BERNE, March 20 (Reuters) - Hungary will be forced to play one of their most important matches for years in front of an empty stadium as they face Romania on Friday in one of several Eastern European World Cup qualifying derbies.
There is a potentially explosive meeting in Zagreb as Croatia and Serbia clash for the first time as independent countries while Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland and Ukraine come face to face in a game neither can afford to lose.
The programme also features the sort of matches which Germany coach Joachim Loew criticised on Monday when he suggested that Europe’s smallest teams should take part in a preliminary qualifying competition.
Group C leaders Germany themselves face a marathon trip to Central Asia to face a Kazakhstan side who are ranked 139th in the world while England visit tiny San Marino and Turkey are away to Andorra.
“We could possibly discuss whether it makes sporting sense to play twice against teams such as Kazakhstan, Andorra, San Marino or the Faroe Islands,” Loew told Kicker magazine on Monday.
Faroe Islands, who sensationally beat Austria 1-0 in their first-even competitive match in 1990, face the same opponents in Vienna although the chances of a repeat result in the Group C game are as remote as the islands themselves.
The winners of the nine European groups qualify directly for the 2014 World Cup along with the best of the second-placed teams.
The remaining eight second-placed teams take part in two-leg playoffs for Europe’s remaining four spots.
Hungary, always remembered for the ‘Mighty Magyars’ side in the 1950s, face a potentially decisive Group D match at home to Romania in their bid to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986
Leaders the Netherlands, who host Estonia, have 12 points from four games look set to coast home in first place while Hungary and Romania are level on nine points, six clear of struggling Turkey, as they battle for second place.
But Hungary will be playing in an empty Ferenc Puskas stadium as a punishment for the behaviour of their fans, who chanted anti-Semitic slogans during a friendly at home to Israel last August.
Croatia, level with Belgium on 10 points at the top of Group A, appear to hold all the cards as they host Serbia, who have dropped six points behind them. The Belgians visit Macedonia.
“I implore the Croatian fans to back us with their love for the national team and not hatred for our opponents,” Croatia coach Igor Stimac said ahead of the fixture which will be played under tight security in Dinamo Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium.
Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic played down local rivalries.
“The match with Croatia is the same as a match with Belgium. If we win we will gain three points. If the match could bring us six points it would be different.”
Poland and Ukraine meet in Group H where neither has made an impressive start. The Poles are third with five points from three games and Ukraine fifth with two. Leaders Montenegro (10) visit Moldova and England (8) are in San Marino.
There is a top-of-the-table clash in Group G where free-scoring Bosnia face miserly Greece. Both teams have 10 points from four games but while Bosnia have scored 15 goals, Greece have conceded just one.
Slovakia, three points behind in third, host Lithuania.
Bulgaria, second in Group B, have a chance to close in on leaders Italy when they host Malta, although like Hungary they must play in an empty stadium because of racist behaviour by their fans against Denmark.
The Italians are playing Brazil in a friendly.
Group F leaders Russia, who have maximum points from four games, visit Northern Ireland while, in Group E, leaders Switzerland visit table-propping Cyprus.
Spain and France, level on seven points at the top of Group I, both have home matches against Finland and Georgia respectively. They then clash in Paris next Tuesday. (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)