Make or break for World Cup hopefuls

Posted by Andy Brassell

Scheduling pressure on international football from disgruntled clubs has one big positive for fans; the increasing presence of exciting and meaningful double-headers in the space of five days. This week's raft of World Cup qualification doubles will go some way to deciding the line-up for Brazil next summer, with some new names on the brink of a first participation and some established ones facing the hour where it's put up or shut up. Here are some of the major plot lines to look out for over the coming days.

Up for the cup

Bosnia-Herzegovina were arguably Belgium before Les Diables Rouges themselves were; the connoisseur's choice, stacked with exciting talent and itching to prove themselves in a finals tournament. Since being recognised as a separate nation by FIFA in late 1995, Bosnia have come close to getting to finals on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably for Euro 2012, when a late Samir Nasri penalty equaliser in the final qualifier in Paris denied Safet Susic's team direct progression. They eventually lost a play-off to Portugal for a second successive tournament.

Their key men are in good form; Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic are approaching their best form at Manchester City and Roma respectively, Vedad Ibisevic is scoring freely for Stuttgart and Asmir Begovic has conceded just two in Stoke's opening three Premier League games. If they can win their home and away matches against Slovakia, Bosnia will cut one of their rivals adrift -- and will be tantalisingly close.

Uzbekistan have an Asian Zone two-legged play-off with Jordan over the coming days as they look towards a first-ever World Cup qualification. The country has an ambitious football culture, as previously demonstrated by club side Bunyodkor's expensive hires of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Rivaldo -- the Tashkent side also attempted to sign Samuel Eto'o while he was still at Barcelona.

Led by Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vitaliy Denisov, the White Wolves will face an autumn play-off against the fifth-placed team in South America (currently Uruguay) -- a tall order, but an opportunity they are desperate for. They travel to Amman for Friday's first leg with the return to follow on Tuesday in Tashkent.

In Africa, unbeaten Tunisia need just a point to seal passage to the October/November knockout matches to decide which ten teams from the continent reach Brazil. They are especially keen to do so, having missed out in 2010.

The Carthage Eagles have their share of European-based quality and even though Marseille striker Saber Khelifa is short of match fitness, the closure of the transfer window should lend some calm to the contributions of Bastia's talented young playmaker Wahbi Khazri. It is by no means a shoo-in; they face African Cup of Nations quarter-finalists Cape Verde in Rades -- and a win for the visitors would see them leapfrog Tunisia.

In danger

France, having not scored for four games, go to Georgia on Friday needing to break that duck as they seek to confirm a play-off place. It could be tricky; Spain needed a late winner by Roberto Soldado to take the points from Tbilisi in September in a game that looked headed for a goalless stalemate. Surely Arsenal's in-form Olivier Giroud is the answer. He replaced Karim Benzema 15 minutes from the end of the August friendly with Belgium and is likely to do so from the start on Friday, given the Real Madrid forward's tortuous run of 1155 minutes without an international goal.

In the CONCACAF Zone, Mexico need to reverse their stuttering run of form; they are currently in the last of three automatic qualifying spots. The USA are currently five points ahead of them, Costa Rica are three in front and Honduras (in fourth) have just a point less.

The coming week could shape the destiny of Jose Manuel de la Torre's side, with Honduras visiting the Azteca before Mexico travel to Columbus to face the US. Worryingly, Mexico blew a two-goal lead in the final quarter-of-an-hour when they last faced Honduras, away in March. The lack of game time for Javier Hernandez (who scored twice in that match in San Pedro Sula) is a concern, but Giovani dos Santos' surge to form for Villarreal in La Liga is a real plus.

Olivier Giroud GettyImagesOlivier Giroud could be crucial to France's hopes of World Cup qualification.

Game with most at stake

Ahead of their tough trip to Germany, Austria are the team in possession of second place and a potential play-off spot -- the group's only realistic aim given the gap in quality between Joachim Low's side and the rest. It's still wide open though, so Republic of Ireland and Sweden know they can't afford a false step when they meet in Dublin on Friday night.

It will almost certainly be cagey; firstly due to the stakes but also because of Giovanni Trapattoni's typically conservative nature. Maybe he should take a gamble for a change. The Republic have arguably the toughest remaining fixtures, travelling to Austria and Germany, while Erik Hamren's men welcome both to the Friends Arena in Solna. Sweden will hope an already-qualified Germany will have eased off by then, but some Zlatan Ibrahimovic magic here could make that a moot point.

Potential surprises

Everything is going Portugal's way at the moment after a rough start to qualifying. Firstly they beat Russia to end their 100% record, then Fabio Capello's side unbelievably lost in Northern Ireland in a twice-rearranged game last month to give the Seleccao das Quinas renewed hope of even winning the group.

The catch? Paulo Bento's team are next up in Belfast on Friday night, when a sold-out Windsor Park houses its final game before a comprehensive redevelopment. Portugal's shaky defence promises a few nervy moments, even if injuries could work in their favour, allowing the in-form Lica, Adrien Silva and Nelson Oliveira to be called up.

Having already won 5-0 in Chisinau, England could be forgiven for thinking ahead of Friday's Wembley meeting with Moldova to Tuesday's trip to Kiev to face Ukraine. It has a hint of the defining about it. England can't afford to lose, given that Mykhaylo Fomenko's team are just a point behind and still have to play San Marino twice (either side of the meeting with England).

Facing an almost completely home-based squad, Roy Hodgson's men will be concerned about Andriy Yarmolenko at the atmospheric Olympiyskiy but should perhaps be more worried about Marko Devic, whose 'goal' was controversially ruled out when the sides met in Donetsk during Euro 2012 -- the Metalist Kharkiv striker has started this season in sensational form. England are without Wayne Rooney (who scored the winner in Donetsk last summer) but this should provide opportunity for Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert, who are in considerably better fettle at present.

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