7 Bold Predictions Ahead of World Cup Qualifying
In 2011, 203 teams began the Brazil 2014 World Cup qualification process and after the next round of matches, we will have a clearer picture of who will join the host nation next June.
Jack Wilshere, fresh from his England being a "local team for local people" speech to the BBC at a recent press conference, will lead the Three Lions into action against Montenegro. Mesut Ozil, his teammate at Arsenal, will be looking another easy win with Germany over the Republic of Ireland, having beaten them 6-1 in the Aviva Stadium, to qualify.
Chile will travel to Colombia with everything on the line for both countries, Belgium only need to avoid defeat to Croatia to gain their finals place, Spain only need to beat lowly Belarus to win Group I and condemn France to the playoffs, and Honduras entertain the already-qualified Costa Rica with the very real hope of joining them in Brazil.
In short, everything is to play for.
Here, Bleacher Report offers seven bold predictions ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifiers.
Jack Wilshere Will Smoke Montenegro and England Could Shock Everyone in Brazil
Jack Wilshere garnered a lot of attention last week after he was photographed with a cigarette outside a nightclub.
The fact that he was seen in the twilight hours following the Gunners' impressive 2-0 win over Napoli was not even questioned, but his dalliance with a cigarette was.
His manager, Arsene Wenger, responded to the Guardian by saying:
I disagree completely with that behaviour.
There are two things – first of all when you are a football player you are an example and as well you don't do what damages your health.
The fact is that you can damage your health at home, you can smoke at home and you can drink at home, and nobody sees it, but when you go out socially you also damage your reputation as an example.
Wilshere responded by scoring his first goal in eons against West Brom in what turned out to be his 100th match for Arsenal.
England are heavy favourites to beat Montenegro and have lost just once in 20 games under Roy Hodgson. All four of their wins in this campaign have come against Moldova and San Marino, so now is the time to break that duck.
They still need full points from the games against Montenegro at Wembley and Poland (on Tuesday) but should pick up six points without too much hassle.
When they do smoke the opposition (pun intended), expect the English media—so reserved in their World Cup optimism thus far—to begin a trickle of hope of a World Cup win that will turn into a torrent come next June.
Germany Will Tonk Ireland to Qualify
When Germany met Ireland at the Aviva Stadium one year ago, they ran out easy 6-1 winners.
Joachim Low's team only need one point from their final two games to guarantee qualification. Having scored 35 goals in their last 11 internationals, including 28 in just eight qualifiers, including that famous 6-1 win, they are heavy, heavy favourites to beat the not so plucky Irish.
Since then Ireland have sacked Giovanni Trapattoni. The FAI have tasked the fantastically named Ruud Doktor with finding his replacement, according to RTE.
Heading into Noel King's first match as interim manager, a former junior international who has managed as every single level of the game in Ireland, they will be without the suspended Richard Dunne and John O'Shea in Cologne.
In short, their hopes are not high.
Ireland have a number of returning faces in the squad with the likes of Andy Reid, Darron Gibson and Anthony Stokes all coming back from exile under the previous regime.
Their hopes will be purely on giving a good and honest performance, but don't expect anything other than a glorious defeat.
Spain Will Qualify and Michu Could Shine
Belarus have a snowballs chance in hell of beating Spain in Palma de Mallorca.
The Spaniards, despite only scoring 10 goals in six qualifiers, should run out easy winners and could even hit double figures. They beat Belarus 4-0 when the two teams last met.
Swansea City's Michu is hoping to make his full debut. The Swans midfielder-cum-forward could be the right man in the right place at the right time as Vicente Del Bosque often plays without a recognized striker.
Michu could slot in seamlessly and become an important asset as he has become one of the best exponents of playing as an attacking midfielder-cum-striker in the Premier League over the last 18 months.
If he impresses, he could figure highly next summer.
Belgium and Croatia to Draw
The rise in Belgian football has been astonishing to observe over the last 15 years, and they are rightly regarded as dark horses for Brazil 2014.
That being said, Marc Wilmots' team still need to get there and they only need one point from their upcoming crunch game against Croatia in Zagreb.
For football anoraks across the world this will be the game to watch.
Belgium are ranked sixth and Croatia 10th in the latest FIFA rankings. The Belgians only need to draw in Croatia to guarantee qualification, while Croatia only need to draw to guarantee a playoff spot.
They go into battle separated by five points and with easy games to come. Belgium will face Wales in Brussels in their last match, while the Croats will travel to Scotland.
There is almost no alternative reality that sees Belgium losing twice as Croatia win twice.
That could color Igor Stimac's outlook on the game, while a draw could suit everyone.
The Match to Watch: Colombia vs. Chile
If Belgium and Croatia turns into a bore fest with both teams intent on a draw, then the undoubted king of the World Cup qualifiers will be Colombia vs. Chile.
Both sides are already guaranteed a playoff spot at the very least. They will both be looking to join Lionel Messi and Argentina in Brazil as confirmed qualifiers. To do so all one has to do is beat the other.
Radamel Falcao joined high-spending AS Monaco during the summer and has scored seven goals in eight games for the French club. He is without doubt the main threat in a Colombian team that has quality in almost every position.
Colombia are currently two points ahead of Chile with just two games to go.
Chile will head to the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez with the very real thought that they cannot lose. Ecuador and Uruguay are just two points behind Jorge Sampaoli's team. The Chileans face Ecuador in their last match.
Both sides play good attacking football and need to win to guarantee qualification. Colombia are slight favorites, but Chile are unbeaten in their last seven matches and recently drew 2-2 with Spain. Definitely one to watch.
Argentina Will Be Too Strong for Peru Despite Missing Messi and Higuain
Argentina will be too strong for Peru despite the fact that Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain are out injured.
Goal.com confirmed that Messi was allowed to pull out of the squad after the Barcelona forward pulled a hamstring against Almeria. Messi will joined Higuain on the injury list; the Napoli striker was forced to miss his team's recent Champions League clash with Arsenal after injuring an ankle.
Despite Alejandro Sabella missing his two main strikers who have scored 58 international goals between them, Argentina should have too much firepower for Peru.
Sergio Aguero, who is no slouch in front of goal with 19 goals from 46 games, is the man most likely to lead the front line.
Peru have lost 19 of their last 20 World Cup matches on the road, while Argentina have only lost once in 15 qualification matches.
Honduras and Mexico to Qualify from CONCACAF
The United States and Costa Rica have already qualified. This leaves one position left in the automatic slots and one playoff position available.
With two games left, Panama, Honduras and Mexico could all finish in those coveted positions.
Honduras have the current advantage as their destiny is in their own hands. They have 11 points, while Panama and Mexico are tied on eight points each.
Honduras play Costa Rica at home on Friday, before travelling to Jamaica, who are in last place, on Tuesday. Panama and Mexico face each other Friday before playing the U.S. and Costa Rica, respectively.
Honduras will be hoping to put their qualification to bed by beating the already-qualified Costa Ricans. Luis Fernando Suarez's team have relied heavily upon their home form. They are unbeaten in Honduras during this campaign.
The real excitement in CONCACAF will be played out between Mexico and Panama.
There is no margin for error for either side. Mexico, the Olympic champions, have been surprising strugglers in this campaign and have only recorded one win from eight games. That win was away to Jamaica, who are easily the worst team in the group.
Panama are an interesting side and have only conceded two goals at home in an unbeaten run. They have, however, only taken two points on the road and will find the going difficult against a Mexican side with their backs against the wall.
Honduras will take four points from their last two games to qualify automatically and Mexico will beat Panama and take at least a draw from Costa Rica to finish in the playoff spot. From there they should qualify for Brazil without too much difficulty.
Statistics provided by FIFA, UEFA and Soccerbase.
Betting provided by Oddschecker.