FIFA World Cup qualifying resumes on Friday with a slew of matches across Europe, many having serious implications on the qualification picture.
Below are the top five matches that deserve your undivided attention.
Manager Roy Hodgson is in a tricky predicament for England’s next two crucial qualifiers – two points back of group leaders Montenegro, albeit with a game in hand. A victory over the 123rd ranked Moldovans should be automatic, even with a somewhat depleted and inexperienced roster. Frank Lampard scored a brace in the 5-0 victory in the reverse fixture a year ago.
Minus the 13 goals scored against lowly San Marino in two games, England has netted six times from open play in eight matches during Hodgson’s tenure. Their insufficient goal production shouldn’t be a problem on Friday, though the trip to Ukraine on Tuesday will test their resolve — especially without the services of Wayne Rooney, who will miss both matches because of a deep laceration to his forehead. Daniel Sturridge has been ruled out of the Moldova game due to injury. Glen Johnson and Phil Jones will also be missing due to injury, and Jermain Defoe and Jack Wilshere all rested during training earlier this week for various ailments.
Hodgson is forced to rely on Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott to provide the offence, and will hope Rickie Lambert can add to his England account after scoring the match-winner in his Three Lions debut against Scotland. At 31, the Southampton striker is making up for lost time and deserves the opportunity based on a stellar scoring record at club level. Other newbies added to the fold are Andros Townsend and Ross Barkley, both given their first call-ups to the senior squad by Hodgson.
The Azzurri find themselves in a strong position, as a victory over their opponents on Friday would all but guarantee a trip to Brazil next summer, barring an unexpected and catastrophic collapse. Ahead of kickoff, Bulgaria is second in the group, four points behind the Italians with four games remaining. Any hope of closing the gap must begin with a win in Palermo, as a loss or draw could see them overtaken by the Czech Republic, who are only a point behind and host Armenia.
The reverse fixture in Sofia earned a split of the points, with Georgi Milanov scoring the 2-2 equalizer after a two-goal first-half performance by Pablo Osvaldo. Italian manager Cesare Prandelli holds an undefeated record on home soil with two wins, and Italy has the added advantage of hosting three of its last four group fixtures. Bulgaria was defeated in their last visit to Italy three years ago, losing 2-0.
The window of opportunity is quickly closing for Serbia with three matches left to play. A perfect nine points are needed with some help along the way. It begins against rivals Croatia in Belgrade, who they trail by nine points for second spot. Serbia suffered a humiliating 2-0 defeat last March in Zagreb, but the hostile environment expected on Friday should benefit the hosts and give the team a major boost. No away fans will be present for safety reasons.
The inaugural grudge match was anything but pleasant for Serbian manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. Despite cooler heads prevailing and both sets of players keeping their emotions in check, Serbia was clearly overmatched in every capacity and never really looked threatening. In an effort to provide a good example and a show of good spirit, both managers embraced following the final whistle.
The bad blood between Igor Stimac and Mihajlovic has disappeared through time, having captained rival clubs (Hajduk Split and Red Star) in the infamous 1991 Yugoslavian Cup final, just as the war was breaking out — both were sent off before Hajduk Split ended up 1-0 winners.
The Austrians are a perfect five for five — all defeats — against Germany in the last five years. Despite their horrible form versus their opponents, Austria sits tied for second with Sweden and Ireland (11 points) in the group. A positive result is extremely crucial at this stage of qualifying, and no one can afford to leave points on the table this late in the game.
In a tough group, the 55th ranked Austrians somehow have managed to score 15 goals and hold a superior overall differential (+10) than the trailing Swedes and Irish, who will lock horns in Dublin. However, 10 of Austria’s goals came against minnows Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands in Vienna.
Their away performances have been uneventful and mediocre at best (two points, two goals, two conceded from two games). It doesn’t provide much hope heading into Bavaria. A statement of intent must be made against the mighty Germans, as Austria will travel for three of their remaining four group matches. With Ireland their next opponents on Tuesday at home, a realistic ambition from both matches is four points.
Surprisingly, the 109th ranked Northern Irish have fared considerably well against Portugal. A hard fought point was earned in Porto earlier in this qualifying campaign, as Michael O’Neill’s side was within 10 minutes of a memorable victory, until Helder Postiga snatched a split of the points by notching the equalizer and saving some embarrassment.
The World Cup dream has been all but extinguished for the Green and White Army, who are currently six points behind second-place Russia and eight points behind Portugal with four matches remaining. However, Northern Ireland is no pushover at Windsor Park, and the prospect of playing spoilers to Portugal’s ambition of an automatic place is a very real threat.
The Portuguese currently top the group, two points ahead of the Russians and Israelis with a game in hand on both. Postiga was the hero in Lisbon three months ago, scoring the only goal in a victory over Russia to catapult them into first place. Manager Paulo Bento can’t afford to drop any points in Belfast, especially with their biggest threat to qualification — Russia and Israel — set to host group minnows Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, respectively.