Making predictions looks a dangerous game in a section containing three sides who will all set out with real hopes of finishing top. “There are no favourites,” said Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek, who feels his charges can pip Norway and Switzerland to first place. “We can beat anyone and we’ve proved that in the past.”
The race for the automatic qualifying berth is thus likely to be both enthralling and hard-fought in Group E, with Norway knowing they have little margin for error and Switzerland ready to pounce on the slightest stumble by their rivals.
After signposting their progress in an encouraging 2010 FIFA World Cup™ campaign that almost saw them reach the knockout phase, Slovenia have continued proving they can compete with the best during UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying. Above all, they possess in young striker Tim Matavz the revelation of the 2010/11 Eredivisie season, his talents combining well with those of gifted stalwarts Valter Birsa and Zlatko Dedic.
Winners of both their previous FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Slovenia, 3-0 at home in October 2004 and 3-2 away in September 2005, Norway have not graced the global stage since 1998. However, they will hope to end that barren spell with a line-up still featuring veterans John Carew and Steven Iversen, in addition to the Riise brothers: John Arne and Bjorn Helge.
Coach Egil Olsen certainly knows all about reaching FIFA World Cup final tournaments as he oversaw Norway’s runs to USA 1994 and France 1998, being reappointed in January 2009 and kept on after his side finished second to the Netherlands in South Africa 2010 qualifying.
Victors over eventual world champions Spain in their opening game, Switzerland still ended up falling at the first hurdle at South Africa 2010. The EURO 2008 co-hosts were thus unable to match their exploits at Germany 2006, where Die Nati were beaten on penalties by Ukraine in the Round of 16.
German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has built a side famed for its rigid rearguard, but work still needs to be done further up the pitch and he must cope with the retirements of key men Alexander Frei, Stephane Grichting and Marco Streller. If the players who clinched the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 title are still not ready to make the step up by the time qualifying begins in September 2012, the Helvetians could struggle.
Albania, meanwhile, continue to improve and with Lazio midfielder Lorik Cana pulling the strings they could ruffle more than a few feathers along the way. The Eagles came closest to reaching the main event during their Germany 2006 bid, before confirming their promise with draws against Sweden and Portugal ahead of South Africa 2010.
Players to watch
John Carew, Mohammed Abdellaoue, Brede Hangeland, John Arne Riise (NOR); Tim Matavz, Valter Birsa, Zlatko Dedic, Milivoje Novakovic, Josip Ilicic (SLO); Eren Derdiyok, Gokhan Inler, Stephan Lichtsteiner (SUI); Lorik Cana, Hamdi Salihi (ALB); Johann Gudmundsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson (ISL).
The crunch match
Slovenia-Norway: Usually solid on home soil, Norway will travel to the Balkans keen for a repeat of their qualifying success from 2005. In fact, first place in the section and a ticket to Brazil 2014 could well ride on that meeting between the two favourites.
A look back
Switzerland are unlikely to forget the stinging 5-0 reverse they suffered in Oslo on 10 September 1997. Tackling their Norwegian hosts on the road to France 1998, Die Nati went in on level terms at half-time only to collapse after the break. In all, they have lost four of their FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Norway and won just two, while their record against Slovenia reads one draw and one defeat.
3 – The number of teams in Group E currently placed 30th or higher in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. No other section in the European Zone boasts as many.
Did you know?
Switzerland must find a way to cope without one of the most prolific marksmen in FIFA World Cup preliminary games. Recently retired from the international scene, Alexander Frei racked up 17 goals in three campaigns – a superb tally given that the record, held by Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko, is 26.
Have your say
Could Switzerland secure first place in their group despite being in Pot 3 during the Preliminary Draw?