Germans' Turkish test, pressure on Portugal
The two games taking place on either side of the border in Ireland are no less appealing. While Republic of Ireland take on a Russia side in need of points in Dublin, their northern neighbours will be looking to create another famous night at Windsor Park against Cesare Prandelli’s new-look Italy in Belfast.
The big match
Germany-Turkey, Group A, Olympiastadion, Berlin, 20.45 CET
The presence of 30,000 Turkey fans, a small portion of the 2.4 million Turks who live and work in Germany, should make for an electric atmosphere when the two group leaders come face to face in Berlin. The hosts, who lead the section on goal difference after a hard-fought 1-0 defeat of Belgium and a 6-1 thrashing of Azerbaijan, will be hampered by the injury-enforced absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Bolstered by the arrival of Guus Hiddink, Turkey have been no less impressive, putting three goals past Kazakhstan without reply and edging out Belgium in a five-goal thriller. Aside from contesting the leadership of the group, Hiddink’s men also have the incentive of avenging the 3-2 reverse they suffered at the hands of the Germans in the semi-finals of EURO 2008.
In the two other games in Group A, third-placed Austria will be hoping for a comfortable ride at home to the Azeris, while the pointless Belgians will look to open their account against the Kazakhs.
Unimpressed by his charges’ 1-0 home loss to Slovakia last month, Russia coach Dick Advocaat has made four changes for the six-pointer away to Republic of Ireland in Group B. Among the men recalled is Zenit St Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who has been out of the side for 11 months and has the onerous task of replacing the injured Roman Pavlyuchenko. After kicking off with routine wins over Armenia and Andorra, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men are targeting a victory that could prove decisive in their bid to reach Poland and Ukraine. Slovakia, who sit second on goal difference only, are away to the Armenians.
Northern Ireland pulled off the shock of Group C so far when they won 1-0 in Slovenia, a result they hope to build on at home to the revamped Italians. Azzurri boss Prandelli has reshuffled his side, with the experienced Gianluca Zambrotta returning to the fold and Marco Borriello coming in for the injured Alberto Gilardino. Serbia lie second in the pool after dropping two valuable points at home to the Slovenians on their last outing. A further slip-up on their trip to Estonia could prove fatal.
Surprise Group D leaders Albania and Belarus will put their qualification credentials to the test against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Luxembourg respectively, although most eyes will be on France’s home date with Romania. Kicking off with a shock loss to the Belarusians, Laurent Blanc’s men recovered their poise with a fine win in Bosnia. Much is expected of Yoann Gourcuff, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema in this latest test of their resolve against a Romania side that is relying on old heads Ianis Zicu and Stefan Radu to spark their challenge following two scrappy draws.
The Netherlands go into their Group E game against Moldova without midfielder Nigel de Jong, excluded by coach Bert van Marwijk. In the absence of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, veteran goalgetter Ruud van Nistelrooij will lead the line as the Dutch limber for Tuesday’s top-of-the-table showdown with Sweden.
Israel and Croatia, who lead the way in a wide-open Group F, cross swords in Ramat Gan on Saturday. Currently languishing in fifth place after a brace of unimpressive draws, Greece go in search of their first win against Latvia.
Beaten 3-1 at home by England in September, an unchanged Switzerland will be aiming to get back on track in Montenegro, who are level on six points with the English after winning their opening two games in Group G. Fabio Capello’s side are not in action again until Tuesday.
Sitting proudly atop Group H after victories over Iceland and Portugal 1-0, Norway will be out to maintain their perfect start in Cyprus, who opened their campaign with a spectacular 4-4 draw away to the Portuguese. Making his debut in charge of the crisis-stricken Selecçao das Quinas, Paulo Bento has called up Paulo Machado and Joao Pereira for the first time for the visit of Denmark. Captaining the side will be Cristiano Ronaldo, who returns after shrugging off his injury problems.
Finally, in Group I European and world champions Spain have been struck by injuries and will have to do wihout Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas, Pedro and Xavi when they take on Lithuania in Salamanca, while group frontrunners Scotland travel to Czech Republic.
Players to watch
Making a lucrative move to Real Madrid after announcing himself to the world at South Africa 2010, Mesut Ozil faces another test of character when he runs out for Germany against Turkey, the country where his parents were born. Lining up against the mercurial midfielder will be Bayern Munich’s Hamit Altintop, who was born and brought up in Germany but will be doing his utmost to help unseat Joachim Low’s side from the top of Group A.
100 - The number of caps Cyprus striker Yannis Okkas will have collected when he takes to the field against Norway. Thirteen years an international, he will be the first Cypriot player to reach the landmark. “It’s going to be a special moment, a great honour, but it won’t have any impact on the game. We have a job to do against Norway,” commented the Anorthosis Famagusta man, who hopes to mark his century with a goal or two.
What they said
“It’s an honour for me because Otto Rehhagel did an excellent job for Greek football. Taking over from him is a source of pride for me but also a major responsibility. We all know we’re in a transitional phase,” Fernando Santos, Greece coach.