The club season might be over, but there’s plenty to play for on the international front; none more than in this week’s FIFA World Cup Qualifying fixtures. With Russia 2018 a year away, Kitbag.com looks at the state of play in each of the eight European qualifying groups.
Four teams remain in the hunt in a competitive Group A, though the Netherlands appear poised to miss out on their second successive major tournament, despite an apparently routine three points on the table this Friday. Holland welcome Luxembourg to Feynoord’s famed de Kuip stadium at the same time frontrunners France and Sweden go head-to-head at Solna’s Friends Arena, with a win for the French all but enough to secure their place at the 2018 finals. Elsewhere, each of the above will remain hopeful that Belarus can contain the Bulgarian charge, with Petar Hubchev’s team in pursuit of a third successive qualifying win.
Despite being the home of European champions Portugal, Group B has been the Switzerland story, with the Swiss sweeping to five straight victories from their opening five fixtures. Next up for the leaders, a trip to the distant Faroe Islands, while Portugal aim to keep pace by way of a win in Latvia. Having capped his club season at Real Madrid with a brace in the UEFA Champions League Final, the remarkable Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to press his case for a tenth goal of the qualifying campaign, the most of any European player. Having made a dent at EURO 2016, Hungary are meanwhile in with a shot of qualification again, but will need to show no mercy to bottom-placed Andorra to boost a largely unimpressive goal difference.
The only other side with a 100% record, reigning World champions Germany appear well on their way to a 17th successive World Cup finals, rattling in a mighty 20 goals to date to become the qualifying round’s second-highest European goalscorers. Second will inevitably turn into first this week when Joachim Löw’s charges host whipping boys San Marino; a team once infamously subjected to a 13-0 turnover by the Germans at the Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle. While sheer damage limitation is the visitors’ clear objective, three other Group C nations still have conceivable hopes of qualifying, with two of them (Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland) set to meet this Saturday evening in Baku. Meanwhile, Norway’s latest disappointing campaign resumes in Oslo with the visit of the Czech Republic; the Czechs themselves hoping to bounce their way to Russia off the back of a third consecutive victory in qualifying.
Over in Group D, the key contenders for qualification lock horns on Sunday, with the Republic of Ireland welcoming Austria to Lansdowne Road, hours before Chris Coleman’s Wales tackle narrow leaders Serbia at Belgrade’s Red Star Stadium. For the Wlesh, a campaign that started with a comfortable 4-0 win over Moldova has been hampered by three successive draws, heightening the pressure on the EURO 2016 semi-finalists to win in the former Yugoslavia. Without suspended talisman Gareth Bale, their task may be a tough one, but the form of players like FA Cup winner Aaron Ramsey offers hope, to a team looking to evoke some of the spirit that carried them so far 12 months ago. Ireland meanwhile sit in a favourable position and can put a healthy distance between them and the Austrians with another three points in Dublin. For Moldova and Georgia, who clash at Chișinău’s Zimbru Stadium, pride may be the biggest prize, despite Georgia being a thorn in Welsh and Irish sides alike before Christmas.
Midway through the qualifying campaign and the fate of Group E may be the least clear of all, with none of the traditional heavyweights involved and five different nations having six or more points in the bag. Out in front, Poland and eight-goal Robert Lewandowski appear primed to secure at least a play-off spot and will look to solidify their claim for the automatic place at home to draw specialists Romania. Elsewhere, while Denmark’s trip eastwards to Kazakhstan should be a routine one, plenty of interest should surround Saturday’s clash between Montenegro and Armenia, particularly in wake of the former Soviet state’s 3-2 win in Yerevan last November. Famed for Manchester United midfielder Henrik Mkhitaryan, Armenia proved to be more than a one-man band that night, overturning a two-goal deficit to open their account in sensational style. Can lightning strike twice in Podgorica this weekend?
For England, another solid yet uninspiring qualifying tour hits an appealing road bump on Saturday, as the Three Lions bandwagon rolls into Glasgow. The history of England vs Scotland is enough to merit its own article; and in fact, we’ve written one. Nevertheless, for the proud Scots, any motivation to one-up the Auld Enemy will only be amplified by the importance of this fixture to their overall campaign. With next summer marking 20 years since the saltire last flew at a World Cup finals, manager Gordon Strachan, his squad, staff and supporters will all be itching to return to international football’s grandest stage. However, anything less than a victory against England could leave Scottish hopes dangling by a thread, particularly should rivals Slovenia and Slovakia pick up maximum points against minnows Malta and Lithuania respectively, as is expected. Time for heroes at Hampden? For Scotland, the time is now.
As was anticipated at the time the draw was made, Group G appears to present a straight shoot-out for top spot between Italy and Spain, with both World Cup-winning nations since the turn of the 21st century taking to the field on Sunday night. With the Italians hosting Liechtenstein and the Spanish travelling to Macedonia (who they dispatched 4-0 in November’s reverse fixture), both are expected to be up to 16 points come Monday morning, with their crunch meeting in September looking every bit the decider expected. In the group’s other fixture this week, Israel will seek to build upon a strong start and claw themselves into double figures with victory against Albania. Unlike the Israelis, Sunday’s visitors to Tel-Aviv have recent experience of a major tournament, finishing third in their group at EURO 2016. Nonetheless, form will favour Israel, particularly after their 3-0 victory in Albania last year. Can the Israelis turn their triumphs into an unlikely sprint for second?
Europe’s leading goal merchants with 22 from five fixtures, Belgium have recovered from their EURO 2016 exit in the strongest way possible. Firing three past Cyprus, four past Bosnia-Herzegovina, six past Gibraltar and a further eight (!) past Estonia, a 1-1 draw with Greece in March brought Roberto Martinez’s men back to reality, but Friday’s re-match with Estonia in Tallinn could see the goals rain again. To the home side’s solace, a 0-0 draw with Cyprus in March seems to suggest they have somewhat stopped the rot. Cyprus themselves meanwhile look to complete a double over Gibraltar after fending off a second half comeback to win 3-1 in November. The round’s other Group H encounter sees Bosnia entertain Greece, with the hosts pursuing the win that would lift them above their visitors and into a play-off position.
Finally, over in Group I (yes, there really are that many), the match of the day is in Reykjavik, where two fan favourites from EURO 2016 will duke it out for pole position on the World Cup grid. After defrosting our hearts with their summer performances against Portugal, Austria, Hungary, France and, um, England, Iceland can strengthen their challenge for a second successive tournament appearance by overturning Croatia at the Laugardalsvöllur. However, the Croats will travel to Iceland having already recorded a 2-0 win the last time the two sides met, handing Ante Čačić’s team a distinct psychological advantage heading into Sunday’s encounter. Could home advantage, conversely, turn the tide for the Scandinavians? In other weekend action, Turkey and Ukraine will each be hoping to crack the 11-point mark; the two contenders fixtured against debutantes Kosovo and disappointing Finland respectively. AC
Which international showdowns are you most looking forward to this weekend, as the race to Russia in 2018 enters its all-important second stage? Join the conversation on Twitter.