Cru­cial dates in Euro­pean race for 2018 World Cup

36 teams are ight­ing for slots at the world’s big­gest sports stage

Business Daily (Kenya) - - SPORTS -

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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