Ten teams alive, five spots left. Here's a look at four of the key matchups.
When UEFA decided to seed the draw for the confederation's three World Cup playoff games -- placing the Czech Republic (No. 4 in the world), Spain (8), Turkey (12) in one pot and Norway (37), Switzerland (38) and Slovakia (45) in the other -- it ensured that the three games might, at first blush, appear to be mismatches.
But the fact remains that none of the three seeds have been playing well enough to win their groups. The three underdogs, on the other hand, have been playing well enough to sneak into the playoffs, so we could be looking at some really good games on Saturday. (The second legs will be held on Nov. 16.)
Spain vs. Slovakia
How They Got Here
Spain: Finished second in Group 7
Slovakia: Finished tied for second in Group 3, beating out Russia on goal difference
Head-to-Head: Spain has won both meetings, which came in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup.
How They're Playing
Spain: The Spaniards didn't lose a match in qualifying, but they didn't exactly blow away the field either. Five wins and five draws in their 10 games left them behind Serbia and Montenegro. Spain outscored its opponents 19-3, but if you throw out its two wins over San Marino -- a country of 28,000 that has never won a competitive game since joining FIFA in 1988 -- that margin becomes a far less impressive 8-3. You've got to expect more than a goal a game from a side loaded with players from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool.
Spain, however, is a traditional underachiever. It has made every World Cup since 1978, but the only time it has gotten past the quarters was 1950, when it finished fourth. At Euro 2004, the Spaniards scored a meager two goals and didn't get out of the group stages. (Perhaps there's something in the air on the Iberian Peninsula: Spain is one of the few countries that can match Portugal's recent run of disappointing results.)
After missing the team's final two qualifiers due to injury, Liverpool's Fernando Morientes and Xabi Alonso will be available against Slovakia.
Slovakia: Since Czechoslovakia split in 1993, Slovakia has never qualified for the World Cup or European Championships. But the country's football fortunes have been improving. At the club level, Artmedia Bratislava -- which has three players on the national team -- beat '04 Champions League winner FC Porto in the group stage in September and stands a good chance of making the knockout stages.
In qualifying, the national team showed it has turned into a side that can handle the Luxembourgs and Latvias of the world. Against countries you might actually be able to find on a map, however, the Slovaks came up short. They took three points in four games with Russia and Portugal, scoring just twice.