The first stage of European qualifying for next year’s World Cup concludes over the next week with Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands among the nations facing crucial games in the quest to make it to Qatar.
The 10 group winners will secure qualification for football’s global showpiece which kicks off on November 21, 2022. The 10 runners-up will get another chance to qualify in play-offs next March.
AFP Sport looks at what’s up for grabs in the remaining group games:
– Spain have all to play for –
Spain showed on their runs to the Euro 2020 semi-finals and the Nations League final that they are again a force to be reckoned with. However, the 2010 world champions still have work to do to secure their place in Qatar from qualifying Group B.
Luis Enrique’s side sit second, two points behind leaders Sweden. They head to Athens on Thursday to play Greece, who held them to a 1-1 draw at home in March. Failure to win this time would give Sweden the chance to clinch top spot with victory in Georgia.
Otherwise the group will be decided when Spain host Sweden — including a 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic — in Seville on Sunday.
– Italy, Dutch back on big stage? –
European champions Italy, who failed to qualify in 2018, are not there yet either. With two games left in Group C they are locked on 14 points with Switzerland, and the sides clash on Friday in Rome, five months after Italy won 3-0 there when the teams met in Euro 2020’s opening game.
Whoever wins will be left requiring just a point in their final qualifier, with the Azzurri going to Northern Ireland on Monday while the Swiss host Bulgaria.
“We mustn’t think that we have everything to lose,” said coach Roberto Mancini. “We know what we are capable of, and if we play our game I think we will perform well. And we will have fun.”
The Netherlands are tantalisingly close to returning to the World Cup after also missing out in 2018. Louis van Gaal’s side are two points clear of Norway atop Group G with a superior goal difference to that of the Norwegians or third-placed Turkey.
That effectively means a draw in Montenegro on Saturday should not damage them, as long as they then avoid defeat against Norway — who are without injured forward Erling Haaland — in Rotterdam.
The battle between Russia and 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia in Group H is tight, with the Russians currently two points ahead before hosting Cyprus on Thursday.
As long as Croatia don’t slip up in Malta, they can claim top spot when they host Russia in Split on Sunday.
– England, France almost there –
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal are currently second in Group A, a point behind Serbia. However, they have a game in hand in the Republic of Ireland on Thursday and a better goal difference. Whatever happens there, the group will be decided when Portugal host Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday.
Reigning world champions France can clinch qualification by beating Kazakhstan in Paris on Saturday. Even a draw would be enough provided Finland fail to win earlier, but otherwise Les Bleus — without the injured Paul Pogba — can wrap up their spot in Qatar when they travel to Helsinki on Tuesday.
England are three points ahead of Poland in Group I, so the Euro 2020 runners-up will qualify by taking at least four points from games at home to Albania and away in San Marino.
Belgium will win Group E by defeating Estonia in Brussels on Saturday, while an unlikely loss could set up a group decider in Wales.
– Already qualified –
Four-time world champions Germany have already secured their place at the finals from Group J. Five members of their squad were forced into quarantine on Tuesday after one player tested positive for Covid-19.
Behind them, Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Iceland can all still take the play-off place.
Denmark have romped to qualification from Group F. Scotland need three more points from games in Moldova and at home to Denmark to take the play-off place.