Over the next week, nearly twenty teams from around the globe will punch their tickets to Russia as 2018 World Cup qualifying builds to a grand finale some three years in the making.
Here’s what to watch for in the coming days, broken down by region.
Group A: Despite being held to a 0-0 draw Luxembourg in Toulouse in their last qualifier, France controls its destiny – needing only to beat Bulgaria and Belarus to clinch the group.
The Bulgarians, meanwhile, need a win in that game in Sofia to stay in the race for second, which could come down to the game between Sweden and the Netherlands in Amsterdam on the final matchday.
The Dutch need a minor miracle to stay alive. They trail Sweden by three points, but, just as importantly, by six goals on the goal differential tiebreaker.
If the Swedes can run up the score against Luxembourg on the seventh – no forgone conclusion, as the French will attest – the Netherlands may be all but eliminated by the time the two sides meet in the Dutch capital.
Group B: It’s a two-horse race in Group B, with Switzerland still leading Portugal by three points and all roads leading to the game between the two sides in Lisbon on the last day.
Thus far, the Swiss have had a remarkable campaign – winning their first eight games by a combined score of 18-3.
But, remarkably, it might not be enough. Portugal has been perfect since their opening day loss in Basel, and their prolific attack has given them a sizable goal difference lead. If they can win at home, they should be World Cup-bound.
Group C: Germany needs just one point from its final two games against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan to punch its ticket, and, considering that they’ve yet to drop a point yet in this campaign, qualification is expected to be academic.
The real story in this group is the Northern Irish, who have clinched at least a second place finish and will vie in a November playoff to reach their first World Cup. Mexico 1986.
Northern Ireland clinched its second-place-or-better finish on the last matchday with a resounding win over the Czech Republic, which is limping through a miserable campaign. Their glory days of the mid-2000s seem a long time ago.
Group D: There was a degree of separation in this group in September, when Serbia won away to the Republic of Ireland to take a four-point lead at the top of the table.
The Serbs are followed by Wales and then by Ireland. The Welsh and the Irish drew their first meeting in Dublin back in March, and the return encounter in Cardiff on the final matchday could determine the destination of the group’s playoff spot.
If Wales is to get through – and keep their hopes of a first World Cup appearance since 1958 alive – they’ll have to do so without Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid winger is out with a calf injury.
Austria, on just nine points, is all but eliminated – but they can put the top spot back in play by knocking off Serbia in Vienna on Friday.
Group E: For the better part of a year in Group E, it looked like Poland were cruising towards the finals – that until they were smacked 4-0 by Denmark on the first of September in Copenhagen.
Now, it’s a three-team race. Poland still leads the way with nineteen points, but Montenegro and Denmark – both on sixteen – are within shouting distance.
Montenegro, which has never been to a major tournament as an independent country, controls its own destiny. It gets Denmark at home on the fifth before traveling to Warsaw to finish the campaign on the eighth.
Poland travels to Armenia before that, while the Danes host Romania on the final day.
Group F: England, a win at the most away from qualification, will win the group comfortably.
The intrigue rests with the battle for second place – which has Slovakia, Slovenia, and Scotland all within a point of each other with two games to go.
Slovakia has the easiest path to the playoff. If they can get a point or more in Glasgow on the fifth, all they would likely only need to beat minnows Malta at home on the eighth to wrap up second place.
Slovenia faces an uphill climb. They have to go to Wembley to play England on the fifth, before finishing the campaign with a potentially decisive home game against Scotland.
As for the Scots, major tournament-less since France 1998, they control their own destiny. The atmosphere at Hampden Park for the Slovakia game should be something very special indeed.
Group G: Spain got what looked like the decisive win in this group over Italy back in September, but the politics threaten to rip its team apart.
On Sunday, Catalonia – an autonomous community in Eastern Spain that includes Barcelona – held an independence referendum. The referendum passed with some 90 percent support, but violence from Spanish police marred the day and result.
The Spanish government claims that the referendum was unconstitutional and does not plan to recognize it. Catalans plan, in accordance with the referendum result, to pursue a split from Spain. It’s a standoff that threatens to plunge the country in crisis.
Gerard Pique – a native Catalan who supports independence from Spain – was booed lustily by Spanish fans at the team’s training camp in Madrid on Monday, and his international future is unclear.
Spain finishes its campaign with games against Albania and Israel, from which they need a maximum of four points to wrap up qualification. Italy needs only a point from Macedonia’s visit on the sixth to seal second place.
Group H: Belgium is in. The race is for second, with Bosnia and Herzegovina leading Greece by one point and Cyprus by four.
The latter two teams need a favor from the Belgians, who have nothing to play for, when they travel to Sarajevo on the seventh. On that same night, Cyprus will host Greece – needing, in all likelihood, a win to stay alive.
Even if they do win, Cyprus has to end the campaign with a trip to Belgium. Greece finishes against Gibralter, while Bosnia concludes with a game at Estonia.
Group I: In Europe’s most competitive group, everything is up in the air.
Croatia and Iceland both sit on sixteen points going into these final matches, while Turkey and the Ukraine trail close behind on fourteen apiece.
The games to circle are Iceland’s trip to Turkey on the sixth, and Croatia’s visit to the Ukraine on the ninth. Finland – with games against Croatia and Turkey – can play spoiler. They did beat Iceland in September.
If the awarding of places comes down to goal differential, Croatia is well positioned. The Croats are +9, while the other three nations are +4. But Iceland’s finale – a home game against Kosovo – could change that equation considerably.
SOUTH AMERICA (CONMEBOL)
For competition and quality, South America’s World Cup qualifying leaves every other region in the dust. Now, after each team has played sixteen teams, it’s decision time.
Brazil won’t have to sweat out the final week. The Selecao is in, having gone a dominant 11-1-4 with a +27 goal difference to this point. That said – their final game, in Sao Paulo against Chile, could have massive implications.
Chile, twice Copa America victors in this cycle, is in trouble. After dropping games against Paraguay and Bolivia in September, the Chileans sit in sixth, on the outside looking in, needing a win against Ecuador on the fifth to keep their campaign alive.
Argentina, after being held to a draw by Venezuela in their last game, is in only slightly better shape. Jorge Sampaoli’s team finishes with games against Peru and Ecuador. Two wins will put them in, at worst, the playoff spot.
That game against Peru is a blockbuster. The Peruvians are the upstart story of this qualifying campaign, without a World Cup appearance since 1982, but going toe-to-toe with the region’s top dogs. They currently sit in fourth, the final automatic qualifying spot.
To finish the job, though, is going to be a big ask. There’s the game at La Bombonera against Argentina before Colombia comes to Lima on the final day of qualifying.
The Colombians, along with Uruguay, have a measure of room to breath. Barring any collapse, those two nations should be in. Paraguay, minus Miguel Almiron, needs two big results against the Colombians and Venezuela and a lot of help.
NORTH AMERICA, CENTRAL AMERICA, AND CARRIBEAN (CONCACAF)
Mexico, back on track with four points in September, is in. Costa Rica needs just a point at home against Honduras to punch its ticket.
All eyes, then, are on the United States’ clash with Panama in Orlando on the night of the sixth. Panama currently leads the US by a single point for the final automatic qualifying spot. The winner of that game is a heavy favorite to finish in the money.
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