The quest for places at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ will take a decisive turn in Europe on Tuesday when the group stage ends with the four remaining automatic spots and eight play-off berths to be settled once and for all.
Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have already stamped their tickets to the main event after winning their sections. As for Russia and Spain, they stand on the verge of joining them providing they can avoid upsets in their final outings, with the former travelling to Azerbaijan and the holders entertaining Georgia. Bosnia-Herzegovina and England also have Brazil in their sights and require wins against Lithuania and Poland respectively to complete the task.
Meanwhile, the eight best runners-up will be granted a second chance to qualify via the play-offs. For the second-placed sides in groups A to H, results against the bottom team will not be counted in the calculation, as Group I contains one country less than the rest.
England remain in the box seat and victory against a Poland side with nothing left to hope for would carry them through to the global showcase. Roy Hodgson's men have rattled in 14 goals at home and conceded just two, but have also encountered frustration, being held 1-1 by Ukraine – their final rivals for top spot, who lie a point behind and travel to San Marino. The hosts have called up 18-year-old Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling for the game, with Tom Cleverley ruled out through injury and Kyle Walker suspended, but once again the Three Lions will look to old hands Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney to help steer them through a high-pressure encounter.
The other matches
Everything may have already been decided in this section, but top dogs Belgium have announced their intention to sign off with another win to finish with an almost perfect record of 28 points from a possible 30. Croatia are certain of second place, meanwhile, yet will be keen to bolster their points tally in Scotland to guarantee themselves a play-off berth.
Italy made sure of their own progress two games ago, but behind them the race for second spot will go down to the wire. Four teams can still win that particular tussle, with Luboslav Penev's Bulgaria in the driving seat thanks to their considerable goal-difference advantage. Should they come out on top against the Czech Republic, they will have every chance of finishing runners-up – though that might not be enough to wrap up a play-off spot. Only the eight best second-placed teams from the nine groups will be granted a second opportunity to qualify.
All remaining tension was resolved in this section on Friday, though winners Germany will be looking to finish unbeaten. As for Sweden, they know they will complete their fixtures in second place, with a play-off place already guaranteed.
Having booked their trip to Brazil already, the Netherlands will set out with the goal of remaining unbeaten and ending their campaign with the most prolific attack in Europe. In contrast, Turkey, Romania and Hungary all find themselves separated by two points and finish with home games as they endeavour to seal second. While Hungary will look to boost their goal difference against an Andorra team yet to secure a single point, Turkey face the more daunting mission of taking on the Dutch, with Romania preparing for the more manageable task of tackling Estonia.
With Switzerland through to the promised land as section winners, Iceland and Slovenia can both still dream of finishing behind them. That will be easier said than done for Slovenia as they make their way to Berne to lock horns with Ottmar Hitzfeld's troops, who are sure to be full of confidence after ensuring their progress. Surprise package Iceland travel to Norway, meanwhile, eager for a repeat of their 2-0 home success against the same side.
Friday's 1-1 draw with Israel has left Portugal facing the very real prospect of the play-offs. Frontrunners Russia now require just a solitary point in Azerbaijan to settle matters, although Fabio Capello's charges were given a real test by their upcoming opponents before prevailing 1-0 at home earlier in the campaign. Scheduled to face Luxembourg, the Portuguese are assured of finishing second and earning a play-off place at the very least.
Bosnia-Herzegovina hold their destiny in their own hands as they head for Lithuania, thanks to a healthy goal-difference lead over Greece. As for the 2004 European champions, they must see off Liechtenstein and hope their rivals slip up, no doubt still ruing their goalless stalemate with the leaders last October.
Ukraine need Poland to pull off a result at Wembley, but their first duty will be to record the victory they require in San Marino to keep their hopes of topping the section alive. Even if the visitors lose, though, they ought to have done enough already to pip Montenegro to second spot, their vastly superior goal difference handing them the edge if the duo were to finish with the same points tally.
Three points clear of France and boasting a better goal difference, Spain can make do with a draw against Georgia to set the seal on first place. Unless something akin to a football miracle occurs, Les Bleus are heading for the play-offs.
Player to watch
Andros Townsend (ENG)
Tottenham Hotspur winger Andros Townsend enjoyed a memorable England debut against Montenegro on Friday, scoring a goal and setting up another for Wayne Rooney. "It's great to see a young guy come into the team and take his chance like that," said Rooney, no doubt licking his lips at the prospect of more precise crosses from the 22-year-old. "He scored a fantastic goal and I'm glad it came off for him. It was a brilliant performance for his debut and in such a high-pressure game too."
17 – The number of goals struck since the start of qualifying by Bosnia-Herzegovina duo Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, who together have been averaging close to two goals a game. Dzeko has fired in ten on the road to Brazil 2014 to take his international total to 33 in 57 matches, while Ibisevic has 18 in 47 after adding seven so far during the current campaign.
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