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Crucial double date in European World Cup qualifying

Paris (AFP) – The race to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is hotting up with just four rounds of games remaining in the European qualifying campaign.

AFP Sports casts a glance over each group ahead of back-to-back rounds of fixtures over the next week:

Group A: France in Dutch showdown

An error by Hugo Lloris that gifted Sweden a 2-1 win in Stockholm needlessly complicated France’s qualifying hopes and left them facing a huge game against the Netherlands in Paris on Thursday. Coach Didier Deschamps’ preparations have not been helped by the noise surrounding Kylian Mbappe’s impending move from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain. France are second on goal difference behind Sweden. Dick Advocaat’s Dutch are third and a defeat in Paris will leave them facing the prospect of missing a second straight major tournament.

Group B: Portugal playing catch-up

European champions Portugal have been playing catch-up with Switzerland ever since losing 2-0 in Basel last September. They are three points behind the Swiss, who have a perfect record ahead of matches against Andorra and Latvia. Currently suspended with Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is in the Portuguese squad preparing to face the Faroe Islands and Hungary. 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.

Group C: Germany closing on Russia return

Reigning world champions Germany return to qualifying action after winning the Confederations Cup in Russia in July. Joachim Loew’s side, with six wins out of six so far, face the Czech Republic in Prague and then Norway in Stuttgart. Loew has called up 17 members of the squad that won the Confederations Cup for the games. Behind them Northern Ireland look to strengthen their grip on second as they go to San Marino and host the Czechs, who are third.

Group D: Tight at the top

This group 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 knowing defeat could be disastrous for their prospects of reaching a first World Cup in 60 years. Ireland’s home match with Serbia on September 5 is also huge.

Group E: Poland on pole

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.

Group F: England in control

Gareth Southgate’s England are top of their group and still unbeaten, and matches away to Malta and at home to Slovakia should allow them to close in on qualification. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford will miss the games due to injury. The Slovaks are just two points behind in second and first host Slovenia, who are third. After running England close in June, Scotland need to beat Lithuania and Malta to stay alive.

Group G: Spain or Italy?

The game of the weekend will be in Madrid as Spain take on Italy at the Bernabeu. The sides have won all their games so far apart from their 1-1 draw in Turin last year. They will be the top two, but this game will help work out who qualifies automatically. David Villa, now 35, has been recalled to the Spain squad.

Group H: Belgium best placed

Roberto Martinez’s Belgium are top by four points from Greece, who are also unbeaten. Belgium host Gibraltar and then go to Greece on Sunday for a huge game. Bosnia are still in contention too.

Group I: Iceland again?

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. Croatia travel to Turkey and Iceland welcome the Ukrainians to Reykjavik in the biggest matches.

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