Crucial double date in European World Cup qualifyingArchive
LONDON: The race to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is hotting up and with just four rounds of games remaining in the qualifying campaign, all 13 European slots are still up for grabs.
The picture should become clearer over back-to-back rounds of fixtures next week, with Germany able to secure their place at next year’s tournament.
The winners of the nine groups qualify directly for Russia while the best eight of the second-placed teams take part in two-leg playoffs in November for four more places. Results against the bottom team in the group will be discarded in calculating the best eight runners-up.
After being in comfortable control of Group ‘A’, France are now in a more precarious position going into Thursday’s game against the Netherlands.
A comical error by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Sweden a 2-1 win in the last round, giving the Swedes 13 points at the top of the group on goal difference from France and leaving the Dutch within striking distance.
A win for Dick Advocaat’s Netherlands at Stade de France will move them level with European Championship runner-ups France, and turn the group it into a three-way scrap with three matches remaining.
Sweden, meanwhile, visit Bulgaria (nine points) knowing that a win for the hosts could throw the group wide open.
Both France and Sweden face relatively straightforward matches the following Sunday when the French host Luxemburg and Sweden visit Belarus, while the Dutch and Bulgarians face each other.
Group ‘B’ has boiled down to a two-horse race between Switzerland, who have a perfect six-win record, and European champions Portugal, who have won all their games since losing 2-0 to the Swiss in their opener, and should be settled when they meet again in Lisbon on Oct 10.
Currently suspended with Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is in the Portuguese squad preparing to face the Faroe Islands and Hungary.
In the meantime, the fourth-ranked Swiss host Andorra on Thursday and play at Latvia on Sunday.
The Hungarians made it to Euro 2016, drawing 3-3 with Portugal, but unless they beat Latvia and Portugal their chances of making it to Russia will be over.
Reigning world champions Germany return to qualifying action after winning the Confederations Cup in Russia in July and could qualify over the next week.
Joachim Loew’s side, with six wins out of six so far in Group ‘C’, face the Czech Republic in Prague and then Norway in Stuttgart.
If Germany win in Prague on Friday, they could seal top spot on Monday by beating Norway at home — provided second-placed Northern Ireland fail to beat the Czechs on the same night.
Loew has called up 17 members of the squad that won the Confederations Cup for the games.
Northern Ireland, who last appeared at a World Cup in 1986, could close in on at least a playoff place by beating San Marino on Friday.
Group ‘D’ is just about the toughest to call, with Serbia and the Republic of Ireland level on 12 points while unbeaten Wales lie four points back with Austria.
Wales host Austria on Saturday in a match which will almost certainly end the losing side’s interest in the group. Meanwhile, Ireland visit Georgia and Serbia host Moldova. Ireland then host Serbia in a top-of-the-table clash on Tuesday.
Wales, who reached the semi-finals of the European Championship last year and have Gareth Bale back from suspension, have drawn five of their six qualifiers.
Poland are primed to qualify for a first World Cup since 2006 as they sit six points clear of Montenegro and Denmark in Group ‘E’. If they can emerge unscathed from a trip to Copenhagen and a home clash with Kazakhstan they will surely be heading to Russia.
Although it is hard to believe after witnessing their performances in the last World Cup and European championship, England are formidable opponents in qualifying matches where they are unbeaten in 35 outings since Oct 2009.
England are top of their group ‘F’ and still unbeaten, and matches away to Malta and at home to Slovakia should allow them to close in on qualification.
Slovakia are just two points behind in second and first host Slovenia, who are third.
Group ‘G’ is a straight battle between Spain and Italy for top spot and direct qualification which should be settled when they clash in Madrid on Saturday.
Italy are defending a remarkable 56-match unbeaten run in Euro and World Cup qualifiers stretching back to 2006, while Spain have not lost since 2014 - 14 games ago. The 2010 world champions are also unbeaten in 10 matches since Julen Lopetegui took over as coach following Euro 2016.
Roberto Martinez’s Belgium are top of Group ‘H’ by four points from Greece, who are also unbeaten. Belgium host Gibraltar and then go to Greece on Sunday for a huge game.
If Greece, the only team to take points off Belgium so far, beat Estonia on Thursday and then secure a victory over Belgium on Sunday, the pursuit of first place would be wide open going in the final two rounds of matches in October.
Just two points separate the top four in Group ‘I’, with Croatia on top from Iceland on goal difference. Turkey and Ukraine are two points back.
Having qualified for Euro 2016, Iceland are now bidding to reach their first World Cup. They visit an out-of-sorts Finland on Saturday in a match they need to win, before hosting Ukraine in a key showdown on Tuesday.
Ukraine face an equally important match at home to Turkey on Saturday. Leaders Croatia should beat Kosovo at home on Saturday before visiting Turkey three days later.
Group ‘A’: France v Netherlands; Luxembourg v Belarus; Bulgaria v Sweden.
Group ‘B’: Hungary v Latvia; Switzerland v Andorra; Portugal v Faroe Islands.
Group ‘H’: Greece v Estonia; Cyprus v Bosnia and Herzegovina; Belgium v Gibraltar.
Group ‘C’: San Marino v Northern Ireland; Norway v Azerbaijan; Czech Republic v Germany.
Group ‘E’: Kazakhstan v Montenegro (1600 GMT); Denmark v Poland; Romania v Armenia.
Group ‘F’: Slovakia v Slovenia; Lithuania v Scotland; Malta v England.
Group ‘D’: Georgia v Republic of Ireland (1600 GMT); Serbia v Moldova (1600); Wales v Austria.
Group ‘G’: Albania v Liechtenstein (1600 GMT); Israel v Macedonia; Spain v Italy.
Group ‘I’: Finland v Iceland (1600 GMT); Ukraine v Turkey; Croatia v Kosovo.
Group ‘A’ Belarus v Sweden (1600 GMT); Netherlands v Bulgaria (1600 GMT); France v Luxembourg.
Group ‘B’: Faroe Islands v Andorra (1600 GMT); Hungary v Portugal; Latvia v Switzerland.
Group ‘H’: Estonia v Cyprus (1600 GMT); Gibraltar v Bosnia and Herzegovina; Greece v Belgium.
Group ‘C’: Azerbaijan v San Marino (1600 GMT); Northern Ireland v Czech Republic; Germany v Norway.
Group ‘E’: Armenia v Denmark (1600 GMT); Poland v Kazakhstan; Montenegro v Romania.
Group ‘F’: England v Slovakia; Slovenia v Lithuania; Scotland v Malta.
Group ‘D’: Republic of Ireland v Serbia; Moldova v Wales; Austria v Georgia (1945 GMT).
Group ‘G’: Italy v Israel; Liechtenstein v Spain; Macedonia v Albania.
Group ‘I’: Kosovo v Finland; Iceland v Ukraine; Turkey v Croatia.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2017