Stakes high in European qualifiers
Matchday 3 of European Zone qualifying for the 2014 Fifa World Cup Brazil™ may not feature much in the way of clashes between traditional heavyweights, but it does provide a series of fascinating jousts that could go a long way to deciding who emerges top of the nine groups.
Indeed, Portugal’s trip to Russia and Greece’s duel with an attack-minded Bosnia-Herzegovina are among Friday’s most hotly anticipated fixtures.
Without making sweeping changes, Fabio Capello is in the process of making his mark on a Russia side that has won its first two qualifiers, scoring six goals and conceding just one in the process. The Italian's squad features six players from Zenit, including the free-scoring Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
Portugal, after starting with a stuttering 2-1 victory in Luxembourg, obtained a solid but uninspired 3-0 win over Azerbaijan in their second encounter. The Lusitanians appear even more dependent than ever on the inspiration of Cristiano Ronaldo, who, like Real Madrid teammate Pepe, is hopeful of shrugging off a knock sustained in last weekend’s game with Barcelona.
THE OTHER GAMES
In potentially the tightest group of all, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who will be deprived of the services of the injured Marouane Fellaini, knows that his men have no margin for error after dropping two points in their 1-1 home draw with Croatia. The Belgians’ trip to Serbia, who drew 0-0 with Scotland in their first outing, could prove to be decisive for both teams if the Croatians pocket all three points in Macedonia.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti and AC Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy, both 19 years of age, are the latest reinforcements in Cesare Prandelli’s crusade to dramatically lower the average age of his Italian team. Antonio Cassano is the experienced performer who makes way, while 30-year-old Alberto Gilardino may have to prove his worth against Armenia in order to retain his place in the youthful squad. Meanwhile, Denmark’s awkward away match with Bulgaria, who have already beaten the Armenians and given Italy a real fright, has the makings of an intriguing contest.
Germany, on the hunt for a third successive qualifying success, will welcome the robust figure of Bastian Schweinsteiger back into the fold for a tough trip to Dublin. The Irish, who picked up a positive result in their first game, should provide them with a stern test.
While the Netherlands are likely to substantially improve on their goal difference against Andorra, Turkey will lock horns with an ambitious Romanian team. The latter nation have made a good start to their quest to reach Brazil 2014, winning their two opening matches and scoring six unanswered goals in the process. Back in August 2010, however, Turkey scored late on to claim a hard-fought 2-0 friendly victory over the same opponents, and they will hope for more of the same on Friday.
As the only team in the pool with a 100 per cent record, Switzerland have a great chance to stretch their lead at the top if they can see off Norway, who fell to a surprise defeat by Iceland last time out. Elsewhere, Slovenia will regard three points against Cyprus as compulsory if they wish to keep their qualification hopes alive.
Following a resounding home defeat at the hands of the Russians and a draw in Baku versus Azerbaijan, Israel will attempt to extricate themselves from the bottom of the section by securing their first victory of this campaign in Luxembourg.
Greece have never lost to Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they will need to be very wary of a team that is likely to push them all the way for automatic qualification. The Bosnians can presently boast an impressive attacking triumvirate – Edin Dzeko, Zvjezdan Misimovic and Vedad Ibisevic – that has already racked up 11 goals in two games and will look to put an experienced Hellenic rearguard through its paces.
England will enter a new era against San Marino at Wembley, following John Terry’s decision to retire from international football. Roy Hodgson could, due to injuries to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling (two players who would be prime candidates to marshal the Three Lions’ defence in the future), opt to once again align the Phil Jagielka-Joleon Lescott partnership that started the most recent qualifier against Ukraine.
World champions Spain travel to Belarus with a settled squad, to which Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez – brought in following an injury to Gerard Pique – is the only new addition. Keen for his players to extend the 21-match unbeaten run he has overseen, Vicente del Bosque is spoilt for choice at the other end of the pitch, with David Villa, Fernando Torres and Roberto Soldado all vying to spearhead the attack.