontrunners Germany not involved in competitive action, Russia will be keen to see off visitors Liechtenstein and climb to within a point of the summit ahead of their meeting with the Mannschaft in Moscow on 10 October.
Spain look untouchable in Group 5 thanks to six consecutive victories, but the fight for a play-off ticket remains intense, with Bosnia-Herzegovina four points clear of Wednesday's visitors Turkey and looking increasingly capable of clinching second place in the pool. A Bosnian win in Armenia would put Turkey under even more pressure, particularly as Fatih Terim's forward line are currently struggling for goals.
In Group 6, Croatia and Ukraine will reprise their battle for runners-up spot at home against Belarus and Andorra respectively, with England comfortably ahead and not scheduled for a competitive game.
For their part, France lie five points shy of Serbia while possessing a game in hand and retain a serious chance of topping Group 7. First place in the section will surely come down to the contest between the two rivals in Belgrade on Wednesday, but before that the 2006 runners-up must find their feet going forward again and overcome a Romania side deprived of dangerous striker Adrian Mutu.
Somewhat under the radar, Marcello Lippi is successfully rebuilding world champions Italy thanks to a number of new faces who have helped the team rise to the top of Group 8. The newcomers will again be called upon to shine in Georgia on Saturday, with the likes of Domenico Criscito, Claudio Marchisio, Federico Marchetti and Gaetano D'Agostino all expected to feature. Elsewhere, the Republic of Ireland must collect at least a point in Cyprus to keep play-off challengers Bulgaria at a suitable distance.
The Netherlands have already sewn up first place in Group 9, of course, and that means Scotland and FYR Macedonia will put their play-off aspirations on the line when they lock horns in Glasgow. Norway have not given up on finishing second either, and they visit Iceland on Saturday before welcoming the Macedonians on Wednesday.
Player to watch
Still finding his feet at Barcelona after a high-profile summer move, Zlatan Ibrahimovic - with just one goal in the past year for Sweden - will be hoping that opening his account in La Liga augers well for a return to form on the international stage.
With four rounds of matches left to play, eight teams remain unbeaten: Denmark in Group 1, Germany in Group 4, Spain in Group 5, England in Group 6, the Netherlands in Group 9 and a trio of sides in Group 8, namely Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria.
What they said
"I'm still not 100 per cent but I feel I can still be useful to my team. In footballing terms, I don't think I've forgotten anything or lost anything," Tomas Rosicky, due to represent the Czech Republic 20 months after his last cap.
Have your say
Will Portugal succeed in reaching the promised land? Which European sides will prove capable of negotiating the entire qualification campaign without tasting defeat?