Group winners qualify for next year\'s World Cup finals in Brazil, while the eight best runners-up will play off over two legs for the remaining four places.
Lisbon: Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team mates must avoid going into holiday mode too soon as they round off a long season with a tricky World Cup qualifier against European Group F leaders Russia on Friday. Sitting third in the group, level on 11 points with second-placed Israel and a point behind this week's visitors who have played two games fewer, Portugal cannot afford another below-par performance like last year's 1-0 defeat in Moscow.
With Ronaldo having been rested in his club Real Madrid's final two La Liga games, it would be easy for him to be putting his feet up but Portuguese Football Federation vice-president Humberto Coelho is confident the forward is focused on business. "He always gives it all for the national team. Physically, it's not the best time of the year to play but other players had long seasons too," Coelho said.
"Russia are comfortably on top, with two games in hand an one point ahead, but we do not intend to drop the goal of reaching the precious second place, which gives us access to the playoff." Group winners qualify for next year's World Cup finals in Brazil, while the eight best runners-up will play off over two legs for the remaining four places.
While the Portugal players are being urged to wait a few more days before enjoying some relaxation, some of Russia's were shown by Russian media last week to be smoking and drinking together on a night out. Portuguese media picked up on it widely and when they asked striker Hugo Almeida what he made of the footage, he was pretty sympathetic.
"Sometimes it's important to unwind at the end of a long season, after so much effort and constant psychological pressure," he said. Portugal coach Paulo Bento said that as well as end-of-season fatigue, another issue making preparations difficult was the fact his players were scattered around Europe with their clubs while most of the Russians play in their domestic league.
"We have players spread around many championships so it's more difficult for us to prepare," he said. "It's a handicap but not an excuse." Only seven of Portugal's 25-man squad played for a club of their home nation this season. Centre back Pepe is suspended for the game at the Luz stadium (1945 GMT) while Ronaldo, Nani and Fabio Coentrao, three of the country's key performers, are all racing to recover from small knocks.
Bento's side are especially keen to qualify for the World Cup as it is being held in fellow Portuguese-speaking Brazil and know that since they are behind Israel on goal difference with both having played six games, they must avoid any more slip-ups. "We have to take (the) initiative and command the match for most of the time," Bento said. "We have no margin of error given the mistakes (we have already made)."
Russia coach Fabio Capello, who will be without injured forward Alexander Kokorin, hailed his team's good start to the qualifying campaign but said the job was far from done. "We started well and left our rivals behind. But the qualifying tournament is a long way to go and we have no right to relax until we win our place in the World Cup finals," the Italian told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. "We have played just four matches (out of 10) and the most serious clashes are still ahead. I expect tough opposition in every one of the remaining matches."
Belgium will seek to prove visiting Serbian coach Sinisa Mihajlovic right on Friday with his view that the hosts are among the three strongest soccer nations in Europe. Much-fancied Belgium have not qualified for a major tournament in more than a decade, but lead European World Cup qualifying group A, albeit only on goal difference from Croatia.
The Belgian camp is not short of confidence after an impressive 4-2 friendly victory over the United States last week and the squad were kept busy taking questions about possible club transfers and Mihajlovic's comment.
"Individually, only Germany and Spain are better than us," was the view of defender Jan Vertonghen. Coach Marc Wilmots sought to downplay comparisons, saying Croatia, fourth in FIFA's rankings, could say the same thing, with Belgium only 15th. "Having ambition is good. Germany and Italy go to every World Cup with the goal of reaching the final. That's the right spirit," he said.
With four matches remaining, a victory would guarantee Belgium at least second place in the group and a likely spot in the European playoffs for the World Cup finals in Brazil. The nine European group winners qualify directly and the eight best runners-up face home-and-away play-offs for the remaining four spots. Wilmots's principal headache is an injury to centre back Thomas Vermaelen, who has played in all of Belgium's round of qualifiers.
Bayern Munich's Daniel Van Buyten and Zenit St. Petersburg's Nicolas Lombaerts are obvious replacements, although Vertonghen could shift across and open up a spot for Sebastien Pocognoli at left back. A youthful Serbia have only a slim chance of staying in the hunt for a berth in next year's tournament in Brazil and their hopes of upsetting Belgium have been dented by the absence of several key players through injury and suspension.
Winger Zoran Tosic has a broken foot, forward Filip Djuricic is out with a fractured rib, midfielder Milos Ninkovic pulled out with a muscle injury and versatile Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic is suspended. Mihajlovic will be tempted to start uncapped striker Aleksandar Mitrovic after the 18-year-old's impressive form at Partizan Belgrade, where he scored 15 goals in his first professional season to help the Serbian champions to a record sixth successive league title.
Mihajlovic, however, will also expect better defending than in Serbia's 3-0 rout by Belgium in the reverse fixture, when he criticised captain Branislav Ivanovic for going too far upfield after his team fell behind.
Serbia dominated the start of that match, with Ivanovic telling reporters at their training camp that Serbia should have been 2-0 up after an hour.
"The Belgians enjoyed an emphatic win in the end but they didn't outplay us and we have learned our lessons from the defeat. It's going to be a tough task to beat a talented Belgium in Brussels but we never lose hope," the Chelsea defender said.
The Czech Republic hope a rousing performance against leaders Italy on Friday can cheer up a nation hit by serious floods and re-energise their faltering push for World Cup qualification. Michal Bilek's side complicated their World Cup hopes after drawing against Bulgaria and losing to Denmark in their last two home games with a 3-0 win in Armenia in March at least keeping them third in Group B.
Friday's match in Prague is expected to go ahead despite floods that have left swathes of the country submerged and threatened parts of the capital's historic centre. "We will try to raise the spirit of the people by beating Italy," goalkeeper Petr Cech told a Czech newspaper. Euro 2012 runners-up Italy lead the group with 13 points from five games, ahead of Bulgaria on 10 from six and the Czech Republic with eight points from five matches with five more to play.
The top side qualify directly for Brazil 2014 with the runners-up facing a playoff. "It will not be easy but it all depends on us," Cech added. "A victory would put us back in the running for qualification for Brazil but one point would also keep us in the hunt. A loss would make things extremely complicated."
One factor for the Czech team will be whether playmaker Tomas Rosicky can put in a full 90 minutes. The diminutive midfielder spent much of the year injured but came on strong at the end of the season for his English club side Arsenal. Rosicky's skills will mean nothing if the Czechs continue to struggle in front of goal with only six goals scored in their five matches so far.
Italy, who have no real surprises in their squad, have knocked in 12 goals in their five matches but are taking nothing for granted in Prague before they head off to the Confederations Cup in Brazil.
"The Czechs are one of those teams you have to go out and beat because they don't give you anything," goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon told reporters. "You play a below-par game then you risk losing, if you play only normally then you might be able to grab a point but we want to play a great game to increase our lead at the top of the group."