Six 2022 World Cup qualifiers that actually matter, including Spain vs Sweden and Wales vs Belgium

Just as the Premier League was getting good - with a slew of managerial sackings and shocking results - the international break has arrived to spoil the fun. Or maybe not.

With the next round of Premier League fixtures an agonising fortnight away, we are once again forced to endure the long, drawn-out process that is the World Cup qualifiers.

However, it's not all doom and gloom.

Despite the likes of England and France strolling to qualification, the situation in other groups is far more complicated.

That means that as we head into the final round of qualifiers, it's do-or-die time for a number of leading European nations.

Here are six of the most eye-catching games coming up during the international break.

Portugal vs Serbia (Group A)

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal, World Cup qualifier

It's fair to say that Cristiano Ronaldo is not having a great time with Manchester United.

The 36-year-old has bailed the Red Devils out on numerous occasions since his return, but even he couldn't stop miserable back-to-back home league defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City.

In fact, his most memorable contributions in those games were mindless acts of aggression towards Curtis Jones and Kevin De Bruyne.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner will now turn his attention to international duties as he looks to help Portugal secure World Cup qualification - arguably his final opportunity to play in the world's biggest sporting event.

There is, however, a problem.

As things stand, Portugal are second in the group and trail leaders Serbia by a point. With only one team progressing to the tournament automatically, it means the upcoming clash between the two couldn't be any bigger.

It must be added that before this monumental encounter, Portugal have a date with Ireland in Dublin. A win over Stephen Kenny's men will give Portugal a slight advantage over the Serbs as it will take them top of the group before that all-important meeting in Lisbon.

Betting tip

The first game between Serbia and Portugal ended in an entertaining 2-2 draw. That shouldn't come as a surprise considering how evenly matched both these sides are.

Having won the same number of games and scored the same number of goals, it's only Portugal's slightly superior defence that sets these teams apart.

Oh, and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

With that in mind, the hosts are the ones to back in the outright market.

Spain vs Sweden (Group B)

Spain's Ferran Torres (C) celebrates scoring during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 European Qualifiers Group B football match between Spain and Georgia in Badajoz

Group B is heading towards a fascinating finale as Sweden look to sensationally deny Spain an automatic place in the 2022 World Cup.

Despite the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedes have climbed to the top of the standings and built a two-point advantage with just two games left to play.

Both Spain and Sweden will be in action on Thursday night, with Luis Enrique's side travelling to Greece and Janne Andersson's men facing Georgia.

Should both nations come through unscathed, we will have a World Cup qualification shootout in Seville as Spain welcome their rivals to the Estadio de La Cartuja.

Betting tip

The Spaniards have not been on top form in this World Cup qualifying campaign, with Enrique's men struggling to keep clean sheets.

Spain have conceded five goals in six qualifying fixtures and have only shut out their opponents twice. Of most concern is that they conceded goals to Georgia and Kosovo.

Sweden are more than capable of getting on the scoreboard but a lot will depend on their attitude.

A draw could guarantee the Swedes a place in the World Cup. However, we know what happens when teams try to play for the draw.

Bearing that in mind, we're backing the hosts to feed off their home supporters and bag that all-important victory.

Italy vs Switzerland (Group C)

Italy manager Roberto Mancini with his players during a training session at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground

European champions. World record holders. World Cup participants?

Italy will be looking to book their ticket to the biggest party in soccer as they prepare for their final two qualifying games.

The first of those encounters is without doubt the most important as Roberto Mancini's men welcome Switzerland to Rome.

Both nations are locked on 14 points, meaning their clash is a boom or bust type situation.

After their head-to-head ordeal, Italy will take on Northern Ireland, while Switzerland host Bulgaria.

With that in mind, you can see just why winning in Rome is so vital.

Betting tip

From the turn of the century to 2020, Switzerland and Italy played each other four times - none of them competitive games.

Interestingly, Friday's encounter will be the third clash between the pair in 2021 alone.

The first of those came in last summer's European Championships which saw the Italians run out comfortable 3-0 winners.

Three months later, the two played out a goalless draw in a World Cup qualifier.

However, considering the Italians are playing on home turf and have a knack for producing the goods in high-stakes games, it's hard to look past them in the outright market.

Wales vs Belgium (Group E)

Belgium players all smiles as Thorgan Hazard scores against Portugal

If Wales are to have a chance at qualifying for their first World Cup finals since 1958, they have no choice but to overcome the world's highest ranked team, Belgium.

Rob Page's side are currently third in their group and are locked on the same number of points as second-placed Czech Republic.

Wales have played a game less than the Czechs and should they overcome Belarus on Saturday, they will go above them.

However, with the Czechs playing second-bottom Estonia on the final day, it looks like Wales will have to take all three points against Belgium in order to seal a top two finish.

Betting tip

Wales and Belgium have recent history. Five years ago, the Welsh progressed to the Euro 2016 semi-final after famously beating the Red Devils 3-1 in the knockout stage.

Strangely, Wales have been a bit of a bogey team for Roberto Martinez and his men. In five of the most recent head-to-heads, Belgium have only recorded one victory.

However, it's worth noting that this one win did come in their most recent encounter - one which ended in a comfortable 3-0 victory for Belgium.

Belgium have a propensity to fall in the big moments but this is unlikely to be one of those days.

Wales are not firing on all cylinders and with that in mind, we're backing Belgium to bank their ticket to Qatar.

Netherlands vs Norway (Group G)

Group stage of EURO2020 between Netherlands and Austria. Memphis Depay scores 1-0 and celebrates with Frenkie de Jong Netherlands

When the World Cup qualifying draw was first made, Group G was always expected to deliver an exciting finish.

As things stand, the Netherlands sit top of the standings with two games to go. Norway are currently two points behind, while Turkey also lurk in the near distance.

The first round of fixtures during this international break sees all of the top three teams in action against the bottom three.

Should all those games go as expected, the finale between the Netherlands and Norway will essentially become a straight shootout for automatic World Cup qualification.

With the game set to take place in Rotterdam, we could be in for a fascinating encounter.

Betting tip

With Erling Haaland on the sidelines, Norway will be lacking serious firepower when they arrive in the Netherlands.

One man who could take part is Erik Botheim. The Bodo/Glimt star hit the headlines as his brace helped the Norwegian outfit to a famous 6-1 thrashing of Jose Mourinho's AS Roma.

Nevertheless, considering the player is yet to make his international bow, questions remain over his readiness.

It comes as no surprise to see the Netherlands as the pre-match favourites. Louis van Gaal's side are in great form and should take full points against their Scandinavian rivals.

Croatia vs Russia (Group H)

Croatia celebrate a World Cup-qualifying goal

The qualifying battle in Group H has boiled down to Russia vs Croatia.

Both these nations are in action on Thursday as Russia host Cyprus and Croatia travel to Malta.

Considering the low level of opposition, both the Croats and the Russians are expected to come away from those fixtures unscathed.

The real battle is set to take place on Sunday when the group pacesetters clash in Split.

Betting tip

Games between the two have always been closely contested and this latest one isn't expected to buck the trend.

With both Russia and Serbia in good form, a draw is the way to go in the outright market.

READ MORE: Bookies have their say on Eddie Howe's chances of success at Newcastle

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