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U.S. vs. Mexico: Has the rivalry lost some bite?

U.S. vs. Mexico
 By Kevin Palmer

Previewing this week's best Euro 2016 qualifying matches

Cynics of UEFA's decision to bolster their European Championship finals entry list to 24 teams will be offered more than a little ammunition to back up their theory that the expanded competition has diluted the pre-event qualifying campaign this week.

England's Wembley meeting with San Marino (FIFA ranking 208) at Wembley on Thursday, Holland's clash with Kazakhstan (127) a day later and the Republic of Ireland's meeting with Gibraltar (unranked by FIFA) are some of the fixtures on the horizon that will slip neatly into the mismatch category, with every international break between now and the finals in France will throw up similarly one-sided fixtures.

However, there are some potentially thrilling games to enjoy over the next six days, as UEFA roll out their plan to have a six-day festival of international football with matches scheduled for every day and designed to maintain interest of football lovers across the continent for an extended period.

With two teams qualifying automatically from each group and third-place finishers also having a chance to snare a place in Euro 2016, defeat at this early stage of qualifying is not fatal for any nation, yet several teams have a chance to all-but secure their passage to the finals if they can notch up victories in the coming days.

SWEDEN vs. RUSSIA: Stockholm, Thursday

Russia cruised past Lichtenstein last month, but Sweden will provide a stern test.

The vital statistics: Russia top Group G after a 4-0 win against Lichtenstein in their first match, with Sweden looking for a first win after a 1-1 draw against Austria last month.

A draw against Austria in their opening qualifier was an acceptable result for Sweden as they look to bounce back from their disappointment of missing out on a place in last summer's World Cup finals, but they dare not lose their first home game of the competition as they welcome Russia to Stockholm and the news that talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the game does little to bolster their confidence.

The Swedes have slipped to 32nd place in the latest FIFA rankings and they need their main man to be fit and firing against Fabio Capello's Russia, with the heel injury that kept Ibrahimovic out of Paris Saint-Germain's 3-2 Champions League win against Barcelona last Tuesday a concern for Sweden boss Erik Hamren.

Verdict: Group G will only get interesting if Sweden lose this game and with Ibrahimovic out, they need to find a hero from somewhere else.

SLOVAKIA vs. SPAIN: Zilna, Thursday

Spain face their first test away from home in Slovakia after putting away Macedonia in a 5-1 win in September.

The vital statistics: Dethroned world champions Spain strolled to a win against Macedonia in their first Euro 2016 qualifier, while Slovakia impressively saw off Ukraine away from home.

The shockwaves from Spain's disastrous World Cup displays last summer will take time to heal and while their progress to the Euro 2016 finals should be serene in a group they look certain to win with ease, re-establishing the aura that was lost from Vincente Del Bosque's side in Brazil last June is the function of these qualifiers.

This away game in Slovakia may be their toughest test on the road to the finals in France and all eyes will be on how Spain use Chelsea's Diego Costa, with his club manager Jose Mourinho strongly advocating his striker should only play a minor role in this tie because of an ongoing injury problem.

Verdict: Spain to win, but this is a team in transition and their performances may fluctuate as a result.

WALES vs. BOSNIA: Cardiff, Friday

Wales will depend on Gareth Bale to guide them throughout the qualifying campaign.

The vital statistics: Gareth Bale's brilliance secured Wales a win in their first qualifier on an artificial pitch against Andorra, while Bosnia suffered a surprise defeat against Cyprus.

Wales needed Real Madrid star Bale to be at his brilliant best as they stumbled to a victory against Andorra on a tricky plastic pitch last month, with the defeat for Bosnia adding to the belief that Wales are on course to qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 1958.

Manchester City's Edin Dzeko will lead the Bosnian line in Cardiff, and while the hamstring injured that rules Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey's out of this tie is a hammer blow for Wales boss Chris Coleman, a victory in this tie will hand Wales a huge stride toward the Euro 2016 finals.

Verdict: Bale needs to carry Wales once again and he is good enough to do just that.

POLAND vs. GERMANY: Warsaw, Saturday

Mario Gotze and Germany will need to produce a better performance in Poland than they did against Scotland last month.

The vital statistics: World champions Germany secured a less-than-impressive 2-1 win against Scotland in their opening qualifier, while Poland fired seven goals past an amateur Gibraltar side.

While Germany look certain to run away with this group, the key to qualification for the rest in Group D may be trying to pick up the odd surprise points against Joachim Low's recently crowed world champions.

The presence of Polish-born players in the Germany team in recent years has done little to dilute the animosity between these two football nations and if Germany are struggling to raise themselves after their World Cup heroics in Brazil, they could be tripped up in this tricky away game against motivated local rivals.

Verdict: Poland may threaten Germany, but the reigning kings of world football will have too much class and power for their rivals.

SCOTLAND vs GEORGIA: Glasgow, Saturday

Ikechi Anya, left, and Scotland fell short in a tough contest against Germany and will need a victory against Georgia.

The vital statistics: Gordon Strachan's men bolstered their reputation as a rising force with a spirited display in Germany last month, while Georgia were beaten by a magical late goal served up by Republic of Ireland winger Aiden McGeady.

The manner of a defeat is often crucial when an underdogs locks horns with a superpower of international football and in that respect, Scotland left Germany last month with their pride and their self-belief intact despite their 2-1 defeat.

The Scottish performance continued an upward trend of progress for Strachan's side in the past 12 months, with their rise to 29th in the FIFA rankings evidence of their growing prowess. Seeing off sides like Georgia on home soil will make or break their Euro 2016 qualifying hopes, so this is the first big test of Strachan's master plan.

Verdict: Scotland do not score many goals, but they have mastered the art of nicking tight wins and Strachan's men should repeat that trick against Georgia.

ESTONIA vs ENGLAND: Tallinn, Sunday

Danny Welbeck is in fine form as England prepare for their long trip to Estonia.

The vital statistics: Beating Switzerland away from home in their opening Euro 2016 qualifying got England back on track after a summer of despair and they can all but qualify for the finals by beating Estonia away from home.

After the misery of their premature exit from Brazil 2014, England's regeneration needed to be instant and a win for a youthful side in Switzerland last month was the result under-pressure coach Roy Hodgson needed to cement his position in the role.

An England side led by Wayne Rooney will see off the minnows of San Mario at Wembley on Thursday before heading out to Estonia for a game that may already be one of the final hurdles a youthful England side will need to leap over before they can start making their plans for Euro 2016 in France.

Verdict: England's football supporters need to fall in love with their national team all over again and another win in this clash will help that process.

DENMARK vs. PORTUGAL: Copenhagen, Tuesday

Portugal can not afford another defeat after a stunning defeat to Albania in the opening qualifier.

The vital statistics: Portugal's home defeat against Albania in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier ended Paulo Bento's reign as national team boss and it falls to the experienced Fernando Santos to lift spirits after he took the top job last month.

When the disappointment of an early World Cup exit was complemented by a 1-0 loss to Albania last month, Portuguese football chiefs were compelled to act and they swiftly appointed 59-year-old Santos to fill the void.

As has been the case with Portugal for the last decade, Santos will rely on Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo lifting his side from bottom spot in a Group E pool that also features a dangerous Serbian side and a Danish team eager to make the most of Portugal's uncertainty as they look to build on an uncertain 2-1 win against Armenia in their opening qualifier.

Verdict: A Portugal struggling to find their feet will be content with a draw away from home, with Ronaldo's stunning form at club level boding well for their hopes.


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