By DAN KARELL
As the 365 day mark to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil nears, the qualifying tournaments continue to ramp up with more and more pressure.
Though not every nation is competing in June, the ones that are have crucial matches that can decide a country’s fate moving forward. Half of UEFA will be involved on Friday but the South American federation CONMEBOL will have nearly a full slate this weekend, as will the African Confederation (CAF).
One match that you should keep an eye on is Russia vs. Portugal in Group F of UEFA qualifying, taking place in sunny Lisbon on Friday. Russia, who lead the group with 12 points from just four matches (their match last March against Northern Ireland was snowed-out), will face a Portugal side that nearly lost to Israel two match-days ago, and needs a win to get their qualifying hopes back on track.
Another match to keep an eye on is in South America on Friday as Lionel Messi and Argentina host Radamel Falcao Garcia and the jump-start Colombian side, looking to get back into the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
Former Argentina head coach Jose Pekerman is running the show in Colombia, and despite a surprising loss to Venezuala on the road during the last match-day, they are a side that has more than enough firepower up top to compete with Argentina. The last time these two met, it was a 2-1 victory for Argentina on the road.
In Africa, Bob Bradley and Egypt has a chance to clinch a place in the third round of CAF World Cup qualifying with a win over Zimbabwe on Sunday, coupled with a Guinea draw or loss to Mozambique. Despite their continental successes in the African Cup of Nations, Egypt has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1990.
Here is a closer look at the rest of this weekend’s World Cup qualifying action:
In addition to the Portugal match against Russia, two other games on Friday come to the forefront.
Belgium, undefeated in World Cup qualifying and coming off a dominating 4-2 victory over the United States, can secure a top-two place in Group A of UEFA qualifying with a win over Serbia. The Belgians though will have to fight off the Croatians, who are tied with them on 16 points at the top of the group, and face Scotland on Friday, which should be a win for the home Croatia side.
Italy face the Czech Republic in Group B in Prague on Friday, with the outcome likely determining the group winner. Italy, currently on 13 points, can put themselves in a great spot for automatic qualification with a win, while the Czech Republic, on eight points, can get back into a qualification spot with a win.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in UEFA, sorted by group:
(Group D has the match day off)
Group A: Croatia vs. Scotland
Belgium vs. Serbia
Armenia vs. Malta
Czech Republic vs. Italy
Republic of Ireland vs. Faroe Islands
Austria vs. Sweden
Albania vs. Norway
Iceland vs. Slovenia
Portugal vs. Russia
Azerbaijan vs. Luxembourg
Latvia vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein vs. Slovakia
Lithuania vs. Greece
Moldova vs. Poland
Montenegro vs. Ukraine
Finland vs. Belarus
Switzerland vs. Cyprus
Outside of the Argentina vs. Colombia matchup, the other three games in CONMEBOL qualifying feature teams in position to qualify against those down on their luck.
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any challenges in these weekend matches, especially for Venezuela, who have made massive strides in the last five to ten years to grow soccer players out of a baseball nation.
Venezuela will face a very tough test playing in the extreme altitude in La Paz, Bolivia, and will be without one of their top players, forward Salomon Rondon, who is suspended for the match. Bolivia has had mixed results, even at home, but a good result against Venezuela can put them in position to make a late charge at the fifth-place playoff spot for a final World Cup place.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in CONMEBOL:
Bolivia vs. Venezuela
Argentina vs. Colombia
Paraguay vs. Chile
Peru vs. Ecuador
All eyes center on Group D in African World Cup qualifying as regular entrants Ghana sit one point behind recent continental power Zambia.
The two won’t play each other until September, but with each of the sides playing twice in June, it could set up a crucial match when the two do meet in three months time. Ghana takes on last-place Sudan while Zambia hosts Lesotho in games that the group leaders should win.
Congo could book a place in the next round with a victory over Gabon and a draw between Burkina Faso and Niger.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in CAF, sorted by group:
(Group F has the weekend match day off)
Sudan vs. Ghana
Libya vs. DR Congo
Botswana vs. Ethiopia
Central African Republic vs. South Africa
Sierra Leone vs. Tunisia
Cape Verde vs. Equatorial Guinea
Gambia vs. Ivory Coast
Morocco vs. Tanzania
Zambia vs. Lesotho
Gabon vs. Congo
Uganda vs. Liberia
Angola vs. Senegal
Niger vs. Burkina Faso
Zimbabwe vs. Egypt
Guinea vs. Mozambique
Benin vs. Algeria
Mali vs. Rwanda
Togo vs. Cameroon
What do you think of these matchups? Do you see Colombia exacting revenge on Argentina in Buenos Aires? Do you believe Portugal can beat Russia at home? Think that Egypt can become victorious on the road?
Share your thoughts below.