The qualification race for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has been gripping in Europe thus far. While the Netherlands and Russia have stood out from the crowd, winning all their games to move within reach of a ticket, world and continental champions Spain have been unable to shake off France in Group I.
There have been surprises too, with Switzerland topping Group E thanks to three wins and a draw, while Montenegro lie two points clear of England at Group H's summit. In contrast, Turkey have already suffered a trio of defeats in Group D, Serbia lie six points shy of Belgium and Croatia in Group A, and Portugal trail Russia by five in Group F. FIFA.com takes stock of the situation.
The most important goal of the campaign so far undoubtedly came at the Estadio Vicente Calderon on 16 October, when France's Olivier Giroud rescued a 1-1 draw against Spain in the third minute of added time. The Arsenal striker's effort was no more than just reward for Les Bleus after they had mounted serious second-half pressure against the under-par reigning champions.
Giroud's late intervention also prevented Spain from recording a remarkable 25th consecutive win in FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship qualifiers. Prior to France's visit, La Roja had last dropped points in a 1-1 draw with Iceland on 8 September 2007 – which, of course, did not prevent them from reaching UEFA EURO 2008 and going on to lift the trophy.
73 – The number of players Cesare Prandelli has fielded since he took the Italy reins at the end of South Africa 2010. With those resources, he has posted the worthy record so far of 16 wins, eight draws and seven defeats. "We've changed," he said recently. "Our style of play isn't just more attacking but, above all, more varied. We've found more alternative ways to play."
What they said
Vicente del Bosque, Spain coach: "In midfield, we have two or three players who have achieved tactical perfection, but a few teams have caused us a lot of problems. These qualifiers are a long way from over."
Gary Lineker's famous maxim about football being a simple game "and, at the end, the Germans win" was left in tatters by Sweden's stunning comeback from 4-0 down in the last 28 minutes in Berlin. With an hour gone, Joachim Low's charges were excellent value for their handsome advantage and looked set to streak even further clear in the group, only for Zlatan Ibrahimovic's header to immediately sow doubts in German minds. This may be one of the most talented Germany teams of all time, but their mental strength was given a serious examination that night – and the results left Low with much to ponder. Panic set in, passes went astray, his players dropped deep, and they forgot the basics until Rasmus Elm capped the astonishing turnaround in added time. It would not be hyperbole to suggest that the mental frailty of the three-time FIFA World Cup winners has perhaps been the biggest surprise of the qualifiers so far.
An array of big games now lie in wait, and not least in the sections where two teams are vying for control. Indeed, all eyes will be on the meeting between Group A rivals Croatia and Belgium on 11 October, while Germany and Sweden cross paths again on 15 October, Bosnia-Herzegovina tackle Greece in Group G on 22 March, and France host Spain four days after that.
The situation is even tighter between Montenegro, England and Poland in Group H, with the Poles three points behind the Three Lions but boasting a game in hand. As a result, the two matches between Montenegro and England on 26 March and 11 October ought to be penned into diaries everywhere, as should the potentially decisive contests between Poland and Montenegro on 6 September, and England and Poland on 15 October.
Meanwhile, Portugal's home encounter with Russia on 7 June is likely to be a tense occasion, as the Iberian hopefuls will likely need nothing short of victory if they are to retain a chance of qualifying automatically.