While much of the focus from the English media will be on the efforts of Roy Hodgson's team on Friday evening, Nick Miller picks out five alternative World Cup qualifiers that could be worth a look
By Nick Miller
Last Updated: 06/09/13 10:49am
Germany v Austria
The game itself is an interesting one. A repeat of the 1982 'Anschluss' match, the two neighbours are the top two in Group C, and Austria are level on 11 points with Sweden and Ireland (more on them later) as they look to secure a spot in the playoffs, assuming they realistically can't catch Jogi Löw's men. However, for the English observer, this is an amuse bouche, a taster of what's to come, a little teaser of one very special player. Of course, most of us will have watched Mesut Özil before. We know he's pretty good. But this is different somehow. This is like seeing the trailer for the next Sherlock series - you know it's going to be good, but soon you'll be able to watch it every week. Well, Sherlock will only have three episodes so that'll be done pretty quickly, and hopefully Ozi will stick around for a little longer, but other than that the analogy is pretty solid.
Republic of Ireland v Sweden
To outside observers, the general sense of dissatisfaction with Giovanni Trapattoni's methods in Ireland seemed a little odd. Sure, his style of play isn't exactly exhilarating, and his long-standing refusal to pick Wes Hoolahan was infuriating, but he got them to a final tournament for the first time in a decade. And, perhaps crucially, he wasn't Steve Staunton. Of course, then everyone saw them roll over to have their collective belly tickled when they actually reached Euro 2012, and sort of got it.
Still, being there is good, right? And Ireland have a solid chance of doing so again, which would be the first time they have qualified for back-to-back tournaments since 1990. And they can take quite the step towards securing that qualification (well, perhaps not qualification, but the endless joy of the playoffs at least) by beating Sweden on Friday night. Still, at least Ireland don't have an inferiority complex or anything. "I am very scared about him because he is a very good player," said Marco Tardelli when asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Good. That's alright then.
Serbia v Croatia
It doesn't mean a great deal in terms of qualification, (for Serbia at least - they are disappointingly adrift, and only a big win in Beograd will give them even the faintest hope of sneaking into the playoffs), but boy does it mean plenty for the people involved.
"These are the kind of matches you will remember your whole life," Croatia and Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic said after their last encounter, a 2-0 win for the Croats, in March. "Everybody is talking about it, asking and begging us to win, and we can't wait to go out there and play it."
This, as you'll know, is more than a football match, it's a national rivalry decades in the making, and those involved will hope that this rivalry is confined to the pitch, rather than off it. Violence in the previous game was mercifully limited, but assorted rather spicy chants were heard in Zagreb, and the Serbian anthem was booed. Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has encouraged all involved to let the game be played "in the right spirit" and for the two nations to "offer a hand of friendship", which sounds slightly odd coming from someone with his form, but as long as tensions are contained, this will be quite the spectacle.
Northern Ireland v Portugal
Nah, it probably won't happen. Nah. It won't. Will it? Could it? Whisper this very quietly, but Northern Ireland are getting better. And if they manage to beat Portugal...well, they probably won't get into the playoffs, much less qualify for the World Cup (a win would take them three points behind second-place Russia...if Russia lose at home to Luxembourg), but man...if they could give the Portuguese a scare similar to the one in Lisbon last time the two met. Michael O'Neill's men scored early through Niall McGinn, then grimly hung on until Helder Postiga nicked a point in the 79th minute.
The problem is that a similar rear-guard will be made much easier if they have some defenders, which at the moment isn't a given. Daniel Lafferty is suspended, Craig Cathcart is missing with a knee injury while Aaron Hughes and Ryan McGivern are both rated as "extreme doubts". Still, stranger things have happened, right...?
Scotland v Belgium
Ah, the hipsters' choice. After Marouane Fellaini completed his move to Manchester United, last season's top seven now each have a Belgian in their side, which doesn't validate this extraordinary generation of talent any more, but does at least signify that everyone is awake to it now. Indeed, with so much Belgian talent in such high places, can they even be described as the hipsters' choice? They're so 2011.
As for Scotland, they're very much a work in progress, with only one win from the qualifying campaign thus far, although, that one win was a terrific and morale-boosting success in Croatia last time out. The bad news is Gordon Strachan might have inadvertently sabotaged his own squad. "We were practising set-plays this morning and they really got into it," said Strachan this week. "So I've got a couple of injuries after that." Crikey.