By DAN KARELL
After nearly three months since the last World Cup qualifiers, much of the world returns to action beginning on Friday as the World Cup in Brazil next summer draws ever closer.
In UEFA, although many of the stronger nations are taking on the minnows, one of the matches on Friday is a rematch between Finland and Spain, which ended in a 1-1 draw after Teemu Puuki scored the game-tying goal on the road in the 79th minute and Finland held on.
Now, the two nations meet again, this time in Helsinki, with the Finnish squad hoping to take points off La Roja again. Puuki just earned a move to Celtic in Scotland and is in the squad, while Spain are missing Sergio Busquets and Juan Mata, as well as a few others. That being said, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva are all in the squad as they look to push Spain ahead in World Cup qualifying.
Meanwhile, in CONMEBOL, Colombia hosts Ecuador for a chance to go level on points with Argentina at the top of the nine-nation table.
Here is a closer look at the rest of this weekend’s World Cup qualifying action:
Outside of the Spain-Finland tie, two other matches to keep a close eye on take place in Group A and Group B.
In Group A, bitter neighbors Serbia and Croatia face off in Belgrade, with the hosts desperately needing a win to keep their World Cup hopes alive. With seven games played already, Serbia has accrued only seven points, with four losses proving to be very costly, especially a 1-0 defeat to Macedonia.
If Serbia fail to qualify for Brazil, 2014, it will end a run of two consecutive World Cup Finals appearances.
In Group B, first-placed Italy face second-placed Bulgaria, with the winner of the match potentially changing the outlook on who qualifies and doesn’t.
A win for Italy would put them seven points above the Bulgarians with three games remaining, and would give the third-placed Czech Republic a chance to move back into second place and a potential place in the playoff round. However, a Bulgarian win on Friday would separate the two southern European nations by just one point, and put the top spot in the group up for grabs once more.
Luckily for Italy, they have a very strong squad at their disposal, including Mario Balotelli, Danielle De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, and Gianluigi Buffon.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in UEFA, sorted by group:
Macedonia vs. Wales
Serbia vs. Croatia
Scotland vs. Belgium
Czech Republic vs. Armenia
Malta vs. Denmark
Italy vs. Bulgaria
Kazakhstan vs. Faroe Islands
Republic of Ireland vs. Sweden
Germany vs. Austria
Turkey vs. Andorra
Romania vs. Hungary
Estonia vs. Netherlands
Norway vs. Cyprus
Switzerland vs. Iceland
Slovenia vs. Albania
Russia vs. Luxembourg
Northern Ireland vs. Portugal
Latvia vs. Lithuania
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Slovakia
Liechtenstein vs. Greece
Ukraine vs. San Marino
Poland vs. Montenegro
England vs. Moldova
Georgia vs. France
Finland vs. Spain
Israel vs. Azerbaijan
The leader of the nine-team round robin stage, Argentina, has the first matchday off, which puts a number of other intriguing matchups into the spotlight.
Leading the four-game schedule on Friday is second-placed Colombia hosting third-placed Ecuador, with the winner putting themselves in a great position for second place overall in the group.
The last time the two teams faced each other in June, 2012, the late Christian Benitez scored the game-winner for Ecuador in Quito to defeat Colombia, but the Radamel Falcao lead Cafeteros are looking for revenge, and a chance to tie Argentina on points for the time being.
Also in action in Matchday 15, Luis Suarez plays his first official match since the Confederations Cup when Uruguay visits Peru, Chile hosts Venezuela, and last-placed Paraguay host Bolivia.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in CONMEBOL:
Colombia vs. Ecuador
Paraguay vs. Bolivia
Chile vs. Venezuela
Peru vs. Uruguay
The second round of African World Cup qualifying comes to an end between Friday through Tuesday, with only three of the ten four-team groups decided so far.
Algeria, Egypt, and the Ivory Coast have already qualified for the third round, but six of the final matches are of the win-or-go-home nature. In Group B, Tunisia hosts upstarts Cape Verde, while in Group D, Ghana face recent African Cup of Nations winner Zambia.
Group E has three nations, Congo, Burkina Faso, and Gabon all within reach of the third round, in Group F, Nigeria host Malawi for the top place in the group, in Group I, Cameroon host war-weary Libya, who have never qualified for the World Cup, and in Group J, Senegal hosts Uganda.
Samuel Eto’o has been called up by Cameroon for the Cameroon/Libya game, as well as his potential replacement, Barcelona forward Jean Marie Dongou.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s qualifiers in CAF, sorted by group:
Ghana vs. Zambia
South Africa vs. Botswana
Central African Republic vs. Ethiopia
Sierra Leone vs. Equatorial Guinea
Tunisia vs. Cape Verde
Gambia vs. Tanzania
Ivory Coast vs. Morocco
Burkina Faso vs. Gabon
Niger vs. Congo
Nigeria vs. Malawi
Angola vs. Liberia
Senegal vs. Uganda
Sudan vs. Lesotho
Kenya vs. Namibia
Zimbabwe vs. Mozambique
Benin vs. Rwanda
Cameroon vs. Libya
Togo vs. Congo DR
Which World Cup qualifying matchup are you looking forward to this weekend? Think Spain can take care of business on the road? How do you see Colombia playing vs. Ecuador?
Share your thoughts below.