Two former FIFA World Cup™ winners and the current world champions face headline-grabbing encounters on Tuesday in the European Zone's sixth round of matches on the road to Brazil 2014.
Victors at the global showpiece in 1998, France tackle South Africa 2010 winners Spain in Group I, while 1966 champions England visit Montenegro in Group H, with both games looking crucial for the fortunes of the teams involved.
Elsewhere, 15 other contests are due to unfold. For Group B leaders Italy that means an away trip to Malta. Germany and the Netherlands, top dogs in groups C and D respectively, will also be aiming to move a step closer to South America when they take on Kazakhstan and Romania.
For the first time since 2008, Spain seem to have entered a period of doubt. The world and European champions are unlikely to find much reassurance in statistics, but amid all the introspection it is still worth noting that they have gone 49 matches without defeat in FIFA World Cup qualifying and are unbeaten in 24 competitive games. In addition, coach Vicente Del Bosque has suffered just two losses in 69 outings since taking the reins five years ago.
Yet despite all that pedigree, draws against France and Finland have left La Roja playing catch-up. "Spain are masters of our own destiny," insists Del Bosque, but his side are left needing to win at the Stade de France to haul themselves back on top of the Group I standings. To do that, they will have to be a lot more clinical than against Finland, and will be hoping that the return of Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez bolsters their midfield. David Villa's expected move back to a central role ought to lend them more punch. Spain's predicament is reminiscent of Barcelona's ahead of their 4-0 UEFA Champions League triumph against AC Milan earlier this month.
Many of Spain's stars were in the Barça side that silenced its critics that evening, and France will be wary of a similar response on Tuesday. That said, Didier Deschamps' men have grown in stature since their 1-1 draw in Madrid last October. Les Bleus look to have deepened their resources as well, with Raphael Varane impressing in defence and Paul Pogba displaying many of the qualities of former France great Patrick Vieira. If Karim Benzema can find the net after 929 goalless international minutes, and Mathieu Valbuena continues to make an impact, France could yet add to the woes of a legendary Spanish team hungry to prove they are not in decline.
Belgium and Croatia remain neck and neck at the head of the section on 13 points, with first place almost certain to be settled when the duo lock horns in Zagreb on 11 October. Before that, however, Les Diables Rouges need to follow up Friday's 2-0 win against FYR Macedonia with another success against the same opponents, while Igor Stimac's troops will aim to do likewise against Wales, who they overcame 2-0 at home last October.
While Italy's assignment in Malta ought not to pose Mario Balotelli and Co too many conundrums, Bulgaria's away trip to Denmark looks set to be a fascinating encounter. Like Italy, Bulgaria are unbeaten so far, having helped their goal difference with a 6-0 defeat of Malta on Friday, but Denmark have also hit form thanks to an eye-catching 3-0 triumph in the Czech Republic. Victory for the Scandinavian side would propel them right back into the race for a play-off spot, whereas a win for Bulgaria would keep them in the running for top spot.
Republic of Ireland-Austria
With Sweden not in action, Germany will be keen to increase their advantage at the section summit at home to Kazakhstan. They should be on the goals trail too, with Joachim Low's men currently sitting level with Bosnia-Herzegovina as joint-highest scorers in the European Zone on 18. Bastian Schweinsteiger will miss the game due to suspension, but Low has called up Dortmund's Sven Bender as a replacement.
Beaten 4-1 by the Netherlands on home soil, Romania have no illusions as to the scale of the task facing them in Amsterdam. The Oranje have proved adept at qualification campaigns in recent years and they have remained true to that tradition by winning all five of their fixtures so far. As for Hungary, they downed Turkey 3-1 in Budapest and could strengthen their grip on second place if they can inflict a fourth Group D defeat on their hosts in Istanbul.
Held to a goalless draw by Cyprus on Saturday, Switzerland enjoy a two-point lead at the top of the section ahead of Albania and Iceland. No matches are scheduled in this group on Tuesday.
Having just about salvaged a 3-3 draw in Israel, Portugal can no longer afford to drop points ahead of their critical encounter with Russia on 7 June. Tuesday's trip to Azerbaijan may appear a straightforward task on paper, but Portugal have suffered a drop in confidence and will be without both the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo and injured winger Nani. For their part, Israel will be hoping the second most prolific marksman in the European Zone, Tomer Hemed, can add to his six goals as they look to keep pace with the Portuguese by sealing a third victory thus far in Northern Ireland.
No matches are scheduled in this group until 7 June.
England have trailed Montenegro by two points since being held to a draw in Poland on 17 October, but they have two games against the section leaders to assert their qualification claims. Roy Hodgson's men warmed up for the first instalment by strolling to an 8-0 success against San Marino on Friday, while Montenegro were forced to dig deep to post a slender 1-0 victory in Moldova. England could only draw 0-0 and 2-2 against their upcoming opponents on the road to UEFA EURO 2012, and they will need to be wary of a team that has recorded five wins and a draw in their last six matches.
Player to watch
Montenegro striker Mirko Vucinic is more than just the team's captain – he is the very soul of the side as well. His country's first ever goalscorer when they overcame Hungary 2-1 in their maiden international on 24 March 2007, the 29-year-old has spearheaded all their efforts since, racking up 14 goals in 33 outings. He may not be the most dangerous player in the air, despite standing 1.86m tall, but he is a powerful presence and a fierce striker of the ball, not to mention a leader of men who knows all the tricks of the trade after 13 seasons in Serie A. Expect the Juventus forward to pose England their greatest threat on Tuesday.
126 – The number of caps Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will have won after Tuesday's game against Malta. That will draw him level with Paolo Maldini and leave him ten shy of Azzurri record holder Fabio Cannavaro. "These records don't matter," commented Buffon, before adding: "Still, it would be exceptional to reach 150."
What they said
"I love team work, not individual glory. We all want to go [to the World Cup] and make that dream come true for the Belgian people. It's a mission," Marc Wilmots, Belgium coach.
Have your say
Will England and France finish top of their groups?