On paper Group 3 looks one of the most evenly balanced of the nine European sections. Coached yet again by the venerable Karel Bruckner, Czech Republic will attempt to reprise their fine performances in the qualifying campaigns for UEFA EURO 2008 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, when their smooth brand of slick, attacking football saw them through the finals both times.
Lining up alongside them are Poland, who qualified for the last two FIFA World Cup™ finals tournaments without much fuss and have also booked their ticket to Austria and Switzerland next year. Completing the section are a rejuvenated Northern Ireland, the always awkward Slovakia, Korea/Japan 2002 finalists Slovenia, and minnows San Marino, hopeful as ever of causing a scare or two.
The favourites Czech Republic: Just when it looked as if they might be entering a transitional phase, the central European powerhouses have proved they remain as potent as ever. The Czechs reached EURO 2008 by topping a group containing none other than the mighty Germany and the dangerous Republic of Ireland.
The outsiders Northern Ireland: Who would have thought that a team that once went a whole year without scoring a goal could enjoy such a spectacular renaissance? Inspired by the amazing goalscoring feats of David Healy, the men in green and white were just a game away from qualifying for EURO 2008 and have jumped up to 34 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The battle for a place at South Africa 2010 will reveal whether they can remain upwardly mobile under the guidance of coach Nigel Worthington, a member of the last Northern Irish squad to reach the finals at Mexico 1986.
*The players to watch * Tomas Rosicky (CZE), Petr Cech (CZE), Ebi Smolarek (POL), Maciej Zurawski (POL), David Healy (NIR), Martin Skrtel (SVK) and Branko Ilic (SLO).
The crunch match Poland-Czech Republic. There is no doubt this is the pick of the group matches, one that will go a long way to deciding how the section pans out. A Czech triumph would put Karel Bruckner and his charges well on the way to a second consecutive finals appearance. Should the Poles prevail, however, they will surely keep their hopes alive right through to the end.
A look back Northern Ireland 1-0 Czechoslovakia, 17 June 1958. Sweden 1958 was the first time the Northern Irish rubbed shoulders with the world's best, and an heroic victory over the Czechs ensured them an altogether surprising place in the second round. As fate would have it, the race for a place at South Africa 2010 has pitted them against both Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two countries born following the break-up of Czechoslovakia.
The stat 3: The number of matches Slovenia won in the Germany 2006 qualifiers, half the number of wins they collected in reaching Korea/Japan 2002 with such style.
*Did you know? * Despite being next-door neighbours, Poland and Czech Republic have only met 22 times in over a century. The Czechs hold sway having won 12 of those matches, drawn five and lost five.
Can Northern Ireland maintain their upward curve and upset the Czechs and the Poles by muscling their way into the top two places? Click on 'Add your comment' to give us your view.