A pivotal week of FIFA World Cup qualifiers kicks off today with all nine European groups in action. Nowhere is the race for a place in Germany tighter than in Group 4 where only three points separate fourth-placed France and top side Republic of Ireland.
Those two meet in Dublin on Wednesday, but first France face the Faroe Islands. The return of Zinedine Zidane et al has revived French hopes and confidence is sky-high following the 3-0 defeat of Ivory Coast last month. But coach Raymond Domenech is taking nothing for granted. "There are four matches to play and we have to win them all. It's as simple as that," he said. "We must not consider some are easier than others. They are all worth three points."
Switzerland are one point off the pace set by Ireland with a game in hand, with Israel hot on their heels in third. The eight matches between the four top sides have all ended in draws, but Swiss coach Jakob Kuhn is ready to break that trend against Israel in Basle. "We want to be the ones to end that sequence," Kuhn said. "And obviously I don't mean by losing. A win would also reduce this four-team race to three teams, because I don't think Israel can stay in contention if they fail to get a point here."
Victory would put either side top, which is where Serbia and Montenegro will be in Group 7 should they prevail away to Lithuania. Ilija Petkovic's side meet leaders Spain in Madrid on Wednesday, but the coach is firmly focused on Saturday's showdown in Belgrade. "Lithuania is all I'm thinking about," he said. "It's a key match for us. Victory would mean a draw in Spain would be like a victory for us, and give us at least second place in the group."
Ukraine will become the first European nation to qualify if they win in Georgia, but the race behind them in Group 2 for a play-off spot is hotting up. Turkey will look to tighten their grip on second place when Denmark visit Istanbul, with new coach Fatih Terim putting faith in veteran defenders Alpay Özalan and Fatih Akyel, surprisingly recalled to the side after long absences.
In Group 1 the Netherlands will hope to consolidate their hold on top spot with victory in Andorra, while Romania must defeat the Czech Republic to keep their slender qualification hopes alive. "We promised good results but we have failed to deliver them," captain Cristian Chivu said. "It's time for a great performance."
Portugal will go five points clear in Group 3 should they win at home to Luxembourg, while Group 5 leaders Italy will end Scotland's slim chances with victory in Glasgow. In Group 6, Poland are at home to Austria looking to consolidate their two-point lead over England. "We're well aware of the huge significance of these games," striker Tomasz Frankowski said. "We have a great chance to qualify and it will be a great pity if we don't take it."
England remain confident of beating Poland to top spot and travel to Wales eager to put last month's 4-1 drubbing by Denmark behind them. "If we want to win the group we have to win tomorrow and all the games until we play Poland at the end," manager Sven-Göran Eriksson said.
Croatia on top
Group 8 leaders Croatia are away to Iceland, aiming to preserve their one-point lead over Sweden, who play Bulgaria. Germany continue their friendly programme against South Africa.
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