With four matches to go in the European Zone qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the 26 fixtures scheduled for Matchday Eight on Friday should go a long way to deciding which teams make the journey to South America next summer.
Nine nations (Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, Spain and the Netherlands) remain unbeaten, but only the Dutch have won every single match so far.
There are two clashes in which the top two sides in the pool go head-to-head – Italy-Bulgaria (Group B) and Germany-Austria (Group C) – although neither away team will be able to claim first place in the event of victory.
Several sides face potentially decisive encounters, however. Croatia have a Balkan derby versus Serbia to look forward to in Group A, while Albania travel to Slovenia (Group E) and Portugal lock horns with Northern Ireland (Group F) in order to hang on to second and first place respectively.
Elsewhere, Montenegro, who square off with Poland in Group H, and France, who take on Georgia in Group I, must both pick up three points to stay in with a chance of securing top spot.
The big game
Northern Ireland-Portugal, Group F, Windsor Park, Belfast, 7.45 pm
Just like in 2006, Portugal and Russia are engaged in a closely contested battle for the section’s one automatic qualifying slot. Despite a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Russians in Moscow last December, A Seleção das Quinas now find themselves in pole position in Group F, two points clear of their nearest challengers, having played one game more. In fact, the Lusitanians, who gained revenge at home in June, have also benefitted from the slip-up made by Fabio Capello’s men in Belfast, where the Russians lost to a motivated Northern Ireland.
This Friday, it will be Portugal’s turn to brave the raucous crowd at Windsor Park, where three points will be the target ahead of two final matches at home. But Michael O’Neill’s players have exhibited some unpredictable form in Belfast, beating Russia 1-0 but drawing 1-1 with Luxembourg. Portugal coach Paulo Bento will be without Danny for this crucial duel, but he has brought in the uncapped but promising Porto forward Lica as a replacement.
The other matches
The long-running battle between Belgium and Croatia continues on Friday, but at a distance. Marc Wilmots, whose Diables Rouges have a three-point lead over their group rivals, will board the plane to Scotland with the same players who drew 0-0 with France in a recent friendly, with the exception of the injured Vincent Kompany, and he could possibly hand a debut to 17-year-old wunderkind Zakaria Bakkali at Hampden Park.
The Croatians, still reeling from their shock 1-0 home loss to the Scots on 7 June, can no longer afford to drop any more points and will therefore travel to Serbia seeking to eke out a hard-earned victory.
The Bulgarians, who could cut Italy’s lead to a single point in the event of success in Palermo, would represent a tough test under any circumstances, but the challenge appears even greater for the home side given the absences of Mario Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo, who are all suspended. One piece of good news for Cesare Prandelli is the return of the experienced Thiago Motta, who may prove to be a key player on the night.
Republic of Ireland-Sweden
Despite losing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Gotze through injury, Die Nationalelf should still have enough strength in depth to see off second-placed Austria, whom they overcame 2-1 in Vienna this time last year.
Elsewhere, the team that emerges victorious from the match between Ireland and Sweden will take a huge step towards landing a play-off berth.
Sitting eight points below the Netherlands in third, the Romanians, who have three home matches to come plus a trip to Andorra, know that a win on Friday will see them leapfrog Hungary, who still have to face the Dutch in October.
Leaders Switzerland will be keen to consolidate their four-point advance by disposing of a surprising Iceland side in Berne, especially as tricky away encounters in Norway and Albania await around the corner.
The fight for the play-off spot in Group E promises to be extremely tight, with Albania, Iceland, Norway and perhaps even Slovenia still in with a realistic chance.
Israel-Azerbaijan (7 September)
In Group F’s other match, Israel must gain three points at the expense of Azerbaijan on Saturday if they are to stand any chance of finishing second.
Bosnia-Herzegovina deservedly top the table in Group G, having scored an average of nearly four goals per match, and almost as many goals as the five other teams put together (23 versus 27).
Three points back, the Greeks are ready to pounce on any Bosnian slip-up, but an inferior head-to-head record (1-3, 0-0) puts them at a distinct disadvantage.
In spite of the absences of Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Glen Johnson, Roy Hodgson plans to take advantage of the visit of Moldova to put pressure on first-placed Montenegro, who have played a game more and are confronted with a tough-looking assignment in Poland. The Poles, for their part, sit fourth but will still fancy their chances of snatching second spot in the section.
Held to a 1-1 draw by a spirited Finland team in Gijon earlier in the campaign, world champions Spain will journey north for the return fixture without Sergio Busquets and Inigo Martinez.
Principal challengers France, who lie just one point behind La Roja, must cope with an equally difficult voyage to Georgia. The Jvarosnebi will take strength from the fact that Didier Deschamps’ charges have failed to find the net in their last four encounters.
Player to watch
Karim Benzema (25 years old, 59 caps, 15 goals) has not hit the back of the net for Les Bleus since 5 June 2012, which corresponds to 1,155 minutes of play. The goal drought is likely to be disconcerting for such a talented attacker, but also for the team as a whole, which often lines up with just one striker in a 4-3-2-1 formation.
28 – The number of FIFA World Cup qualifiers that the Netherlands have gone unbeaten, a record-breaking run which has featured 14 wins. The Oranje have not lost a qualifying match for FIFA’s flagship tournament since 1 September 2001, when they suffered a 1-0 reverse to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
What they said
“I fully support Iker Casillas because he is the captain of the national team and he has played a key role in the history of Spanish football. He’s going through a difficult time. It’s an awkward situation for everyone, but especially for him,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque
Have your say
Will the Netherlands win all of their qualifying matches?