The Road to Rio resumes on Friday with a full line-up of fixtures that may prove to have significant implications on which teams will qualify for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Here are five European qualifying matches to keep close tabs on.
Friday programming alert: Watch Israel v Portugal (on Sportsnet, 8:30am ET), Croatia v Serbia (on Sportsnet, 12:30pm ET), Spain v Finland (on Sportsnet, 3pm ET), San Marino v England (on Sportsnet ONE, 3pm ET) and Netherlands v Estonia (on Sportsnet World, 3pm ET).
Friday programming alert: Watch six UEFA World Cup qualifying games exclusively on Sportsnet World Online: Wales v Scotland (3:15pm ET), Denmark v Czech Republic (3:30pm ET), Russia v Northern Ireland (3:45pm ET), Ukraine v Poland (3:45pm ET), Greece v Bosnia and Herzegovina (3:45pm ET), Georgia v France (4pm ET),
Croatia vs. Serbia
The atmosphere inside Zagreb’s Stadion Maksimir will be a powder keg of hostility. The hateful undertone that follows this fixture is difficult to avoid, even if it’s been 18 years since Croatia secured independence after a vicious ethnic driven civil war.
This is the second time Croatia and Serbia have been drawn together in a qualifying group, the first time being 14 years ago for Euro 2000. The animosity is as strong now as it was then, as time doesn’t necessarily heal every wound. Croatia drew the first match in Yugoslavia 0-0 in 1999, and the reverse fixture on the final match-day of qualifying was crucial to the Croats’ ambitions of making the tournament and building off a strong third place finish at the 1998 World Cup. A win would have given the hosts the final qualifying place, with Yugoslavia having already clinched top spot.
Unfortunately, Croatia only managed a 2-2 draw that effectively eliminated them from contention, but the match will be forever remembered for another reason. After being whistled for a foul, Robert Jarni let Yugoslavia's Zoran Mirkovic know what he thought of the decision. With the referee standing close by, the Serb lashed out by aggressively grabbing Jarni's testicles and earned a straight red card. Mirkovic proceeded to give the home fans a three-finger salute upon exiting the field, referencing his Orthodox faith to the pro-Muslim crowd. FIFA handed down a three-match ban for the foul and racially motivated hand gesture.
This time it's Serbia who trails their neighbours and is in a must-win situation. Six points separate the pair with almost half of the qualifying round complete. A loss would be impossible to overcome and would practically end Serbia's World Cup odyssey.
Scotland vs. Wales
The heroics of Gareth Bale, coupled with a poor decision by the assistant referee, earned Wales a come from behind victory over Scotland back in October. It was Chris Coleman's first win as manager and the team's first in qualifying. Wales sit a point ahead of Gordon Strachan's new Tartan Army heading into the match at Hampden Park, which will be Scotland's first competitive game under the leadership of the former Celtic manager.
Strachan is hoping to usher in a new era, washing away the disappointment that most Scots have endured under former manager Craig Levein. Unfortunately, the job at hand is tremendously difficult, considering they're currently bottom of the group, with Wales a single point ahead of them. Both are on the brink of elimination, but a win combined with a Serbian victory on Friday would give either side an outside chance of reviving their World Cup aspirations.
The focus will be squarely on containing Bale and limiting his impact. The Welsh superstar has been dominating matches for club and country this season, and a positive result for Wales hinges on his performance in Glasgow. Scotland last hosted the Wales back in 1997, which resulted in a 1-0 loss. The Scots have lost four of the last five meetings against the Welsh
Sweden vs. Ireland
To keep pace with Germany -- who are the runaway favourites of the group -- Sweden must secure maximum points at the Friends Arena in Stockholm. Hypothetically, the Swedes hold a slight advantage with a game in hand on the Germans, and earned a hard fought point in Berlin off an impressive four-goal comeback last October.
The Irish sit one point behind their opponents coming into the match, and realistically anything but a loss would satisfy Giovanni Trapattoni. Both of Ireland's victories have come against minnows (Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands), so the Green Army must prove they can produce a positive performance against the group's contenders. Ireland was thoroughly beaten 6-1 on home soil by Germany, and a win in Stockholm would help elevate their confidence before hosting Austria at the Aviva Stadium four days later.
Most likely, both teams will be battling for second and the playoff place available, as neither have enough quality to outmuscle the Germans and match their consistency. Ireland has won the last two friendly fixtures against the Swedes, most recently a 3-0 victory back in 2006. It has been almost 43 years since the Irish last visited Stockholm, which resulted in a 1-0 defeat.
Israel vs. Portugal
Israel's Ramat Gan Stadium will welcome Portugal in what should be a defining fixture of the group. Unless a dramatic run of form by Northern Ireland, which is not expected, Portugal and Israel (who are tied for second place in the group) will be chasing Russia for top spot or slugging it out for a playoff place at the very least.
Neither side has looked remotely competent at the half-way point of qualifying, having both earned their victories against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. A draw wouldn't be the worst result for the Portuguese, but it would only extend their current run of poor form to five matches without a victory.
Manager Paulo Bento needs an upbeat performance from his players, or face the very real prospect of a tricky uphill climb. The pressure for success will always fall squarely on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal's divine son must lead by example and mirror his larger than life performances for Real Madrid on the international stage.
Israel's only victory against Portugal happened in this fixture over 31 years ago. Their most recent meeting came in 2000, with the Portuguese winning 2-1.
San Marino vs. England
Normally, a trip to Stadio Olimpico with a depleted and injury ravaged defence would have alarm bells ringing for Roy Hodgson. Thankfully, England is not travelling to Rome -- instead their destination on Friday is Serravalle in San Marino.
The Three Lions' last visit to the microstate on the Italian peninsula was almost 20 years ago and resulted in a 7-1 rout of their hosts. However, the match started off rather surprisingly when Davide Gualtieri etched himself into the record books by scoring the fastest goal in World Cup qualifying history -- 8.3. seconds after the opening whistle -- to give San Marino a shock lead. Considering San Marino had only recorded two goals in their international football history, Gualtieri became a national hero from that opportunistic moment, and England ended up failing to qualify for USA '94.
England has notched 18 goals in three matches against San Marino, with Gualtieri's goal being the only one conceded. It's reasonable to assume the Premiership millionaires will be under no threat of losing to a bunch of part-time amateurs, even with the absence of three key defenders due to injury (Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson), that has left Hodgson to rely on the partnership of Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling at centre-back. Both players are not first-team regulars with their respective clubs this season. With Rio Ferdinand refusing the call-up -- which has dominated headlines -- Stephen Taylor and Steven Caulker are left to provide cover.
The lack of battle-tested defenders won't be a problem on Friday, though the dilemma will take centre stage when England travels to face group leaders Montenegro on Tuesday. There has been talk that Michael Carrick might play out of position and deputize at the back for Hodgson, having performed similar duties for Manchester United this season. Unfortunately, the holding midfielder proved to be a liability in defence, especially from set-pieces.
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