International Preview: 6 Players to Watch in This Weekend's World Cup Qualifiers
The road to World Cup 2014 is finally here.
Before we reach the carnival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, there's plenty of football to be played. One spot is guaranteed for the hosts, meaning there's 31 places left to fill.
Each qualifying match allows individuals to shine on a world stage. From exhausting trips to unknown minnows to headline matches against the elite, this is the time to make an impression.
Key players win matches. Here, I take a look at six stars who have the ability to snatch three points for their country. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments thread.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia
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New Russian boss Fabio Capello has already made some interesting decisions in his new job.
According to BBC Sport, the former England coach left Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko out of the squad to face Northern Ireland and Israel.
With the dismissing of these familiar names, Alan Dzagoev becomes Russia's key player.
An opening match against Northern Ireland is a godsend to the side that failed so miserably at Euro 2012. Now that Dick Advocaat is gone, Capello has the chance to explore a system that doesn't rely on squad ever-presence.
Dzagoev made three starts at the European Championships and scored three goals. His record for CSKA Moscow hasn't been quite so consistent. Last year, he netted five times in 30 Russian Premier League appearances.
Vitally, Dzagoev has managed to continue his international form into the new club season. He has tallied one goal in five games, indicating there is plenty more to come.
If the 22-year-old can maintain his scoring touch whilst continuing to torment defences, I can't see him staying in Russia much longer than January.
Northern Ireland will need to fight hard to get anything from this game. Capello is notoriously efficient. As Daniele De Rossi pointed out at Euro 2012, the surly Italian has the ability to scare other teams with his legendary reputation, according to Neil McLeman of The Daily Mirror.
Michael O'Neill's Northern Irish side will be delighted with a point from this one. If that's to come, Dzagoev's threat needs to be neutralised.
Abou Diaby, France
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For so long Abou Diaby has been the forgotten man.
Riddled with injuries, the imposing Arsenal midfielder made just one start and eight substitute appearances in all competitions last season.
The Gunners lost Robin van Persie and Alex Song over the summer, meaning the team's inspiration needed to come from another source. So far, Diaby has been the man to do it.
Many Arsenal fans will bemoan the press for only just giving Diaby such praise.
Before he was injured, the Frenchman had a similar effect. His agility and strength allow him to make powerful runs and his passing ability is crisp. Comparing him to other Premier League midfielders, I'm not sure anyone comes closer to matching Yaya Toure's physicality and style.
According to Fabien Perrin of ESPN, France coach Didier Deschamps has noticed this much, indicating he is delighted to have Diaby back.
His side travel to Finland for what is sure to be a tough opening fixture. Samir Nasri has been banned from the squad for poor behaviour during Euro 2012, ensuring Diaby needs to step up and take control once more.
Judging by his Premier League form, the towering midfielder will be the dominant figure in this match. France faces Spain twice in this group, so an early win is pivotal.
Robin Van Persie, Netherlands
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Robin van Persie's Euro 2012 displays underlined a lacklustre Dutch side.
Although he scored a fine goal at the tournament, van Persie wasn't able to make much of an impact. Considering the nation was one of the favourites before kick-off in Poland and Ukraine, this came as a huge disappointment to the unmistakably orange fans.
The Manchester United striker has enjoyed a scintillating start to life at Old Trafford. He spent most of last season bailing Arsenal out of trouble and has already proven he can do the same for the Red Devils.
New boss Louis van Gaal has made some surprising omissions from his squad. Rafael van der Vaart, Ibrahim Afellay and Nigel De Jong have been left at home after recently completing club transfers.
With such experienced players missing, Robin van Persie's importance increases. Van Gaal's first competitive match is against a resilient Turkey side who will be looking to cause an upset.
Huge pressure is on the Dutch to overcome their Euro 2012 heartache. I believe Robin van Persie's finishing will make the difference between a return to normality and another dent in the nation's pride.
Shane Long, Republic of Ireland
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Shane Long is playing rather well at the moment.
One idiotic penalty aside, the West Brom striker has enjoyed a great start to the Premier League season.
His club sits in third place after beating the Merseyside clubs and drawing with the Spurs. The Irishman has slotted home one goal against tough opponents and his general play has troubled some of the division's best defences.
The Republic of Ireland needs to shake Euro 2012 out of their system.
Coming up against the likes of Spain, Italy and Croatia is tough for any country, let alone such a massive underdog. Giovanni Trapattoni's men were outplayed throughout the tournament.
Long needs to prove himself to his manager. In August, Trapattoni branded the striker "idiotic" after he made false claims about his fitness before the clash with Serbia, according to The Guardian.
While many will single Robbie Keane out as Ireland's main threat, his international performances have been lacking of late. No goals in his last seven appearances for the Irish indicates his importance is starting to diminish.
An away trip to Kazakhstan might be an adventure into the unknown for Long and his teammates. If the West Brom forward continues to hustle teams at every opportunity, he'll finish the qualifying process as the nation's top scorer.
Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland
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Manchester United fans will want to forget about Xherdan Shaqiri.
He tormented Sir Alex Ferguson's men when playing for FC Basel in the Champions League, eventually knocking the European behemoth out of the competition.
Earlier in the year, Shaqiri also played a major role in the Swiss U21 side reaching the final of the European Championships.
Bayern Munich snapped the 20-year-old up on the back of such performances. Shaqiri has remained a peripheral figure at the German giants so far. Even so, he managed to grab two assists and a goal in 45 minutes during a cup match.
At international level, Shaqiri remains a key player for Switzerland. His direct style of play and ability to travel past players is a potent weapon. Shaqiri is at the centre of a Swiss side that has improved massively over the past couple of years.
An opening round fixture away at Slovenia could have been worse. With players such as Shaqiri in the side, Switzerland will be confident of getting the win before returning home to face Albania.
Jermain Defoe, England
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Moldova isn't the biggest test for an expectant England side.
Unfortunately for Roy Hodgson, the Three Lions enter their first qualifying match with some problems in the forward department.
Both Wayne Rooney and Andy Carroll are ruled out through injury. Jermain Defoe will certainly start the game after an impressive goal against Italy.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker has also scored one goal in three appearances so far this Premier League season. He has been used to leading the line by himself after a deal for Emmanuel Adebayor took all summer to negotiate.
With wide men alongside him, Defoe is a deadly finisher.
It's likely Hodgson will utilise the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left wing and the workman-like ability of James Milner from the right. Theo Walcott's playing time at Arsenal has been severely depleted this season, so it's possible he'll be sacrificed.
Either way, Defoe will be the spearhead of England's attack. Many will look to the Moldova match as an instant three points. If Hodgson wants to stamp his team's authority on the group anything less than a win is a poor result.
Defoe will also be in line to start against Ukraine in his country's second qualifier.
According to ESPN, the striker recently secured a three-year deal at the Spurs. For the first time in quite a while, Defoe is receiving the love he probably feels he is entitled to.
This could spell trouble for Moldova.