Qualification for the 2014 World Cup rolls on, with UEFA and other confederations running through a fresh slate of matches tomorrow and Wednesday. For some reason, last weeks qualifiers were mostly mismatches or low-level match-ups, without a lot of collisions between real contenders. We had a few upsets, I guess - Italy being held to a draw by Bulgaria, Poland held to a draw by Montenegro - but it was mostly just like the Germany vs. Faroe Islands match: the biggest and best sides managing to do enough to win, even if they didn't have to use every gear to do it.
Starting tomorrow, though, there are several intriguing match-ups that might give the contenders a better test. Climb aboard for a preview and a look at the landscape.
As we know, UEFA has its national sides divided into 9 different groups. Within each group, the group winner (after next October, when each team will have played every group rival twice) will advance directly. Then, the runner-up of every group (except one) will enter a play-off to determine another 4 teams that will advance. You can check out this page for more information, but the basic scenario is this: you really want to win your group, but finishing second-best in your group is still OK. Finishing third in your group means no trip to Brazil.
So let's do a quick run through the groups, with a look at tomorrow or Wednesday's most important match for each one ...
GROUP ONE - Belgium, Croatia, Scotland, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales
Possibly the most interesting group, with no team that would be considered unbeatable (though Croatia is very solid), but 4 teams that would have a legitimate hope to make Brazil: Croatia, Belgium, Scotland, and Serbia. Scotland and Serbia fought to a draw on Saturday that left them both alive but that gave neither the big boost they would have wanted.
Tomorrow's biggest game is certainly Belgium vs. Croatia, the two who currently sit atop the group table. Belgium follows this one up a match against Scotland and then with 2 straight against Macedonia. If they can get a win tomorrow, they suddenly look like they have a shot making the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
GROUP TWO - Armenia, Bulgaria, Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Malta
You would have thought Italy would win the group and Czech Republic would be the best bet to get the runner-up playoff spot, but Bulgaria's gutty draw vs. Italy throw a bit of confusion into the mix. A long way to go until next year, though, and the Italians are still a good bet to stamp their tickets to Brazil.
Tomorrow's biggest game is probably Armenia vs. Bulgaria. Neither is a traditional powerhouse, but Armenia is atop the table with 3 points and Bulgaria has 1 point after facing the group's toughest opponent. A win here would put either side in good shape.
GROUP THREE - Germany, Austria, Faroe Islands, Ireland, Sweden, Kazakhstan
You never want to take anything for granted, but this was certainly seen as Germany's group to lose. The 3-0 win over Faroe Islands reinforced the feeling that Ireland, Sweden and Austria would be fighting for the second-place playoff spot.
Tomorrow, Germany battles an Austria side that's still without David Alaba. Toni Kroos returned to national-side training over the weekend and is expected to start. Schmelzer is out, just after it seemed like he was really going to get some use. Gomez is still out, and Klose looked very human in missing a few chances vs. FRO. Any chance Jogi will mix it up and put someone else up top? We'll be here from tomorrow morning with the Match Day Thread.
GROUP FOUR - Hungary, Netherlands, Estonia, Turkey, Romania, Andorra
Netherlands would surely have been the favorite going into the qualifiers, but their poor play this past summer means nothing is assured. They looked OK in beating a decent Turkey side last week, though. Hungary crushed Andorra to go to the top of the group table; they now get a tougher test as the Dutch come calling. That's a very interesting match from the Szusza Ferenc stadium in Újpest. Zoltán Gera's boys will be fired up; if they can get an early goal and then force the Netherlands to attack, I think they have a real shot at getting at least a point tomorrow. But if Netherlands scores first, it would be tough for Hungary to come back.
GROUP FIVE - Albania, Iceland, Switzerland, Cyprus, Norway, Slovenia
Possibly the weakest group, with a decent Swiss squad the only ones who I'd consider a threat to make it to Brazil and then actually do anything there. I'll say Switzerland vs. Albania will be tomorrow's biggest match, just because at least the Swiss might be fun to watch.
GROUP SIX - Russia, Portugal, Israel, Azerbeijan, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland
Another group without a ton of star power. It was figured that Russia and Portugal would be battling for the top spot, with the loser getting the runner-up playoff position. None of their upcoming matches look that great, but Israel vs. Russia has at least the potential for an upset.
GROUP SEVEN - Bosnia/Herzegovina, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lichtenstein
Whatever group I earlier said was the worst, I take it back. This one is even uglier. Although I really like that Bosnian side, and was disappointed that they didn't make the European Championships earlier this summer. Greece's "run" at the Euros didn't really convince me of much.
Greece did win last time out, though, and have a chance to go a perfect 2-for-2 tomorrow against Lithuania. If they get a win, they're in a good position to fight for the group title; a loss or a draw, and they probably fall behind. So we'll call that the game of the day in a group that doesn't give us much worth watching.
GROUP EIGHT - England, Poland, Montenegro, Ukraine, San Marino, Moldova
A tough situation for a few teams here; you get a few "days off" against weaker sides, but England, Poland, and Ukraine would all say they had legitimate chances at making the WC, but one of them won't advance beyond this stage. And Montenegro isn't a complete non-factor, as they've made some noise in recent years. Ukraine and Poland haven't had to do qualifiers for a while, both getting a free pass to Euro 2012.
It was Poland who looked the most rusty last week, getting held by Montenegro in an exciting match. But tomorrow's biggest game is clearly England vs. Ukraine from Wembley. After this one, England has 2 of their next 3 vs. San Marino, so if they win tomorrow, the English fans can probably book their tickets to Brazil.
GROUP NINE - Spain, France, Belarus, Georgia, Finland
Some talent here, but not much excitement, as Spain and France would be heavily favored to go 1-2. I don't necessarily find Spain very exciting, but they are the defending champs. And they will make their first appearance in these qualifiers tomorrow vs. Georgia, so let's call that the game of the day.
Overall, I'd say Germany-Austria will be fun to watch, Croatia-Belgium will be really fun to watch, Hungary-Netherlands has potential, and England-Ukraine might be worth checking in on. We still haven't seen any true clashes between top-level teams, but tomorrow's slate looks a lot more exciting that the one last week.
As always, if you have any corrections or additional information, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave it in the comments. Thanks for reading.