With another international break now upon us, it's time for a key clash in Group B between leaders Italy and Bulgaria.
Italy can wrap up this group in the next week—with this contest and a match against the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
If the players can secure two wins, Italy will win the group and qualify for the World Cup. A win and a draw would all but send the Azzurri through. Meanwhile, two draws would see the Italians remain atop the table, but their lead would be precarious.
This one promises to be fun. Let's break it down.
When: Friday, September 6 at 2:45 p.m. ET (7:45 p.m. BST)
Where: Stadio Renzo Barbera, Palermo, Italy
With three points on the line, it doesn't get much more important for the two leaders of Group B. Italy tops the group with 14 points, while Bulgaria currently resides in second with 10 points—just a point ahead of the Czech Republic.
A loss could be devastating for Bulgaria, as the Czechs could leapfrog them on the table. While there would still be games remaining to catch the Czech Republic, the Bulgarians must finish second if they are to be eligible for the Round 2 playoff between the eight best runners-up.
This game is a golden opportunity for Bulgaria. According to the AFP (via The Times of India), the Italians will be without several key players:
Strikers Mario Balotelli (Milan) and Dani Osvaldo (Southampton) and midfielder Riccardo Montolivo (Milan) are all suspended while midfielder Claudio Marchisio and defender Andrea Barzagli (both Juventus) are injured.
The Italians are the superior team and should have the depth to overcome their losses, but Bulgaria should pounce on this opportunity. This could ultimately be the key game in their World Cup qualifying and decide whether they'll make the trip to Brazil.
The Italians are without several key players in this game, and will go so far as to experiment with a 4-2-3-1 formation to neutralize those losses. One would imagine Bulgaria has a great chance to steal a point—or perhaps even three—in this contest.
Which team wins?
However, this is still Italy—in Italy—and with players like Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi manning the midfield, the team will still be formidable.
Bulgaria will like their chances, but the Italians will prevail in a tight contest, 1-0.