Eight teams go into the final round of European zone FIFA World Cup qualifiers today with hopes of securing the final four automatic spots in Brazil next year.
Holders Spain and Fabio Capello’s Russia look all but assured of securing their berths at the expense of France and Portugal respectively, though, those two will get another chance in the playoffs for the best eight runners-up.
Spain need only a point at home to Georgia to qualify, regardless of France’s result at home to Finland, while Russia, who have a three-point lead over the Portuguese, also need just a point away against Azerbaijan to book their ticket to Brazil.
French morale has hardly been boosted by a Sunday poll that found that their predecessors’ past bad behavior, largely at the 2010 World Cup finals where they mutinied and refused to train, still lingers with 82 percent declaring they had an unfavorable opinion of the national side and 76 percent thought they were just plain rude.
Portugal, for their part, will be without captain and playmaker Cristiano Ronaldo and influential central defender Pepe for their final game at home to minnows Luxembourg.
While a victory should not be considered as a formality, the Russians are unlikely to slip up away against the Azeris. For Bosnia-Herzegovina and perennial finals under-achievers England the scenario is more complicated with both being chased by Greece and Ukraine respectively.
England host Poland, with the latter now out of the reckoning for the finals, but capable of producing an upset similar to the one they achieved almost 40 years to the day.
Then, a 1-1 draw at Wembley prevented the English going to the 1974 finals and brought to a close the golden era under Alf Ramsey’s management that had yielded the one and only major trophy the national side have won, the 1966 World Cup.
The present England side would not be many people’s idea of a future World Cup winner, but Roy Hodgson’s team have at least developed a reputation for being tough to beat.
Realistically they will need to beat the Poles today as Ukraine, who are just two points behind, are away at pointless San Marino.
Hodgson is not taking the Poles for granted, especially as they gave England a really tough game in Warsaw earlier in the qualifying competition.
“I watched them [in the 1-0 defeat to Ukraine on Friday],” he said. “In the first half they played very well. They had the best goal-scoring opportunities.”
“If they play as well against us on Tuesday as they did against Ukraine in the first half, it will be a tough game, but I always back the players. I trust them,” Hodgson said.
“We are still unbeaten in this qualifying group,” he said. “We are capable of going unbeaten in the 10th one [game] and with the backing we got from the fans and playing at Wembley, I have got to back them. I would be foolish not to.”
While England have graced many finals of major tournaments, Bosnia-Herzegovina have yet to achieve a similar breakthrough.
They fell in the playoffs for Euro 2012 to eventual semi-finalists Portugal, but under Safet Susic, voted by France Football last year the best foreign player to have played in Ligue 1, they have a superb opportunity to reach the biggest tournament of them all.
Susic, 58, and who appeared for the then-Yugoslavia at the 1982 and 1990 World Cups, said that he expected to get the three points against the Lithuanians which they will need as Greece, who trail them on goal-difference, host bottom side Liechtenstein.