The home straight is in sight for europe’s national teams, on the final bend of the year long campaign some are storming ahead whilst others are nervously looking over their shoulder.
Last time I compiled a group by group summary so this time I’ll keep it snappy:
Who’s made it?
Russia & Belgium
Who could make it this round?
Germany need a draw away to Northern Ireland to make sure, England will be there if they beat Slovenia at Wembley and Serbia if they beat Austria meanwhile if Spain win they’re practically there short of a double digits defeat to in their final game. All theses teams have the fall back of simply winning their last match to ensure qualification.
Any big guns in trouble?
Most of the big names are at least on course for November’s playoffs. But Holland who placed 3rd in Brazil aren’t so much flirting with danger as dropping their pants for disaster. The Dutch are 3 points behind second placed Sweden in Group A with an inferior goal difference- they need to win in Belarus (preferably scoring more goals than the Swedes manage against Luxembourg) to set up a grand stand decider against Sweden in Amsterdam on the last day.
And the biggest games of the round are:
Scotland vs Slovakia
It’s 20 years since Scotland last made it to the World Cup, with Del Amitri’s cheery ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’ ringing in their ears- possibly explaining why they haven’t bothered going since!
But on Thursday night at Hampden the Scots have their destiny (mostly) in their own hands. Scotland currently sit 4th in Group F: level on points with Slovenia (who visit Wembley the same night) and a point behind Slovakia.
Hampden will be a cauldron of noise for this must win game, after a poor start Scotland have taken 10 points from their last 4 games. But Slovakia gave England a fright at Wembley and are currently ranked 24 places above Scotland with incisive technical players in Hamsik & Lobotka who can hurt the Scots. With their final game away to Slovenia the Scots have no margin for error it’s 6 points or bust- but as Del Amitri said ‘even long shots make it!’
Bulgaria vs France
The highly talented French seemed to be cruising to Russia but a shock loss to Sweden in June and a frankly bizarre draw with Luxembourg leaves France needing to exorcise a demon to keep qualification on track.
24 years ago Didier Deschamps played for the highly talented French side that crashed out of qualifying to Bulgaria. On Saturday night Deschamps will sit in the dugout hoping Kylian M’Bappe and co don’t repeat the mistake against the same opponent.
Northern Ireland vs Germany
Northern Ireland are guaranteed second spot whilst Germany need a point to ensure qualification.
Windsor Park has is the archetypal tough place to go- Spain & England have come a cropper there in the past, could the world champions follow?
Northern Ireland need to be careful though- they are guaranteed second place in the group but a heavy defeat could push them towards the lowest placed runners up spot and and missing the playoffs.
And what about Wales & Ireland?
If Serbia win Wales & Ireland are left fighting for a playoff spot. Wales travel to Georgia and Ireland host Moldova- both need to win and set up the decider in Cardiff next week. Wales have Gareth Bale fit and back in form having previously struggled in this campaign whilst Ireland dropped critical points in September. Both have easy looking games but it really is squeaky bum time for both teams.