While the upcoming batch of international friendlies won’t do much to substitute for a lack of Premier League action this weekend, there is still serious business to be done.
The World Cup 2018 playoffs run from this Thursday to next Tuesday with Italy, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland all aiming to secure their spots at the finals in Russia next summer.
Representing the last shot at realising dreams, playoff matches are invariably filled with tension and drama as countries aim to get over that last hurdle of qualification and book their place in the competition finals.
Down the years, there have been several memorable and dramatic moments in the World Cup playoffs and, in anticipation of this week’s action, Matthew Gault looks back on five that stick in the memory.
1 Sweden 2-3 Portugal (2-4 on aggregate)
Perhaps understandably, this had been billed as Zlatan Ibrahimovic versus Cristiano Ronaldo. The two sets of supporters pinned their nation's hopes on their respective talismanic heroes, given their goal-scoring form for Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid.
After Ronaldo had struck late to give Portugal a slender 1-0 advantage heading into the clash at Stockholm's Friends Arena, the tie was delicately poised as two of Europe's deadliest marksmen took centre stage. Ronaldo's angled drive put Portugal ahead before Ibrahimovic with a quick-fire double, the second of which was a spectacular free-kick.
However, Ronaldo wasn't to be outdone, scoring two goals in two minutes to crush Sweden and secure his country's place at the tournament in Brazil. It was a thrilling and breathless second-half, with all five goals scored during a whirlwind 29-minute burst, unfolding like a Hollywood blockbuster. If this week's ties produce such drama, we're in for a treat.
2 France 3-0 Ukraine (3-2 on aggregate)
Les Bleus became the first European nation to overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg as a spirited fightback saw them down Ukraine.
Goals from Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko had fired Mykhaylo Fomenko's side into a commanding lead after the opener in Kiev but, at the Stade de France, Didier Deschamps' side were a different animal to the insipid collection of individuals four days prior.
After Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema scored to level the tie, Yevhen Khacheridi's red card ensured momentum stayed with France. Then, after a slew of missed chances, the World Cup 1998 winners completed the comeback when Sakho converted a Franck Ribery cross from close-range to ensure they did not follow in the ignominious footsteps of the France side which failed to qualify in 1994.
For Ukraine, however, it was a familiar feeling of heartache, having also failed in playoffs in 1998, 2002 and 2010. They also missed out on qualification this year.
3 Australia 1-0 Uruguay (1-1 on aggregate)
Widely regarded as the finest moment in the Socceroos' greatest moment, Australia negotiated 210 minutes of nerve-racking football over two legs before edging the South Americans in a thrilling penalty shootout to reach the World Cup in 2006.
Four years earlier, Uruguay had comfortably secured their passage to the Japan & South Korea with a 3-1 aggregate win, but this time their luck ran out.
Dario Rodriguez's goal had given Uruguay a 1-0 lead going into the second game but Guus Hiddink's Australia secured a win of the same scoreline thanks to Mark Bresciano's goal. Australia led 3-2 in penalties when Marcelo Zalayeta missed, allowing John Aloisi to convert and send the Socceroos to their first World Cup in three decades.
At the finals, Australia progressed from a group containing Brazil, Japan and Croatia before going out in the most painful fashion - to a 95th-minute Francesco Totti goal that sent Italy into the quarter-finals at their expense.
4 Algeria 1-0 Egypt
In 2009, Algeria met Egypt against the backdrop of a politically-charged rivalry. It was billed simply as 'The Mother of All Matches' but, lamentably, the football has been a secondary matter in a build-up charged with animosity.
Each side had accused the other of provoking violent incidents in Cairo and Algeria. The Algerian team bus was pelted with stones before the group game between the two nations before Algerians ransacked Egyptian-owned businesses in Algiers.
Luckily, the presence of 15,000 police officers in the Sudanese capital Khartoum was effective in cooling some of the pre-match enmity. Antar Yahia turned out to be the hero, the right-back crashing home a thunderous volley to send Algeria to their first World Cup since 1986.
The result prompted violent demonstrations near the Algerian embassy in Cairo, though, which led 35 people being injured.
5 France 1-1 Republic of Ireland (1-2 on aggregate)
Perhaps the most notorious moment in World Cup playoff history, this match underlined football's endless capacity for cruelty. After losing at Croke Park to a Nicolas Anelka goal, Giovanni Trapattoni's men poured every last ounce of sweat into the clash at the Stade de France, only to be denied by Thierry Henry's handball.
The France captain blatantly used his hand to stop the ball going out of play before crossing for William Gallas to head home. With that, a spirited Ireland were left utterly devastated. As the stadium exploded with ecstasy, there was a stinging sense of injustice as Henry led his teammates on a victory lap.
Ireland had cancelled out Anelka's goal from the first leg thanks to Robbie Keane's first-half goal, but the striker and Damien Duff also spurned glorious chances to put the result beyond doubt.
But it wasn't to be Ireland's night. Instead, France cheated their way to the finals and blew their campaign in South Africa as player revolts and disharmony resulted in a disastrous group stage exit.
However, watching France calamitously and self-destructively fritter away their chances only deepened Ireland's woes. Perhaps a happier outcome awaits Martin O'Neill's men against Denmark this week.
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