Portugal, Spain under pressure as UEFA World Cup qualifying resumes
The derby between Croatia and Serbia is the pick of Friday's matches. Both countries have never played each other since the Balkan civil war in the early 1990s, and the atmosphere in the packed Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb is expected to be highly charged. No one is even pretending that this will be a normal match.
"This is not just about points, it's about rivalry, prestige and about something that will mean a lot more to some fans than to us players," Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic said.
Crowd trouble looks a near certainty, even though the players and managers have vowed to defuse the situation.
"We are fully aware of our responsibility ... our behavior and the messages that we will send can significantly influence the atmosphere in the stands," Croatia coach Igor Stimac said.
Another somewhat less volatile derby will take place at Hampden Park, Glasgow, where Wales and Scotland are merely battling to avoid the ignominy of last place. Tottenham's mercurial Welsh star Gareth Bale will be the star of the show, naturally, provided he recovers from a minor injury.
Leader Belgium, meanwhile, is off to Skopje to play Macedonia. An impressive 3-0 win at Serbia in October confirmed Marc Wilmots' "Red Devils" as one of the most exciting sides in European football at the moment. Captain Vincent Kompany is expected to return to the fold after overcoming a calf injury.
Favored Italy faces Brazil in a friendly in Geneva on Thursday night, so second-place Bulgaria has a chance to close the gap at home against last-place Malta. Lyuboslav Penev's side is still unbeaten and hopeful to reach its first World Cup since 1998.
In the only other game, the Czech Republic takes on Denmark. The visitors have suspended Juventus striker Nicklas Bendtner for six months after his arrest for drunk driving last week. Goals and points will be even harder to come by for Morten Olsen's men as a result: after a bad start, Denmark must win this game to keep its qualification chances intact. Copenhagen striker Andreas Cornelius, 20, will lead the line, while skipper Tomas Rosicky returns for the hosts. The Czechs are also under pressure to win. A draw won't be enough for either side.
Germany heads to Kazakhstan for a match on artificial turf. Kickoff in Astana is at midnight, but Joachim Löw's men are under strict instructions to keep their watches on German time. Benedikt Höwedes (Schalke 04) is likely to partner with Arsenal's Per Mertesacker in defense, as Holger Badstuber (Bayern Munich) and Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) are both injured. Only three points and a good performance will be deemed acceptable after Germany's shocking 4-4 draw -- after a 4-0 lead -- at home to Sweden in October.
The Scandinavians are hosting Giovanni Trappatoni's Ireland at the Friends Arena. The Italian manager wanted the roof to remain open for the first competitive game at the new ground, but freezing conditions and snow have seen FIFA decide it should remain closed. The news agenda for the visitors, who must at least get a draw to remain in the race for the second spot, has also been dominated by the omission of Wolverhampton striker Kevin Doyle. The 29-year-old found out he wasn't in the squad by text message.
"I think everybody was surprised, but the manager made that decision and you have to respect it," said Irish captain Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Sweden manager Erik Hamren is wary of the opponents' "attitude and big heart." "They will do everything to destroy our party at home," he said.
Austria is expected to win against minnows Faroe Islands in Vienna, but confidence isn't exactly high in Marcel Koller's camp.
"I don't automatically presume a win," said Austria's Swiss manager, "but of course it's our aspiration."
With four wins from four games and a plus-11 goal differential, Louis van Gaal's Netherlands is the best team of the qualifiers so far. The Oranjes will surely keep up their perfect record against Estonia at the Amsterdam Arena. The big story is the return of midfield linchpin Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray) after a six-month absence. Up front, van Gaal has to cope without the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but the backup option, a certain Robin van Persie (Manchester United), is reportedly quite good as well.
In Budapest, Hungary and Romania clash in a game of huge significance. Both are on nine points, but the hosts' task will be all the more difficult since the match in Budapest will be played in an empty stadium. The ban has come as a result of antisemitic incidents during a friendly against Israel in August.
Turkey, a disappointing fourth, must get its campaign back on track with a regulation win away to no-hoper Andorra, which has neither a point nor a goal after four games. Atletico Madrid midfielder Arda Turan is the key man for Abdullah Avci. "We will take this game very seriously," said the 26-year-old winger.
Switzerland must go without manager Ottmar Hitzfeld in Cyprus on Saturday. The 64-year-old is suspended from the touchline after showing Spanish referee Fernandez Borbalan the middle finger in the wake of a 1-1 draw with Norway in October. Hitzfeld talked about using a mobile phone to communicate with his staff, but FIFA has promised to clamp down on any attempt to make contact with the bench.
A more interesting fixture should be Albania's trip to Norway. The Norwegians, coached by Egil Olsen, are only point ahead of Gianni de Biasi's much-improved team.
Iceland still has a chance to make it to Brazil, too. Lars Lagerbäck's team travels to Slovenia, where Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham) can reacquaint himself with keeper Samir Handanovic (Inter Milan). Both came up against each other in Tottenham's elimination of Inter in the Europa League last week.
Israel hosts Portugal in Ramat Gan in a game that will go a long way to decide each country's future in the qualifying campaign. Manchester United's Nani will miss the trip due to injury -- Wolfsburg winger Vierinha might make his debut in his place. "It's an honor to play against Cristiano Ronaldo," said Swansea City striker Itay Schechter, who will lead the line for manager Eli Guttman.
Fabio Capello and Russia are sitting pretty ahead of a match at Belfast against Northern Ireland -- the Sbornaya has won all four previous matches in the group and not conceded a single goal. FC Anzhi (and former Chelsea) player Youri Zhirkov is a doubt with a muscle injury, but Capello's team will be the huge favorite either way.
Finally, there's a also the much-anticipated -- not -- Luxembourg-Azerbaijan match, a game with the potential to be the poorest, most uneventful contest of the weekend.
Bosnia-Herzegovina-Greece, by contrast, is absolutely huge, even if less than 16,000 fit into the Bilino Polje Stadium in Zenica. The winner will sit in the driver's seat to qualify directly from what is arguably the easiest group in Europe. Bosnia manager Safet Susic is without key midfielders Miralem Pjanic (AS Roma) and Sejad Salihovic (Hoffenheim), so Greece (coached by Fernando Santos) will fancy its chances to get at least a point.
Slovakia might yet play a big role, too, despite suffering a painful setback when Greece beat them 1-0 on their own patch in October. Marek Hamsik (Napoli) is the team's superstar, but fellow midfielder Marek Sapara (Trabzonspor) has actually been more effective with three goals thus far.
Anything but an away win for Latvia at minnow Liechtenstein would be massive shock.
England has made hard work of this campaign, but the trip to San Marino will surely bolster morale. The preparation has been overshadowed by Rio Ferdinand's withdrawal from the squad, but it's unlikely that the Manchester United defender will be missed too much Friday night.
In Warsaw, meanwhile, Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland and Ukraine will try to keep their increasingly remote chances of qualification alive.
"The future is in our hands and we must seize it," said captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in an appeal to the Ukrainian fans.
Surprise leader Montenegro will warm up for the potential group decider at home against England on Tuesday with a trip to Moldova. The last time England played in Podgorica, Wayne Rooney was sent off.
Reigning world and European champion Spain can't afford to slip up at home to Finland. France is in hot pursuit and has two home games in Paris -- against Georgia and then Spain. Vicente del Bosque likely won't have Xavi (hamstring) for Friday but hopes the Barcelona midfielder will be back for the France game.
Keeper Iker Casillas did not join up with the squad despite overcoming a broken hand so Victor Valdes will deputize. France manager Didier Deschamps is toying with the idea of playing both Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) and Olivier Giroud (Arsenal) against the Georgians, whom he expects to defend very deeply. Both strikers haven't exactly been firing on all cylinders recently for Les Bleus, however: Benzema hasn't scored in 10 games while Giroud is anything but prolific either, with two in 15 for France.