World Cup qual­i­fy­ing: State of play in Europe

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

With four rounds of qual­i­fy­ing re­main­ing, all 13 Euro­pean slots for the World Cup are still up for grabs. The pic­ture should be­come clearer over the next week, with Germany able to se­cure its place at next year's tour­na­ment in Rus­sia.

The nine group win­ners qual­ify au­to­mat­i­cally. The worst run­nerup will be elim­i­nated, but the other eight sec­ond-place teams en­ter a play­off round in Novem­ber with the four win­ners qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup.

Here is the state of play in the groups:

GROUP A Af­ter be­ing in com­fort­able con­trol of Group A, France is 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 along­side France and leav­ing the Dutch within strik­ing dis­tance.

A win for the Nether­lands at Stade de France will move it level with Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship run­ner-up France, and turn the group it into a three-way scrap with three matches re­main­ing.

Swe­den will be hop­ing France loses or draws but faces a tough trip of its own to Bul­garia, which can main­tain its slim chances of qual­i­fy­ing with a win.

Last-place Lux­em­bourg hosts strug­gling Be­larus in the other game.

GROUP B Switzer­land has a per­fect sixwin record at the top of the group, while Por­tu­gal has won five straight since an open­ing 2-0 loss to the Swiss and has a much bet­ter goal dif­fer­ence. An Oct. 10 show­down in Lis­bon will likely de­cide which team wins the group and which must go through the play­off round.

Un­til then, the No. 4-ranked Swiss host An­dorra on Thurs­day and play at Latvia on Sun­day.

Euro­pean cham­pion Por­tu­gal hosts the Faeroe Is­lands and trav­els to Hun­gary, which has slumped since reach­ing the last 16 at Euro 2016.

GROUP C World Cup

cham­pion

Germany, one of two coun­tries to win its open­ing six qual­i­fy­ing games, looks un­stop­pable and could qual­ify over the next week.

If the Ger­mans beat the Czech Repub­lic on Fri­day, they will be guar­an­teed first place with a home win over Nor­way on Mon­day and if sec­ond-place North­ern Ire­land fails to beat the Czechs on the same night.

Germany has scored more goals (27) and con­ceded fewer (1) than any other coun­try in Euro­pean qual­i­fy­ing.

North­ern Ire­land, which last ap­peared at a World Cup in 1986, could close in on at least a play­off place by beat­ing San Marino on Fri­day. The Czech Repub­lic is in third place, four points be­hind the North­ern Ir­ish with four games left.

GROUP D With the top four teams — Ser­bia, Ire­land, Wales and Aus­tria — sep­a­rated by four points, there is still ev­ery­thing to play for in a group that looked dif­fi­cult to pre­dict from the out­set.

Ser­bia is ahead of Ire­land on goal dif­fer­ence, and they play each other in Dublin on Mon­day. Be­fore then, Ser­bia hosts Moldova and Ire­land is at Ge­or­gia on Fri­day.

Wales and Aus­tria are even on points in third and fourth place, four points be­hind their ri­vals, and meet in Cardiff on Satur­day. Which­ever team loses will likely be out of re­al­is­tic con­tention for a top-two fin­ish.

Wales, which reached the semi­fi­nals of the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship last year and has Gareth Bale back from sus­pen­sion, has drawn five of its six qual­i­fiers.

GROUP E Poland is clos­ing in on se­cur­ing a spot in the top-seeded pot at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.

Robert Le­wandowski has scored 11 goals in qual­i­fy­ing — tied with Cris­tiano Ron­aldo for most in the Euro­pean zone — and Poland is six points ahead of sec­ond-place Mon­tene­gro. Poland plays Fri­day at third­place Den­mark, and hosts Kaza­khstan three days later.

Mon­tene­gro trav­els to play the win­less Kaza­khs be­fore host­ing Ro­ma­nia.

Den­mark is level on points with Mon­tene­gro and needs to take three points from Ar­me­nia on Mon­day.

GROUP F It has been an un­con­vinc­ing qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign by Eng­land, which played one game un­der Sam Al­lardyce and sub­se­quently Gareth South­gate. Yet the group fa­vorites re­main un­beaten and have won four of their six games to lead the group by two points.

A po­ten­tially defin­ing match comes on Mon­day, when sec­ond­place Slo­vakia visits Wem­b­ley Sta­dium. A win for the English would bring the team close to a spot in Rus­sia.

Eng­land will pre­pare for that match by play­ing last-place Malta on Fri­day, when Slo­vakia hosts Slove­nia in Tr­nava. Slove­nia is in third place, three points be­hind Eng­land.

It is Eng­land's first round of in­ter­na­tion­als since Wayne Rooney, the coun­try's record scorer, re­tired from in­ter­na­tional duty. Although the striker had been dropped for re­cent matches, South­gate still wanted the ex­pe­ri­enced Rooney back in the squad for the up­com­ing qual­i­fiers.

GROUP G Spain and Italy meet in one of the most-an­tic­i­pated games in Euro­pean qual­i­fy­ing, with the win­ner mov­ing into good po­si­tion to qual­ify. Both teams have five wins in ad­di­tion to the draw be­tween them last year in Turin.

There will be only three games left for each of the teams af­ter they meet Satur­day at the San­ti­ago Bern­abeu Sta­dium, all against the group's weaker teams.

Since only the group win­ner au­to­mat­i­cally qual­i­fies, the win­ner of Satur­day's match will be set to make it to Rus­sia with­out hav­ing to go through a play­off.

GROUP H Bel­gium is on a smooth pas­sage to the World Cup, which could get even smoother if the group lead­ers can com­plete the next week with vic­to­ries over last­place Gi­bral­tar and Greece. But the Greeks, four points be­hind in sec­ond place, are the only team to take points off Bel­gium so far by draw­ing 1-1 in March.

If Greece beats Es­to­nia on Thurs­day and then se­cures 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.

Bos­nia-Herze­gov­ina is chal­leng­ing for sec­ond place, a point be­hind Greece. Both of their meet­ings have been draws. The tough­est game re­main­ing for the Bos­ni­ans is against Bel­gium next month af­ter trips to Cyprus and Gi­bral­tar in the com­ing days.

GROUP I The tight­est Euro­pean group, tough­est to pre­dict and most likely to make news off the field has Croa­tia, Ice­land, Tur­key and Ukraine all sep­a­rated by only two points.

Third-place Tur­key has the big­gest week ahead, play­ing at Ukraine and on Satur­day and host­ing first-place Croa­tia on Tuesday.

Ice­land has kept mo­men­tum from its in­spir­ing run to the Euro 2016 quar­ter­fi­nals and trav­els to Fin­land be­fore host­ing Ukraine. Croa­tia has a solid goal dif­fer­ence ad­van­tage over sec­ond-place Ice­land and should so­lid­ify its group lead Fri­day against vis­it­ing Kosovo in Za­greb.

Ver­ratti and De Rossi in a train­ing pin for Italy ahead of the Madrid vi­tal clash

Nik­las Suele, Me­sut Ozil and Lars Stindl sprint duringa Ger­man train­ing ses­sion yes­ter­day

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