Europe is gearing up for a seventh batch of qualifiers on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with 17 games set to mark the end of the season before the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 gets under way.
The meeting between Group F rivals Portugal and Russia in Lisbon is the most eagerly anticipated fixture on the menu, as the likes of Germany, Spain, England and the Netherlands are all exempt from action.
No fewer than 13 teams remain unbeaten with five games to go in the qualifying process, although the Netherlands and Russia are the only sides yet to drop a single point.
Match of the day
Portugal-Russia, Group F, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Friday 7 June, 20.45
This is crunch time for Portugal in their attempt to catch group leaders Russia, who lie one point clear of both Paulo Bento's men and Israel, having played two games fewer. Portugal lost 1-0 on an artificial pitch at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium earlier in the campaign and faced further frustration in a 1-1 home draw against Northern Ireland, meaning they can afford no more slip-ups.
That may explain why Bento – already without the suspended Pepe – has dropped Antunes, Carlos Martins, Paulo Machado and Pizzi, while recalling Ricardo Costa, Ruben Amorim, Ruben Micael and Nelson Oliveira. Cristiano Ronaldo missed the last Liga game of the season, but Bento will be anxious for another decisive display from the Real Madrid forward, especially as Nani has endured a difficult year. The coach also sprung a surprise by selecting Sporting Lisbon midfielder Andre Martins and Wolfsburg forward Vieirinha.
In the opposition camp, Fabio Capello has sided with experience by placing his faith in the old guard of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Pavel Pogrebnyak and, above all, former Russia captain Andrei Arshavin, who regains his place after a spell out.
The other matches
Comfortably beaten 3-0 at home by Belgium last October, and with just one point to show from their three previous away games, Serbia have few illusions regarding the scale of the challenge that awaits them in Brussels. Les Diables Rouges lead the way on goal difference, but they will be missing injured vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen, while a late decision will have to be made on Eden Hazard's fitness. As for Croatia, they will be optimistic of taking maximum points against a Scotland side already out of the running and looking to blood new talent.
Five points off the top in third, the Czech Republic will need to go for broke against an Italy team high on confidence. The signs are less than optimistic for Michal Bilek's young line-up, however, particularly as they have only mustered six strikes in their five games so far. Italy seem to be going from strength to strength, meanwhile, with coach Cesare Prandelli overseeing attractive play and an attacking mentality, combined with a solid rearguard drawn largely from the ranks of Juventus.
Republic of Ireland-Faroe Islands
With leaders Germany a long way out in front, Austria and Sweden will face off looking to press their respective claims to a play-off spot. The two sides have met seven times previously in FIFA World Cup qualifying, notching three wins apiece, and they currently sit on eight points along with Ireland. Sweden have played one match fewer than their rivals, though, and they will once again be hoping for great things from insatiable forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who warmed up with an assist in the side's 1-0 friendly defeat of FYR Macedonia on Sunday.
Switzerland-Cyprus (Saturday 8 June)
Top of the table with a two-point cushion, Switzerland failed to turn domination into goals when their last encounter with Cyprus ended goalless earlier in the campaign. That is undoubtedly why coach Ottmar Hitzfeld – who will be serving the second game of a suspension – has brought young Zurich forwards Josip Drmic and Mario Gavranovic back into the fold. Nothing short of a win will do for the Swiss as surprise challengers Iceland and Albania are both scheduled for home games.
The two section stragglers will be desperate to prevail, not least since bottom place beckons for the loser.
Away trips await the top three sides, but pacesetters Bosnia-Herzegovina and third-placed Slovakia will both be confident of returning home with victories. The Bosnians enjoy a three-point gap at the summit and have racked up an average of 3.5 goals per game thus far, while Slovakia are due to visit basement side Liechtenstein. Two points better off than Slovakia, Greece face a more testing encounter against a Lithuania side that still harbours dreams of finishing second.
Enjoying a two-point lead over England, who are not in action, Montenegro will be keen to bolster their advantage when they are reunited with Ukraine. Branko Brnovic's troops beat their upcoming opponents 1-0 in October and realise they can no longer afford to drop points at home, having been held 2-2 by Poland last time out and with away visits to the Poles and England still to come. As for the visitors, Waldemar Fornalik's men are rebuilding in the wake of their disappointing UEFA EURO 2012 campaign and can climb within a single point of the Three Lions.
Finland will be eager to post their first win of the group against the side sitting second from bottom.
Player to watch
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be the player most commonly associated with Sweden, but surely few men have represented the Blågult with greater distinction down the years than 36-year-old Anders Svensson. Sweden's longest-serving player, the midfielder made his debut in 1999 and boasts 139 appearances, and needs just five more to displace his compatriot Thomas Ravelli as Europe's most-capped player. "I'll carry on playing for as long as I feel good and my body keeps doing what my head asks of it," he told FIFA.com. "Physically, I probably feel better than I did when I was 20."
18 – The number of clubs, from nine different European countries, to have at least one representative in Paulo Bento's 26-man Portugal squad. Six of those players ply their trade in their homeland.
What they said
"We've integrated some young players who are very talented in technical terms and who, in some cases, are already playing for big European clubs. It feels like the flow of good young players isn't going to stop any time soon. Icelandic football has a bright future," Birkir Saevarsson, Iceland defender.
Have your say
Will Iceland go on to seal a place at Brazil 2014?