Very simply ladies and gentlemen, with another bout of World Cup qualifiers on the docket tomorrow, we're going to look at some of the fixtures and the standings and determine which are the big games. The rules are simple: Look at the standings, look at who's sucking wind, look at the fixtures, look for juicy matches, correlate the toughness of the match with the team's position in its group. Voila! Who Needs to Win!?!?!?
PORTUGAL Needs to Win. The World Cup semifinalists and Euro quarterfinalists host Albania tomorrow, and with four points from three matches, they're not exactly covering themselves in glory. Granted, there's plenty of talent and money injured and on the sidelines. Ronaldo has been limited in his playing time, and Deco and Carvalho out with injuries as well. But this is as close to a gimme, a sitter if you will, that Portugal is going to get in this group--outside of Malta (anyone remember Baron Mikel Scicluna, the wrestler from the Isle of Malta?). Expect Portugal to stomp on Albania; anything less than 3-0 is unacceptable.
SWITZERLAND Needs to Win. The Euro hosts gave a decent accounting of themselves during the continental championships and if they expect to contend for a spot in South Africa, tomorrow's match in Greece is crucial. The Swiss are in third place with four points, three behind Israel. This is doable for Switzerland, but it needs to upend the group leaders in Greece. Israel travels to Latvia, and while Israel is talented, a road match is a road match. An Israel win and a Swiss loss, and this group could be decided.
CZECH REPUBLIC Needs to Win. This is the easiest of the groups to pick out. The Czechs are a world power in football, and have had noteworthy results in the Euro and World Cup. But with one point after three matches, the Czechs need to get it in gear. A good place to start is with its home match tomorrow against Slovenia, which is tied for first in the group with Poland with seven points.
RUSSIA Needs to Win. The darlings of Euro 2008, surprise semifinalists, need to recover some points after losing to Germany over the weekend. Russia is fourth with three points, and looking up at Wales, Finland and Germany in the standings. Russia hosts Finland tomorrow; should tell us a lot about the heart of this team.
BELGIUM Needs to Win. Belgium? Aren't they in second place, you ask? Aren't they within striking distance of the group leaders and European champions Spain, you ask? Yeppers. You Bet. And they host Spain tomorrow too, and better win. Victory puts Belgium in first in the group by a point and more importantly keeps space between itself and Turkey, which must go to Estonia. Turkey needs to win there too for many of the same reasons, but Belgium more so with Spain on the docket.
ENGLAND Needs to Win. England is winning; it's scoring goals; it's beating the teams it has to beat. Plus it leads the group. So why does it need to win? Lots of reasons, namely consistency and confidence. Wayne Rooney needs to keep scoring. Frank Lampard needs to keep playing brilliantly in the midfield. Steven Gerrard needs to keep getting out of Lampard's way. England travels to Belarus without John Terry and Ashley Cole. This won't be easy, but they need to find a way; otherwise, the noose is going to tighten.
AUSTRIA Needs to Win. Austria only because France and Romania are off. Austria was the little engine that could at Euro, taking Germany to the wire before faltering. Austria hosts group leaders Serbia. The hosts trail the leaders by two points, and a win here is crucial.
TOSSUP. I want badly to say Italy, but at home? Against Montenegro? If it's not 2-0 at the half, and 5-1 at the finish, the Italians should be ashamed. No, it's likely Bulgaria, which has two points and has to stare up at Ireland ahead of it in the standings. Bulgaria hosts Georgia, and should get the job done, and it better, because Ireland hosts Cyprus.