Guide to the qualifiers
We round up how the race for a place in South Africa lies ahead of this week's World Cup qualifiers.
Last Updated: 31/03/09 3:12pm
It's that time again as the Premier League takes a breather and the best international teams Europe has to offer fight it out for a spot at the World Cup in South Africa. Nick Miller gives you a round-up of how the qualification land lies...
Some men are born to be number twos. Whether it's that they simply can't deal with the pressure, or a failure to take full responsibility for the big decisions, or that they're better behind the scenes.
The man who that applies to most is Carlos Queiroz. Twice now his feet have become itchy at Alex Ferguson's right-hand, and twice it has turned out he would have been best advised to stay in Manchester. The first time he joined the long list of failures at Real Madrid after less than a year in the job, and this time similar tears might be just around the corner.
For Queiroz has won just one competitive game in his time as Portugal manager, and that was against Malta. Since that opening match, they have been beaten by Denmark, drawn with Sweden and - most embarrassingly - Albania, and now sit fourth in Group One.
And it's not going to get easy in a hurry for Queiroz. One would imagine he'd like a couple of gimmes to make the table look respectable again, but as it turns out Portugal play the dangerous Swedes on Saturday, then have the following week off.
By that time current group leaders Denmark might be a full eight points ahead, given that they have the relatively simple tasks of playing Malta and Albania. Hell, even Hungary might have that sort of lead, as their fixtures mirror the Danes'.
Fixtures: March 28 - Malta v Denmark, Albania v Hungary, Portugal v Sweden. April 1 - Hungary v Malta, Denmark v Albania.
Just as the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, so Greece are the top team in Group Two.
To give you some idea of the quality levels on display here, we'll simply say this; Luxembourg are not bottom.
Other than the pleasing symmetry of all teams having played four games, there's little to recommend in this dog of a group that is home to about as much excitement as a party at Robert Peston's house.
Actually, that's harsh, as last time out Switzerland upset the Greeks' previously unbeaten apple-cart by sneaking a 2-1 win in the land of ouzo, Prince Philip and Shirley Valentine, which provided a flicker of interest among the yawns.
However, don't rely on them to topple Otto Rehhagel's men - the reason Luxembourg have some points in the bag is they dismissed the Swiss back in September last year.
Continuing with the symmetrical theme, we have a perfect set of reverse fixtures in this round of games. Luxembourg, Moldova and Israel are at home to Latvia, Switzerland and Greece respectively, then they so a swapsies and play each other again on Wednesday night.
Now, if they could only play some decent football...
Fixtures: March 28 - Luxembourg v Latvia, Moldova v Switzerland, Israel v Greece. April 1 - Latvia v Luxembourg, Switzerland v Moldova, Greece v Israel.
While leaders Slovakia are at Wembley on Saturday, the rest of Group Three will be getting down to some proper work.
And lurking in the shadows just waiting to pounce and take their top spot, are Northern Ireland. Nigel Worthington's boys have a pair of home games (against Poland then Slovenia) to move ahead, although they are one of four sides on seven points, sat just behind the Slovaks on nine.
It's a remarkable achievement for the Irish to even be competing at this sort of level, something that is encapsulated by the big new name in their squad. That man is Jamie Ward (and at 5ft 5 'big name' is something of a misnomer), a Sheffield United bench-warmer who could make his debut against the Poles. Ward signed for United in January, and is just about breaking into the first team, but puts the constant debate about how good England players really are into some form of perspective.
But it has always been thus. Over recent years Northern Ireland have been able to squeeze the best from their players. How David Healy, a man who can't get a game in the Premier League, could finish top-scorer in the Euro 2008 qualifiers is a minor miracle, and it's this ability that might just see them to South Africa.
Another notable game is Czech Republic v Slovakia - local derby and all that, and features the sides currently in first and third. Could be tasty.
Fixtures: March 28 - Northern Ireland v Poland, Slovenia v Czech Republic. April 1 - Northern Ireland v Slovenia, Poland v San Marino, Czech Republic v Slovakia.
Frankly, Wales were given a bitch of a draw when they were lumped in a group with both Russia and Germany.
With only one guaranteed qualification spot, Wales's long run without a tournament appearance will most likely continue, although they will retain a glimmer of hope if they can pull off a surprise on Wednesday.
Before that they play Finland in Cardiff, but the big game of the round comes when Herrs Podolski, Ballack, Lahm and Schweinsteiger rock up, with Germany sitting teutonically astride the group.
And a shock is not out of the question. You may recall back in October, Wales damn near held the Germans to a draw over in Moenchengladbach, but eventually wilted and let in a 72nd minute goal.
Still, that will have given the Welsh some confidence, even though their top boys might not be going into this one in ship shape. Craig Bellamy is in the squad, despite not having played for Manchester City since March 1, while Gareth Bale continues his curious season at Spurs.
There's every chance that their line could be lead by City bench-warmer Ched Evans and/or Rob Earnshaw, currently in the middle of a Championship relegation rough and tumble at Nottingham Forest, something that won't exactly strike fear into German hearts.
Tall order it may be, but one would think it's important for Wales to get something out of these two home games, what with Russia having six points for the taking in this round, as they face Liechtenstein then Azerbaijan.
Fixtures: March 28 - Wales v Finland, Russia v Azerbaijan, Germany v Liechtenstein. April 1 - Liechtenstein v Russia, Wales v Germany.
To use the finest Anglo-Saxon, Spain made a perfectly good England team look pretty clueless in February.
The speed at which Vicente del Bosque's boys ran rings around Terry, Carrick, Cole et al was quite terrifying, and it's not form that has been restricted to show pony displays in friendlies.
Spain are perched atop both the Fifa world rankings and Group Five, with a single solitary goal (hats off to Wesley Sonck of Belgium) besmirching their otherwise spotless record.
In truth that game against the Belgians was something of a struggle (David Villa got the winner on 88 minutes), but it's churlish to criticise a side that have four wins from four, scoring ten goals in the process.
The only side one suspects have a sniff of challenging the Spaniards is Turkey, and conveniently enough they are in Madrid this weekend, with the return fixture in Istanbul on Wednesday. So far the Turks haven't been massively convincing (two narrow wins and two draws), but as they showed last summer they are more than capable of an upset.
Elsewhere, Belgium play Bosnia-Herzegovina twice, while bringing up the rear are Armenia and Estonia, who have a pair of (largely inconsequential) clashes themselves.Fixtures: March 28 - Armenia v Estonia, Belgium v Bosnia-Herzegovina, Spain v Turkey. April 1 - Estonia v Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina v Belgium, Turkey v Spain.
Does anyone else feel slightly uneasy about England being in such a good position?
Only three teams have a 100 per cent record in the qualifiers. One is Spain, one is Holland (who have only played three games so far) and the other is England. And in some style too - only three goals conceded, and nobody has scored more (14) than Fabio's boys.
Of course, this being England, there's plenty of time for it all to go really badly wrong.
And if it is to blow up in our faces, it might happen in this round. Ukraine are a tricky proposition, and although their results haven't been uber-impressive so far (draw with Croatia, narrow wins v Kazakhstan and Belarus), they are still more than capable of making England look silly at Wembley.
For some reason nobody plays at the weekend, but Croatia have three points for the taking against Andorra on Wednesday, while the Kazakhs face Belarus on the same night.
England are clear favourites to qualify, and it would be difficult to imagine any other country muffing it up. But this is England...
Fixtures: April 1 - England v Ukraine, Kazakhstan v Belarus, Andorra v Croatia.
Allowing Raymond Domenech custody of some of the finest talents in Europe is a little like giving Bernie Madoff your life savings to invest wisely. But there he is, in charge of France.
As if guiding a team that included Henry, Benzema, Nasri and Diarra to a 3-1 defeat to Austria in the opening game wasn't enough, France messed up their latest chance to make amends by drawing 2-2 with Romania. Not even the addition of wunderkind Yoann Gourcuff was enough to make Domenech look competent.
The upshot of all this is that Group Seven is wide open.
Current leaders Serbia have nine points, as do surprise package Lithuania who are only second on goal difference. However, France have a chance to overhaul the Lithuanians with a pair of games over the next few days, the first in Kaunas and the second in Paris. Given France's talent for making a mess of things, these are possibly the most interesting pair of games in the entire international program. Pay close attention.
Elsewhere in the group, it could be another interesting clash in Constanta, where Romania play Serbia, then the Romanians travel to Austria for what should be, in theory, a gimme.
However, M. Domenech might disagree.
Fixtures: March 28 - Lithuania v France, Romania v Serbia. April 1 - France v Lithuania, Austria v Romania.
With Marcelo Lippi back in his rightful spot as Italy manager, it's no great surprise to see the Azzurri top of Group Eight.
What's slightly more surprising is how Ireland have kept pace with them so convincingly. Both teams are on ten points, with the Italians top by a single goal.
This may have a good deal to do with Giovanni Trapattoni, but it may also have plenty to do with the rest of the group being keen not to make much of a challenge. Nobody else has a win to their names, with Bulgaria's three draws the best the others can muster.
It could be a very big week indeed for Ireland. They face a potentially Berbatov-less Bulgaria at Croke Park on Saturday, followed by The Big One in Bari next Wednesday. If they can beat Italy then they will become favourites to win the group, which after the shambles that was Steve Staunton's Euro 2008 campaign, would be an extraordinary achievement.
Fixtures: March 28 - Ireland v Bulgaria, Cyprus v Georgia, Montenegro v Italy. April 1 - Italy v Ireland, Bulgaria v Cyprus, Georgia v Montenegro.
It's not been the best time to be a Scottish football fan of late.
The national side have been dull as can be, scoring just twice and picking up four points in their three games thus far. Of course that figure would be one greater if Chris Iwelumo knew how to hit a barn door, but they still sit in second place in Group Nine.
Obviously, the side above George Burley's men is Holland, who have three workmanlike wins under their belt. And that's the side that Scotland face this weekend.
They travel to Amsterdam not in the greatest shape, what with their first choice keeper (Craig Gordon) out of consideration due to lack of action and about half the squad dropping out with injuries. Add to that the rather ominous Dutch, for whom Klass-Jan Huntelaar is in ripping good form for Real Madrid, while club mate Arjen Robben will also cause a few problems should his hamstrings remain un-twanged.
After that they have a comparatively simple task at home to Iceland, but given their performances so far, don't count on a win from that one.
Fixtures: March 28 - Holland v Scotland. April 1 - Scotland v Iceland, Holland v Macedonia.