Europe will be on tenterhooks tonight as the penultimate round of games on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ brings the qualifying picture closer to completion. Four teams will be hoping to follow the example of Italy and the Netherlands and seal their places, including Germany and Switzerland, who both boast five-point cushions in their groups.
Belgium also lie five points clear but face a daunting trip to closest challengers Croatia, where a draw would be enough to take them through. Russia too can book their ticket to Brazil, providing they prevail against Luxembourg and Portugal slip to defeat against Israel.
As for the other groups, the suspense is destined to linger until the final instalment of qualifiers on Tuesday.
The big game
England-Montenegro, Group H, Wembley, London, 21.00 CET
England go into their last two contests just a single point clear of nearest rivals Ukraine and Montenegro, yet knowing they have their fate firmly in their own hands. Roy Hodgson's side also enjoy the advantage of playing both games at home, and the Three Lions' manager can again call upon Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge, whose absences were felt in the goalless draw with Ukraine in September. Their returns ought to make up for the withdrawals of Liverpool defender Glen Johnson and Arsenal duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain through injury.
Montenegro will be no pushovers, however, and remain unbeaten on their travels during this campaign, their record of three wins and a draw including a 1-0 triumph in Ukraine and a useful 1-1 stalemate in Poland. Although Hodgson has been at pains to underline his "faith in this set of players", the men who are likely to hold the key to the outcome are Rooney and Dejan Damjanovic – scorers in the reverse fixture – plus England goalkeeper Joe Hart, whose recent displays have come in for intense scrutiny.
The other matches
Five points clear at the summit, Belgium are in a strong position as they travel to take on second-placed Croatia, who will be missing injured captain Darijo Srna and centre-back Josip Simunic. Marc Wilmots must also make do without a pillar of his side in Vincent Kompany, but Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) welcome back stalwart defender Thomas Vermaelen for what is sure to be an intense reception in Zagreb, where the visitors need just a point to render Tuesday's home meeting with Wales academic.
Already through, Italy can nonetheless play a decisive role in the race for second spot. Victory for Cesare Prandelli's troops in Denmark would play right into the hands of Bulgaria, who lead the Danes by a point ahead of their appointment in Armenia.
Germany-Republic of Ireland
It is difficult to imagine Germany missing their chance against Ireland to secure the single point they require to all but wrap up qualification – and Joachim Low's side will advance whatever their result if Sweden fail to overcome Austria. In that game, the second-placed Scandinavians will be desperate for at least a draw to keep Austria at arm's length before Tuesday's denouement, when the Blågult host Germany and their rivals visit the Faroe Islands.
With the Netherlands having guaranteed top spot, the tussle for second place will play out between current incumbents Hungary, on 14 points, and chasing duo Romania and Turkey, on 13. Romania enjoy the advantage of having already faced the Dutch juggernaut twice, whereas their rivals both have one fixture left against the section winners. Reinvigorated Turkey are sure to have their say, though, having amassed an impressive ten points in their last four outings.
Victory in Albania would spark celebrations for unbeaten Switzerland, who possess a vastly superior goal difference to Iceland in second. A stalemate would likewise suffice for the Swiss providing that Iceland do not beat Cyprus, and even a defeat would do the job if neither Iceland nor Slovenia prevail. In contrast, the quest for a play-off place remains tense, with Iceland, Slovenia, Norway and Albania all separated by just three points.
Russia and Portugal have been more or less neck and neck for the past year, but it is Fabio Capello's men who enter the home straight a point better off and determined to stay in front after their trips to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. They remain masters of their own destiny, whereas Cristiano Ronaldo and Co can do little more than take maximum points against Israel and Luxembourg and wait to see if that will be enough. Should the Iberian hopefuls lose to Israel, on the other hand, then Russia can cut short the suspense by downing Luxembourg.
After a slight wobble, Bosnia-Herzegovina have found their feet again and hold the initiative at the summit, leading Greece thanks to a far healthier goal difference. The two sides may both possess 19 points, but the Bosnians have been given a real edge by the joint second most prolific attack in Europe, their 25 goals putting them level with England and three shy of frontrunners Germany. Their mission now is to end with triumphs at home to Liechtenstein and away against Lithuania, while Greece must build on a run of three consecutive wins and see off Slovakia and Liechtenstein while keeping their fingers crossed.
Unbeaten over the past year, Ukraine are in danger of falling short before the finish line like the hare in the famous fable after being held to a goalless draw by England on 10 September. The hope now for Anatoliy Tymoschuk and his colleagues is that they can repeat their away win against Poland on home soil, finish with a success versus San Marino and clinch either first or second place in the group.
Holders Spain posted the decisive result of Group I when they edged France 1-0 in Paris on 26 March, and they lie top of pile on goal difference, having played one game fewer than Les Bleus. Vicente del Bosque's troops now require four points from their remaining contests with Belarus and Georgia to be sure of consigning France to the play-offs, where their rivals could be in danger of not being seeded.
Player to watch
David Alaba (AUT)
Four years on from becoming Austria's youngest ever international aged 17 years, three months and 20 days, David Alaba has blossomed into his country's most exciting talent. A full-back by trade, he provides a vital link between defence and attack, and has already weighed in with five goals during qualifying, displaying the same speed, technique and intelligence that serve him so well at Bayern Munich. Born in Vienna to a Nigerian father and Filipino mother, Alaba notched the vital strike in the 1-0 victory against Ireland on 10 September that restored hope to Austria's bid – and he would cherish repeating the feat against Sweden to help his team edge ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Co.
5 – The number of new coaches awaiting their competitive debuts, having been appointed ahead of the final two qualifiers. For the Czech Republic, Josef Pesice replaces Michal Bilek, while Lithuania's Igor Pankratjev assumes the reins from Csaba Laszlo and a pair of officials from the Cyprus Football Association take over from Nikos Nioplias, their predecessors having all resigned. Norway's Egil 'Drillo' Olsen and Ireland's Giovanni Trapattoni were both sacked, in contrast, and they have given way to Per-Mathias Hogmo and Noel King respectively.
What they said
"I'm not blind. I do realise this is not a good moment for Joe. He's a proud man and a very good goalkeeper. I still believe in Joe Hart," England manager Roy Hodgson on his under-fire No1.
Have your say
Who will qualify automatically from groups G (Bosnia-Herzegovina or Greece) and H (England, Ukraine, Montenegro or Poland)?