Germany cruising, France on thin ice as 2018 qualifiers near climax

Time & Us
Last Updated: October 6, 2017 at 12:11 am

ZURICH: Europe will provide 14 of the 32 competing teams in Russia, the hosts included. But so far only Belgium have punched their ticket to the finals going into the last two sets of fixtures.

World champions Germany, who need just a draw in Northern Ireland on Thursday, lead a handful of other sides who can wrap up qualification this week.

England are five points clear in Group ‘F’, while Serbia are in control of their section and 2010 champions Spain have the edge over Italy in their two-horse race.

The nine group winners will qualify automatically. The worst runner-up will be eliminated, with the other eight second-place teams entering a playoff round in November. The winners of the four playoffs also qualify for the World Cup.

The results against the bottom-placed teams in the group do not count in determining the best runners-up.

Portugal, while sure of at least making the play-offs, face a critical final match at home to Switzerland as Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates look to overturn a three-point deficit in Group ‘B’.

France hold a tentative one-point cushion over Sweden in Group ‘A’ and will be all too aware of the dangers posed by a trip to Bulgaria, the country responsible for their absence at the 1994 World Cup.

Germany need only one point from their final two games, against Northern Ireland in Belfast on Thursday or Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern three days later, to ensure qualification as Group ‘C’ winners.

The world champions have eight wins from eight games and coach Joachim Loew said that anything less than 10 wins from 10 would be a disappointment.

France take on Bulgaria on Saturday and Belarus three days later knowing they may still need all six points to book a direct berth for the World Cup. They can also qualify on Saturday in the unlikely event of Sweden also losing at home to Luxembourg.

In the same group, the Netherlands must win away to Belarus on Saturday and then beat Sweden at home, probably by several goals, next Tuesday to have a realistic chance of finishing second and making the playoffs.

The Dutch are third in the group, four points behind leaders France, and after missing out on qualifying for the European Championship last year, they could be out of the World Cup race by the end of the weekend if they can’t match Sweden’s result.

England will qualify if they win at home to Slovenia on Thursday while a draw will also do the trick if Slovakia fail to beat Scotland away.

Serbia lead Group ‘D’ by four points and will earn automatic qualification by beating Austria on Friday or if they draw and Wales and Ireland fail to win.

Spain, who are guaranteed a top-two finish in Group ‘G’, will qualify if they beat Albania at home on Friday and Italy drop points at home to Macedonia, although the latter seems unlikely.

Assuming Spain and Italy both win, then Spain would need a draw in their final match away to Israel to guarantee qualification.

PORTUGAL, SWITZERLAND SET FOR LISBON SHOWDOWN

Switzerland kicked off Group ‘B’ with a shock 2-0 home win against a groggy Portugal who had barely recovered from their Euro 2016 triumph two months earlier and were missing Cristiano Ronaldo through an injury sustained in that tournament.

Both teams have won all their matches since then, leaving the Swiss top with 24 points from eight games and Portugal second on 21, helped by 14 goals in seven outings from Ronaldo.

If Switzerland beat visiting Hungary on Saturday and Portugal win in Andorra that will set up a showdown in Lisbon on Tuesday where the European champions, who have a far superior goal difference, could snatch top spot by beating the Swiss.

Group ‘E’ leaders Poland need just a point from their game against Armenia in Yerevan to be assured of a top-two finish, while Montenegro and Denmark can both still qualify automatically ahead of their clash in Podgorica.

However, if Montenegro and Denmark — both on 16 points, three less than Poland — draw in Podgorica, Poland can qualify automatically with a win on Thursday.

Otherwise, Poland face a potential group-decider at home to Montenegro in Warsaw on Sunday, when Denmark host Romania in Copenhagen.

Montenegro, led by Sevilla midfielder Stevan Jovetic and Atletico Madrid’s Stefan Savic, are bidding to qualify for their first major tournament since independence in 2006.

No team can win Group ‘I’ on Friday when Croatia host Finland, Turkey entertain Iceland and Ukraine visit Kosovo with the top four teams separated by only two points. Group leaders Croatia and Iceland have 16 points each, while Turkey and Ukraine are both two points behind.

Turkey would be eliminated if they lost to Iceland, and Croatia win. Ukraine will be eliminated if they draw or lose, and both Croatia and Iceland win.

Croatia then travel to Ukraine for the last match on Monday, when Iceland host Kosovo and Turkey play at Finland.

Fixtures (kick-offs 1845GMT unless stated):

Thursday:

Group ‘C’: Azerbaijan v Czech Republic (1600GMT), Northern Ireland v Germany, San Marino v Norway.

Group ‘E’: Armenia v Poland (1600GMT), Montenegro v Denmark, Romania v Kazakhstan.

Group ‘F’: England v Slovenia, Malta v Lithuania, Scotland v Slovakia.

Friday:

Group ‘D’: Georgia v Wales (1600GMT), Austria v Serbia, Ireland v Moldova.

Group ‘G’: Italy v Macedonia, Liechtenstein v Israel, Spain v Albania.

Group ‘I’: Croatia v Finland, Kosovo v Ukraine, Turkey v Iceland.

Saturday:

Group ‘A’: Sweden v Luxembourg (1600GMT), Belarus v Netherlands, Bulgaria v France.

Group ‘B’: Faroe Islands v Latvia (1600GMT), Andorra v Portugal, Switzerland v Hungary.

Group ‘H’: Bosnia v Belgium (1600GMT), Gibraltar v Estonia (1600GMT), Cyprus v Greece.

Sunday:

Group ‘C’: Czech Republic v San Marino, Germany v Azerbaijan, Norway v Northern Ireland.

Group ‘E’: Denmark v Romania (1600GMT), Kazakhstan v Armenia (1600GMT), Poland v Montenegro (1600GMT).

Group ‘F’: Lithuania v England (1600GMT), Slovakia v Malta (1600GMT), Slovenia v Scotland (1600GMT).

Monday:

Group ‘D’: Moldova v Austria, Serbia v Georgia, Wales v Ireland.

Group ‘G’: Albania v Italy, Macedonia v Liechtenstein, Israel v Spain.

Group ‘I’: Finland v Turkey, Iceland v Kosovo, Ukraine v Croatia.

Tuesday:

Group ‘A’: France v Belarus, Luxembourg v Bulgaria, Netherlands vs Sweden.

Group ‘B’: Hungary v Faroe Islands, Latvia vs Andorra, Portugal vs Switzerland.

Group ‘H’: Belgium v Cyprus, Estonia vs Bosnia, Greece vs Gibraltar.