The European qualifiers to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil kick off this weekend, with 25 matches in nine groups. Euro finalists Italy travel to Bulgaria; Germany have an easy start facing the Faroe Islands at home while England travel to Moldova carrying the usual weight of being overrated and high expectations.
Croatia vs Macedonia – The Croats are the favorites to finish on top of the Balkan group, hosting a Macedonian side that finished fifth in the Euro 2012 qualifying group, winning only two matches against Andorra and losing the rest of their away fixtures. (20:15)
Wales vs Belgium – Time for a very talented Belgian side to reach their first major tournament since the 2002 world cup, projected to finish among the top two sides in the group alongside Croatia. Wales are a never easy fixture at home, but the gap in quality is evident, especially the talent Belgium have in the middle of the field with Hazard, Fellaini, Dembele and Witsel. (19:45)
Scotland vs Serbia (Saturday) – Serbia usually do well in World Cup qualifiers, making the last two tournaments, but are in a very tough group alongside Croatia and Belgium. Scotland are very tough to beat at home, especially for a young and inexperienced squad like Serbia have, with a draw looking like a likely outcome. (15:00)
Malta vs Armenia (20:00)
Bulgaria vs Italy (21:45) – Bulgaria haven’t been to a major tournament since Euro 2004, but it doesn’t seem likely they’ll make it out of this one with the Italians, Czechs and Danes in the group. Prandelli will try to have a decent start to a qualifying campaign for once, although his striking force combined has only 4 goals for the national side.
Denmark vs Czech Republic (Saturday, 20:15) – Two sides that both played in the Euro, with the Czechs not impressing but making it into the quarterfinals. Without any new and impressive talent to speak of for both sides, the Danes are probably slight favorites to win the opener.
Kazakhstan vs Ireland (22:00) – Same squad, same system that worked in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and failed in a tough group against Croatia, Spain and Italy during the summer. It’s hard to imagine Ireland qualifying in a group with Germany and Sweden, but Sweden tend to mess up from time to time in qualifiers. Kazakhstan have only two players playing outside of the country.
Germany vs Faroe Islands (20:45) – Should finish first, will finish first. The only questions are will they sweep the group and how many goals they score against such a weak opponent.
Estonia vs Romania (21:00) – No longer a bottom feeder, Estonia finished second in the Euro 2012 qualifiers behind Italy and in front of Serbia and Slovenia, eventually losing in the playoffs. No one playing in a real big club, but they’ve got enough talent spread over Europe, while Romania couldn’t beat anyone but Luxembourg in the 2012 qualifiers.
Andorra vs Hungary (20:30)
Netherlands vs Turkey (20:30) – Once again, Louis van Gaal on the sidelines for the Dutch team, trying to bounce back from their Euro failure, while the hard to predict Turkey will find it hard to get something out of a Dutch team that hardly loses in quailfiers, although Van Gaal did miss the World Cup in his previous tenure back in the early 00’s.
The dark horse group, with no clear favorite to qualify. Switzerland, with five Serie A players and five in the Bundesliga probably have the best odds of making it through, but Norway, Slovenia and even Iceland and Cyprus see themselves as someone with a chance of finishing second or even first.
Albania vs Cyprus (20:30)
Slovenia vs Switzerland (20:30)
Iceland vs Norway (18:45)
It’s hard imagining anyone but Russia and Portugal finishing 1-2, and it’ll be interesting to see how Portugal and especially Cristiano Ronaldo acts on the pitch after all the drama he’s caused this week.
Russia vs Northern Ireland (19:00)
Azerbaijan vs Israel (21:00)
Luxembourg vs Portugal (20:45)
Another very tough group to predict, with Greece as the ‘on the paper’ favorites to win the group, although you never really understand how and why. Slovakia and Bosnia are gunning for the top spot as well.
Liechtenstein vs Bosnia (19:00)
Lithuania vs Slovakia (21:15)
Latvia vs Greece (21:30)
A lot of familiar faces all around, with England a bit ahead of Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro, hoping to get off to a nice start in Moldova while Ukraine and the negligble San Marion take the weekend off.
Montenegro vs Poland (20:30)
Moldova vs England (21:45)
The small group with only 5 teams, but with Spain and a team that hates seeing them, France, now the obvious candidates for a second spot after the clear difference between the sides in the Euro. Belarus, Finland and Georgia will try to make their hosting jobs a tricky visit for the big two.
Georgia vs Belarus (21:00)
Finland vs France (21:30)