The European qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup really hot up on Tuesday with a series of big clashes involving countries who would expect to make it to the finals in Brazil.
Poland v England might not be top of the bill – that honour goes to Spain v France – but it is one of four matches between countries that saw action at Euro this year, and the two have a tradition of tense encounters.
Their most famous meeting was the 1973 World Cup qualifier at Wembley when England battered at the door all night but could not find a way past Jan “the Clown” Tomaszewski until it was too late. That match ended 1-1, with Poland going to the finals in West Germany instead of England, but in reality the damage had been done four months earlier with England’s 2-0 away defeat in Chorzow.
That was the last time Poland beat England, who have since compiled a record of nine wins and five draws. Eight of the 14 games have had no more than one goal between the sides, and four of the six meetings in Poland have ended all-square.
Poland gave their home crowd some exciting moments at Euro this year, which they co-hosted, but ultimately fell short despite being in the easiest group. They drew 1-1 in their two opening games, against Greece and Russia, and were then knocked out in a 1-0 defeat by the Czech Republic.
The problem for Poland was lack of goals – their failure to score against the Czechs was the seventh match out of eight where they had scored one or none (the exception was a 4-0 win over lowly Andorra).
They have scored twice in each of their World Cup qualifiers so far (2-2 in Montenegro and a 2-0 home win over Moldova), but breaching the England defence is going to be a more difficult task, even with the absence of John Terry.
England, too, have not found goals easy to come by during Roy Hodgson’s reign, and the only high-scoring match – apart from their games against the minnows of European football – was their 3-2 win over Sweden at Euro this year.
Wayne Rooney is back now, but whether that helps is open to question. He has matched the six goals scored in his breakthrough year 2004 only once and arguably he has turned from talisman to millstone.
England should win, but they couldn’t do that last month at home to Ukraine (a slightly better side than Poland) and a draw looks a distinct possibility. Under 2.5 goals is the best bet.
Spain v France is a repeat of the Euro this year quarter-final, which was won 2-0 by the eventual champions. Spain’s second goal was a stoppage-time penalty but the scoreline up to then hardly reflected their superiority.
Still, it is surprising that a country as good as France are such long odds for Tuesday’s match and there is a temptation to back them, but opposing Spain has been folly since their trophy-winning run started at Euro 2008. That run has clocked up 34 wins in competitive games, plus four draws and one defeat. France will surely defend in numbers, as almost all teams do against Spain, and are good enough to keep the score low.
Italy v Denmark is more ripe for an upset. The Italians have won their last eight competitive home games, which is a good record by any standard, but they have not often met a team of Denmark’s quality.
The past two years have seen Denmark win seven out of 12 competitive games and lose only three. While the teams that defeated them were in Italy’s class (Portugal, twice, and Germany), it is worth noting that both Netherlands and Portugal lost to them. A close match is a prospect, with Denmark on the handicap and under 2.5 goals both worth considering.
Germany should beat Sweden, but it would be no surprise if the visitors played their part in an exciting game. Over 2.5 goals looks a good bet.
Turkey, Greece and Ukraine look the best-value bets for wins, or on the handicap at least, but so many of the qualifiers are mismatches that under or over 2.5 goals is often the best play.
There could be plenty of goals in Belgium v Scotland, Czech Republic v Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina v Lithuania. The best bet for under 2.5 goals is Romania v Netherlands.
Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Serbia, Switzerland, Norway.
1 Belgium v Scotland over 2.5 goals
Classy Belgians look capable of routing the Scots
2 Romania v Netherlands under 2.5 goals
Holland could find this tougher than expected
3 Turkey on handicap
Turkey have not lost for two years to a team ranked below them
4 Greece on handicap
Greece are solid and Slovakia’s win rate is poor
5 Czech Republic v Bulgaria over 2.5 goals
Both teams are finding form and could produce an exciting match