European qualification picture is becoming clear and there are some major names sweating over their places in South Africa next year.
Portugal can be backed at 40 to lift the trophy, a seemingly attractive bet for a team that has reached two semi finals and one final in the last five major tournaments. However, there are serious doubts about their presence at the finals, as they are halfway through their qualifying campaign and have registered only one win.
Carlos Queiroz’s outfit are seven points adrift of Denmark and Hungary (who have played one game more), a substantial gap considering they still need to play the leading teams three times.
Portugal can therefore still get back into the automatic qualification picture, but they cannot afford a slip-up in Albania this weekend.
The home side are hard to break down at home, having held Sweden to a goalless draw in their opening fixture and would consider a point a major triumph.
Portugal should be backed to keep a clean sheet – they have not conceded in their three games since being hammered 6-2 by Brazil in a friendly last November – and they have enough attacking talent to unlock the hosts’ defence. A 1-0 away win is the scoreline to follow here.
Sweden are the other team that was expected to progress from Group 1, and they are also struggling. They have six points from four games and although they are unbeaten, draws need to be turned into wins if a sixth consecutive major finals appearances is to be secured.
The Swedes host joint leaders Denmark in what should be a lively encounter. The Scandinavian rivals famously had a June 2007 World Cup qualifier in Copenhagen abandoned after a Danish fan ran on the pitch to confront the referee with the game poised at 3-3 in the closing stages after Denmark had trailed 3-0.
The visitors were awarded the three points as a result and they desperately need a similar outcome this time around. Three goalless draws suggests they are struggling for fluency in attack, although two of those stalemates were against Portugal. I fancy them to edge this one by the odd goal.
Croatia are another big team playing catch-up. An automatic qualification place from Group 6 is out of their hands thanks to England’s 100% record record but Slaven Bilic’s men should be backed to grab second spot and a play-off place.
The Croats host Ukraine, the other contenders for second place, this weekend. The teams played out a 0-0 draw in October, but there should be some goals in the return match. Croatia’s three home games have produced 12 goals and I will be backing them to win a match that contains at least three goals.