Friday evening brings a plethora of European countries into contention for the next round of matches on the road to qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. With thirteen places on offer, the intense fight continues after September’s opening matches saw much drama.
A desperate opening two games for Wales saw two defeats to a much-fancied Belgium side at home and a humiliating 6-1 defeat away to Serbia. The home sides goals in Zagreb see them top group A ahead of Belgium and Croatia, with all three teams on two points.
After genuine improvement under the late Gary Speed, the new Welsh manager Chris Coleman, will have hoped for better. But his sides were outclassed by a technically superior Belgian outfit and defended “criminally” in Serbia, to use his own word choice.
On Friday night, Wales welcome a Scottish side under similar pressure, after two discouraging draws at home to Serbia and Macedonia. Craig Levein has recalled Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher amid much public pressure after a public falling out between the pair, after Fletcher pulled out of a friendly squad previously under Levein in February 2011 by text message.
Croatia have a potentially tricky assignment in Macedonia while Serbia and Belgium play in the final group match of the evening.
After a draw and a victory in their opening group matches, Italy and Bulgaria sit at the top of group B on four points. After a mixed start that saw the Italians drop points in an away draw to Bulgaria in Sofia and make hard work of Malta at home in Modena, Cesare Prandelli’s side travel to Armenia for a potentially tricky assignment.
Bulgaria are at home to Euro 2012 participants Denmark, whilst the Czech Republic will be expecting a home victory over Malta.
The Republic of Ireland have tried to put a dire European Championships behind them, but they struggled to overcome minnows Kazakhstan away in their opening match, relying on two very late goals from Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle to escape with victory.
On Friday they welcome a robust German side that defeated Austria 2-1 away in their opening match and welcome back all encompassing midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.
In the other group match of the evening, Sweden will expect the full three points away to the Faroe Islands to maintain their one hundred per cent start to the group.
Romania will have been disappointed not to have fared better in their attempts at qualifying for Euro 2012 and have made strides towards redemption after winning their two opening matches of Group D to sit joint top with the Netherlands. But a difficulty away tie in Turkey awaits Victor Piturca’s side.
After the spectacular collapse of Bert van Marwijk’s side in the European Championships, Louis Van Gaal has returned to the helm of the Dutch national side for a second stint after a decade. His return has coincided with an apparent return to form with two victories from two and that should easily become three from three with the visit of lowly Andorra on Friday evening.
The final group game sees Estonia without a point in their two games to date, entertain Hungary at home.
Switzerland sit comfortably on top of Group E after opening victories over Slovenia in Ljubljana and Albania at home in Lucerna. Both matches ended in 2-0 victories. Friday’s opponents Norway have had a disappointing start with only three points from six and face a tough task away to the groups leaders.
Iceland and Albania sit second and third respectively and the two countries meet in what should be a tight affair at the Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana.
The final game of the evening should see Slovenia defeat Cyprus at home; Slovenia will be desperate to impress in front of their home crowd after two back to back defeats.
Group F Russia and Portugal meet in Moscow on Friday in a high pedigree game between the two top teams in group F. Both sides have been comfortable in their joint ascent to the groups summit, although Fabio Capello’s side will face their first stern test under his stewardship as Cristiano Ronaldo looks set to be fit for the top of the table clash.
In the second match of the night, Luxembourg play host to an Israel side who have disappointed and both sides will look to build on their paltry single point from two games.
Bosnia-Herzegovina have steadily progressed in ability in recent years and deservedly sit atop Group G on goal difference from a solid if insipid Greek side. The Bosnians visit Greece on Friday evening for what should be a tight encounter.
Slovakia take on a Latvian side at home that have been unimpressive to date with no return from their opening two matches. Slovakia will be hoping to build on their opening win and draw to put pressure on the top two.
Lithuania travel to Liechtenstein in a match they must and should win after an equally disappointing start by their own standards of recent campaigns.
England’s Joe Hart has been touted as the World’s best goalkeeper this week by England teammate Wayne Rooney and club manager Roberto Mancini. However the likelihood of him being tested in any real way at home to minnows San Marino, is slight.
Moldova, so easily overturned by England in one of their two opening defeats, currently sit at the foot of the group behind San Marino and will do well to garner any type of a result at home to a Ukraine side that tested England so well at Wembley in their opening qualifier.
Finland and Georgia face each other in Helsinki in a match that both sides will be desperate to win to have any chance, even at this early stage, of even a play off position in what is Europe’s smallest group.
Spain and France are apparent certainties to take the automatic qualifying berth and play off place respectively. Whilst France don’t play until they travel to Spain on Tuesday, Spain have an away match to the groups bottom side Belarus, a game they should win with comfort.