- Spain-Italy and France-Netherlands among the standout matches
- Germany, Poland and Belgium look to tighten grip on 2018 berths
- Denmark and Scotland among struggling sides facing must-win matches
With less than ten months to go until Russia 2018 gets underway, everything is still to play for in Europe as the battle for FIFA World Cup™ places intensifies.
Poland, Germany and Belgium – six, five and four points clear in Groups E, C and H respectively – hold the most commanding leads at this stage, and all three will be aiming to fortify their positions over the coming days.
Most of the old continent’s sections remain simply too close to call, though, and in four - those involving Sweden and France, Spain and Italy, Serbia and Republic of Ireland, and Croatia and Iceland - the top two are locked together on identical points tallies.
That situation adds further intrigue to the upcoming action, with Gli Azzurri’s trip to Madrid on Saturday, France-Netherlands and Turkey-Croatia among the fixtures whetting supporters’ appetites.
Group A: As it standsAfter a stunning 2-1 defeat in Solna that saw them surrender pole position to their Swedish hosts, France are back on home soil with a Saint Denis-Toulouse double-header against the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Sweden, for their part, will do well to emerge unscathed from a couple of tricky tests on the road, first in Bulgaria and then in Belarus. It’s also worth remembering that the Netherlands, for all their early travails, remain just three points behind the leading duo.
Group B: As it stands
A two-horse race has developed in this section, with eight points now separating second-place Portugal from Hungary in third. Switzerland, the only side besides Germany yet to drop a point, continue to lead and will be hopeful of maintaining their three-point advantage by seeing off Andorra (home) and Latvia (away). Portugal, though, have a good chance of staying within touching distance if Cristiano Ronaldo – with 11 goals in qualifying thus far – maintains his incredible rate of scoring once every 41 minutes on the road to Russia.
Group C: As it stands
With six straight wins, 27 goals scored and just one conceded, Germany have looked all but unstoppable in qualifying thus far. The world champions can, though, expect a stern examination in a tough upcoming double-header that sees them travel to Prague to face Czech Republic before welcoming Norway to Stuttgart. It’s crunch time for the Czechs, meanwhile. After facing the Germans, they will head to Belfast to take on second-placed Northern Ireland, with victory all but essential.
Group D: As it stands
All eyes will be on Dublin in this section as the top two, Serbia and Republic of Ireland, go head-to-head on Tuesday. The Irish have faltered somewhat after an outstanding start, picking up just two points from a possible six in their most recent fixtures – both at home – and face a tough trip to Georgia before taking on the Serbians. Their visitors currently lead on goal difference and will expect to take maximum points at home to Moldova before heading to the Irish capital. Wales and Austria - four points adrift of the leading duo - face off in Cardiff on Saturday, with only the victors likely to remain in contention.
Group E: As it stands
Poland and 11-goal Robert Lewandowski have proved unbeatable thus far, but face arguably their toughest test yet on Friday against a rejuvenated Denmark in Copenhagen. The Danes, in truth, are focused more on pipping Montenegro to second place - with both currently tied on ten points - than catching the Poles. Age Hareide’s side will be looking to halt the leaders, win in Armenia and hope that the Montenegrins slip up against Kazakhstan (away) or Romania (home).
Group F: As it stands
Slovakia remain England’s closest challengers in this section, but their credentials will be tested by a double-header that sees them welcome third-placed Slovenia before heading to Wembley. Any slip-ups could open the door for the Slovenians, or for Scotland, who nonetheless know that anything less than six points against Lithuania and Malta will consign their campaign to failure.
Group G: As it stands
With Albania and Israel seven points adrift, it’s all about Spain and Italy in this section, with Saturday’s Bernabeu showdown arguably the most anticipated 2018 qualifier thus far. It was impossible to separate these former world champions when they drew 1-1 in Turin last October, and a win for either in Madrid – with *La Roja *currently leading only on goal difference – would surely prove decisive.
Group H: As it stands
Having put the first dent in Belgium’s bid with a 1-1 away draw in March, Greece take on the leaders in Piraeus on Sunday aiming to cut a lead that currently stands at four points. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a point further back, remain in the hunt too and will expect to boost their chances of a top-two finish with victories on the road against Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Group I: As it stands
After Iceland’s dramatic win over Croatia in June left the pair level on points at the section’s summit, the joint-leaders must now focus on holding off those below them. Turkey and Ukraine lie just two points off the pace and, with the former playing host to the Croatians and the latter travelling to Reykjavik, any one of these four sides could be in pole position this time next week.