For fans and players alike, the prospect of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is an idyllic one. The country has become a football superpower since the last time the tournament unfolded there, in 1950 and the world’s determination to enjoy a month in the home of the beautiful game will be matched only by the host nation’s keenness to right the wrongs of 64 years ago.
Somewhere, though, the dreaming and misty-eyed clichés have to stop, especially when you’re looking down the barrel of the road ending before it’s really begun. Three teams in particular have work to do if they are to be practising foot-volley on Copacabana and sipping on virgin caipirinhas in 15 months’ time.
Missing the cut would be especially hard to take for Portugal, whose match in Israel will be the first to kick off in this round of European qualifiers. The shared history between the countries both on and off the pitch would remove a major narrative from the 2014 finals, as well as excluding Cristiano Ronaldo from the party.
Defeat in Russia and a limp draw with Northern Ireland means there’s ground to make up on Fabio Capello’s side, and very little margin for error. A few ropey friendly results have heaped the pressure on coach Paulo Bento, and the dodgy form of a few key players including Pepe and Raul Meireles, along with João Moutinho’s fitness problems, are all causing concern. Portugal are 2.85 to top Group F.
The stakes are maybe even higher for Serbia, as they travel to neighbours (and joint group leaders) Croatia realistically needing a win to keep hope of qualification alive. After their Euro 2012 qualification campaign was a washout on and off the pitch, they began the road to Brazil with hope – a feeling that appeared justified when they hammered Wales 6-1 in Belgrade in the second group match. Successive defeats against Belgium and Macedonia have brought them right back to earth.
The problem here is lack of experience. Not one of Sinisa Mihajlovic’s squad has yet reached his 30th birthday. Dutch-based midfield duo Dusan Tadic and Filip Duricic are expected to spark Serbia from midfield, though they have barely 20 caps between them.
Nantes striker Filip Djordjevic has argued the regional media “are actually doing us a favour by taking a lot of the pressure off” in making Croatia such heavy favourites, but a lot of young talent needs to stand up quickly. Serbia could do with an incident-free day off the pitch, too. The Serbs are available at 3.25 to make the qualifying play-offs.
Perhaps the steepest task is the one Ireland have in travelling to Solna’s brand new Friends Arena to face Sweden – or, perhaps more pertinently, to face Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Giovanni Trapattoni has developed a loyal stable of fierce critics in Dublin and beyond, who have risen to crescendo since the humiliating 6-1 loss to Germany. Given his predilection for the defensive game, one wonders how Ireland will chase a much-needed win.
Defending Zlatan is easier said than done of course, given his ability to play the typical number nine or drop deep. He hasn’t been at his zenith since the turn of the year, but his cheeky chipped penalty and belligerent haranguing of the referee in PSG’s game with St Etienne on Sunday shows he has his appetite intact.
Even with more than a year to go to the World Cup, the travel plans will have taken shape by this time next week. A friend in Brazil recently warned me how expensive the country has become. The time has come to start saving up.
Bet on the World Cup qualifiers taking place this weekend
Read Andy Brassell's thoughts on European football every week