• European World Cup qualifying passes the halfway mark *• *Italy and Spain continue their tussle for Group G lead *• *Scotland host neighbours England
The stage is set for top-of-the-table encounters in two of Europe’s qualifying groups for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Elsewhere, teams in other groups will jostle for position – particularly Spain and Italy in Group G – while football’s oldest rivalry resumes between Scotland and England.
The match to watch in Group A is the top-of-the-table clash between Sweden and France. Although the UEFA EURO 2016 finalists are widely expected to top their section, their Scandinavian opponents will be determined to make things as difficult as possible in Solna – particularly after taking the lead in Les Bleus’ 2-1 win in Paris back in November. "It’s not a final; we still have plenty of games ahead of us," said France coach Didier Deschamps. "It’s important, but it matters even more to Sweden. Three points would be ideal." As Bulgaria travel to Belarus, who are yet to win a match in the group, and the Netherlands host a Luxembourg side with a similarly winless record, both teams will seek to post victories to keep the pressure on the leading pair.
The situation in Group A
In Group B,* Switzerland* have yet to drop a point and are expected to continue that trend against the Faroe Islands. European champions Portugal will be keen to use their match in Latvia to warm up for their campaign at the FIFA Confederations Cup, while a win for Hungary over bottom-placed Andorra would keep them in touch with the top two teams.
The situation in Group B
World champions Germany looked like they could benefit from a little more fine tuning ahead of the Confederations Cup after their 1-1 friendly draw in Denmark – and a home match against San Marino in Group C could provide the perfect opportunity to iron out any imperfections. "We’ll show the coach that we deserve to be here," said attacking midfielder Julian Draxler. "We also need to deliver a strong display against San Marino for the fans." Norway need to defeat Czech Republic *at home if they are to seriously challenge for second place, while the fact that *Azerbaijan and current group runners-up Northern Ireland are separated by just three points means their encounter in Baku could be decisive.
The situation in Group C
The latest round of matches in Group D could also help to determine the final standings. With 11 points each, Serbia and Republic of Ireland have opened up a four-point lead over Wales and Austria and could extend this advantage significantly. To do so, the Irish will need to defeat Austria at home while Serbia will be seeking the same result as they host the Welsh. Meanwhile, Moldova and Georgia meet in Chisinau with both sides pursuing their first win of the campaign.
The situation in Group D
In Group E, Poland could add to their six-point advantage over nearest rivals Montenegro and Denmark with a home win over a Romania team seven points off the lead. Armenia, level on points with the Romanians, will be hoping to trip up their hosts in Montenegro, while Denmark appear to have a slightly easier task on paper against bottom-of-the-table Kazakhstan.
The situation in Group E
England are full of confidence after keeping clean sheets in each of their five matches so far. While they will seek to continue this trend against Scotland, their neighbours north of the border still have their sights set on a World Cup spot. "Although I’m thinking about a win, we’ll still have a chance [of finishing second] if we don’t lose," said Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Current runners-up Slovakia must win in Lithuania, while Slovenia seek to take another step closer to Russia by hosting a Malta side yet to win a point.
The situation in Group F
Group G is the only pool to boast two previous World Cup winners, as Italy and Spain – currently level on points at the top of the table – continue their push for the summit. The Italians seemingly have an easier task at home to Liechtenstein than Spain do, as they travel to FYR Macedonia, who suffered a narrow 3-2 defeat at home to Italy in October. If Israel secure a home win over Albania, they could yet wrest second place from one of the former world champions.
The situation in Group G
With 13 and 11 points respectively, Belgium and Greece lead Group H and are two of the teams yet to taste defeat in this campaign. Preserving this record will certainly be a tougher prospect for the Greeks in Bosnia and Herzegovina *(10) than for the Belgians in *Estonia (4). The Red Devils will also be delighted to have defensive stalwart Vincent Kompany back in their ranks after nearly 18 months out of international action, while Cyprus will be keen to defeat Gibraltar again after winning the reverse fixture 3-1.
The situation in Group H
Group I provides the setting for another match between first and second as Iceland take on Croatia. Having beaten the same opponents 2-0 in Zagreb in November, the Croatians will travel north with the aim of claiming three more points. "We still have enough time to make the right selections after our upcoming training sessions," said Croatia coach Ante Cacic. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Turkey have eight points each as they travel to winless sides Finland and Kosovo respectively.
The situation in Group I