Hopes remain high as joy and tears await

  • Two matchdays to go in European qualifying

  • Only Belgium and hosts Russia have qualified so far

  • A number of groups are tightly poised

European qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ is fast approaching its final straight, with a host of win-or-bust clashes looming large on the horizon. Only Belgium have guaranteed themselves a place at the tournament so far, but which other countries will join them?

Group A: As it stands France (17 points) and Sweden (16) are engaged in a tense battle for top spot, but the Netherlands (13), who have not yet given up on finishing second and reaching the play-offs, should not be discounted. Les Bleus are favourites to win in Bulgaria (12) and at home to Belarus (5), and if they do so, they will qualify as group winners. For Sweden, first up is a must-win game at home to Luxembourg (5 points), who recently held France to a memorable goalless draw in Toulouse. Sweden finish off their qualifying campaign with what could well be a decisive encounter in Amsterdam against the Oranje, who themselves travel to Belarus in their penultimate qualifier.

Group B: As it stands* **Switzerland (24 points), who are, alongside Germany, one of only two nations in Europe yet to drop a point, will be focusing their attention on their all-important clash away to Portugal (21) on Matchday 10. La Nati can seal qualification beforehand, however, if Portugal fail to win in Andorra (4 points) and if they *beat Hungary (10) at home. Any other set of results on Matchday 9 means that a head-to-head duel between the Swiss and the Portuguese will decide the winner of Group B.

Group C: As it stands** **As previously mentioned, Germany (24 points) have a 100 per cent record so far, and many observers expect the current world champions to rubber-stamp their ticket to Russia on Matchday 9 away to Northern Ireland. Germany need just a point to do so and maintain their remarkable record of never having lost a World Cup qualifier away from home. Northern Ireland are already assured of second place but will give their all in Belfast, according to defender Gareth McAuley. "Playing against Germany is a challenge to relish; these guys are on another level," said the West Bromwich Albion veteran. "We know we'll have to play a counter-attacking style of football against them. We've got that belief we can actually hurt them and it's different in Belfast, a tight ground with the crowd behind us. We have nothing to lose."

Group D: As it stands** **After their 1-0 win away to the Republic of Ireland in September, Serbia (18 points) have their sights firmly set on automatic qualification. A win either away to Austria (9) or at home to Georgia (5) will mean that they can start planning for Russia, likely leaving Wales (14) and the Republic of Ireland (13) to battle it out for second. The Welsh must go to Georgia while Ireland host Moldova (2), before a final, mouth-watering showdown between Wales and the Irish in Cardiff on 9 October.

Group E: As it stands** **Following a first defeat for Poland (19 points) in qualifying (4-0 against Denmark in September), no fewer than three teams – the Poles, Denmark (16) and Montenegro (16) – are still in the running for top spot in Group E. Poland, currently top, travel to Armenia (6) before entertaining Montenegro. The Montenegrins host Denmark before travelling to Warsaw, and the Danes wrap up their qualifying campaign with a home game against Romania (9), who can no longer qualify.

Group F: As it stands England (20 points) are unbeaten (six wins, two draws) and are heavy favourites to win the group. They will achieve that aim if they beat Slovenia (14) at home, although the Three Lions will have a second chance to seal qualification away to Lithuania (5) if they slip up on Matchday 9. Slovenia, Slovakia (15) and Scotland (14), meanwhile, are fighting it out to finish second, with two huge fixtures coming up in their mini-league: Scotland-Slovakia in Glasgow on 5 October and Slovenia-Scotland in Ljubljana three days later.

Group G: As it stands Spain’s 3-0 win against Italy in September appears to have decided the overall outcome of proceedings in Group G. The Spaniards (22 points) are top of the pile and three points clear of second, but they will be looking for a strong end to the campaign at home to Albania (13) and away in Israel (9). Italy (19), who are virtually guaranteed second, must win at home to Macedonia (7) and away to Albania, and simultaneously hope Spain drop points, in order to finish top. Albania retain only a theoretical chance of finishing second.

Group H: As it stands Belgium (22 points), along with hosts Russia, are the only side in Europe to have already qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but the race for second could still involve a few twists and turns, with Bosnia and Herzegovina (14), Greece (13) and perhaps even Cyprus (10) still in contention. Cyprus and Greece face off in Nicosia on 7 October, while Greece complete the campaign at home to Gibraltar (0), a match the Greeks will be confident of winning. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, the deciding game will likely be their upcoming home clash with Belgium, before a final-day assignment away in Estonia (8).

Group I: As it stands Could things be any tighter in this section? Croatia (16 points), Iceland (16), Turkey (14) and Ukraine (14) all retain a realistic chance of qualifying as group winners. Croatia host Finland (7) before a potential all-or-nothing clash away to Ukraine, while Iceland must travel to Turkey before their final game against Kosovo (1). Turkey must also go to Finland in their final game, and Ukraine cap off their campaign in Kosovo.