Some of Europe’s leading nations can clinch qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals in a double-header of fixtures over the next week starting today.
Four-time world champions Italy, the Netherlands and Germany will all be in a position to book their flights to Brazil, while the situation in all of the continent’s nine qualifying groups will become clearer before the final fixtures next month.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italy have taken 14 points from a possible 16 in qualifying Group B without ever producing their very best form.
The Azzurri are four points clear of Bulgaria and five ahead of Czech Republic at the top of the group, so wins against both teams in Palermo and Turin in the next week will be enough to confirm qualification.
The Netherlands have cruised through Group D so far, winning all six qualifiers, and that run appears unlikely to end when they go to Estonia today and Andorra next week, even with Rafael Van der Vaart out injured.
Wins in those games will see them qualify irrespective of what nearest challengers Romania and Hungary — who meet in Bucharest today — can achieve.
Germany need other results to go their way if they are to stand a chance of sealing first place in Group C this month, with Joachim Loew’s side currently five points clear of Austria, Sweden and Republic of Ireland.
Germany face Austria in Munich’s Allianz Arena today, and wins there and in the Faroe Islands on Tuesday will be enough if Ireland and Sweden slip up.
Germany have only ever lost two games in World Cup qualifying, but Loew has been unhappy with his side’s defensive performance and is also dealing with a lengthy injury list featuring the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Goetze, Ilkay Gundogan and Lukas Podolski.
However, Mesut Ozil will be there after a transfer from Real Madrid to Arsenal that Loew described as “incomprehensible,” but good for Germany.
“For me, it’s incomprehensible that Real would sell one of their top scorers,” Loew said.
Elsewhere today, reigning European and world champions Spain play their first competitive fixture since their Confederations Cup final defeat to Brazil when they face Finland in Helsinki.
Spain are top of Group I, but, with a lead of just one point over France, they still need to win their remaining three fixtures to be certain of a return to Brazil next year.
They will not be taking Finland lightly after being held to a 1-1 draw when the teams met in March.
Spain manager Vicente del Bosque is also facing a dilemma in the goalkeeping department, with captain Iker Casillas’ place in doubt as he remains on the sidelines at Real Madrid.
France’s chase of Spain continues with a tough-looking tie in Georgia, where Spain toiled for a 1-0 win last year.
In other matches, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Bosnia-Herzegovina defend leads in their respective groups, while Group H leaders Montenegro face a huge test in Poland.
Despite sitting at the top of Group A, three points clear of Croatia, Belgium defender Nicolas Lombaerts has warned his teammates not to underestimate Scotland after watching their victory over Croatia in Zagreb three months ago.
“I certainly don’t expect it will be a walk in the park for us against Scotland,” the Zenit St Petersburg player said.
England are two points behind Montenegro, but have a game in hand and should have few problems against Moldova at Wembley, with manager Roy Hodgson confident that his players’ minds will not already be on next week’s trip to Ukraine.
“I don’t think I will need to caution the players or get them to guard against complacency because as yet, I haven’t seen any signs of that in the games we’ve played,” said Hodgson, who will be without the injured Wayne Rooney.
The head injury that has sidelined Rooney looks like “something out of a horror film,” England colleague Theo Walcott said.
Rooney was left with a big gash on his forehead after being caught in the face by United teammate Phil Jones earlier this week.
Asked to describe the injury at a press conference at England’s St George’s Park training base, Walcott pointed to a bottle of water beside him and said: “I’ve seen a picture of it and it’s about that big. It is a very big gash. It is not a nice sight, to be honest. It is not going to help his looks, I wouldn’t think.”
United midfielder Michael Carrick, who saw Rooney get injured, dismissed suggestions from journalists that his teammate should have taken inspiration from Terry Butcher’s iconic, blood-stained performance in a 1990 World Cup qualifier against Sweden by putting himself forward to play.
“We know what he [Rooney] is like,” Carrick said. “If there was a way of playing, he would. It is easy for people to look at the past and compare with what has gone on, but every situation is different.”
Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge had been in line to deputize for Rooney at home to Moldova, but he is now doubtful with a thigh injury that prevented him from training on Tuesday.
With Tottenham Hotspur’s Jermain Defoe yet to start a league game this season, it means either United’s Danny Welbeck or Southampton’s Rickie Lambert will lead the line against Moldova.