Italy look to pass Czech point on road to Brazil
Italy can take a huge step towards a chance of bidding for a record equaling fifth title with hosts Brazil at the 2014 World Cup with victory over the Czech Republic in their qualifier on Friday.
It is just one of several crucial European Zone qualifying matches as the pace hots up for places in Brazil next year.
The nne group winners will advance to the finals along with the best second placed team while the other eight runners-up will enter a winner takes all two-legged playoff.
Group A is a straight battle between 1998 semi-finalists Croatia and 1986 semi-finalists Belgium with the latter looking to return to the final stages for the first time since 2002.
They are both locked on 16 points with five wins from six matches and the only dropped points coming from a 1-1 draw between the sides back on September 11 in Brussels.
Coach Igor Stimac who was part of the team that finished third in 1998 will lead his side out against hapless Scotland in Zagreb, expecting to pile the pressure on Marc Wilmot's team who are at home to a thus far underperforming Serbian side.
Serbia who are nine points back will have a point to prove after being humbled 3-0 by Belgium in their first meeting at Belgrade last October.
The pick of the other matches sees Portugal try to close the gap on Group F leaders Russia as Guus Hiddink tries to extend his side's four game winning streak.
Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, though, is desperate for a home win as while they are just a point adrift of Russia they have played two games more.
"It's going to be a very important game because any margin of error will put us in trouble," said the Real Madrid forward.
"We have to win this game at home." he added.
Italy have a three point lead over Bulgaria at the top of Group B having played a game less while the Czechs can only think about victory as they trail Cesare Prandelli's men by five points with four matches to play.
"The game against the Czech Republic is of fundamental importance and a crossroads in qualifying for the next World Cup," said Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci.
"A win would mean putting our opponents under pressure and we would be able to begin next season with an important advantage that would allow us to take key steps towards qualification."
Elsewhere, English fans will be keeping a close eye on events in Podgorica where Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine defy Group H leaders Montenegro.
The hosts have never qualified for football's biggest showpiece but carry a two point lead over England into the pressure cooker tie while Ukraine are six points back and desperately need the three points to keep their chances alive.
There is also a massive game in Vienna where Austria and Sweden face off on eight points and joint second in Group C where Germany are runaway leaders and eight points clear.
The Republic of Ireland will be hoping they both draw as they are also on eight points in Group C and expected to take three points at home against pointless Faroe Islands in Dublin.
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