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UEFA World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Thursday 31st August 2017
Russia 2018 is only months away. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how UEFA World Cup qualifying is poised for the stretch run.

There are three international breaks between now and December. The reason for such a heavy concentration is simple. It is time to decide which countries will be going to Russia next summer.

UEFA has the most participants in every World Cup. Adding Gibraltar and Kosovo as members, with Russia qualifying automatically as host, produced a balanced set of nine six-nation groups for qualification. The group winners qualify automatically. The best eight runners-up are drawn into two-legged ties.

Because certain groups had one fewer team in previous qualifications, determining the unlucky ninth was complicated. It's much simpler, if just as painful, now.

During the first two international breaks, the group stages will conclude. The last break will feature playoffs between the eight runners-up.

Group by group, here is how matters currently stand:

Group A

Group A is wide open. Only Luxembourg is eliminated. Belarus is still mathematically alive. Realistically, however, four countries are in with a shout for a ticket to Russia.

For Bulgaria, the task is daunting. Already three goals in the red, the three nations above them in the table all await. Petar Hubchev's team get Sweden and France in Sofia on either side of a trip to Amsterdam to face a desperate Dutch side. Even with Luxembourg as their final opponent, the odds are long for the largely anonymous squad.

Meanwhile, Dick Advocaat has no room for error with l'Oranje. The disaster that was Danny Blind's tenure leaves his side three points behind France and Sweden. He must strike the perfect balance between experienced veterans and talented youngsters immediately, or the 2010 finalists will be a shock omission from the next tournament. The test begins in France and ends with a visit from the Swedes. He can look at those matches as opportunities to make up ground. Between the two, he must claim maximum points from Bulgaria and Belarus.
France have taken the playoff route to World Cup qualification in recent seasons. Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland put them through to South Africa, where the squad literally parked itself in the bus to protest Raymond Domenech. Certainly, Didier Deschamps didn't expect to be in that same position as this group stage neared its conclusion. He is, though. Sweden top the group on goal difference. With all the talent at his disposal, Deschamps should be able to remedy that. His sternest test will come first, against the Netherlands. Then it should be all downhill with Luxembourg, Bulgaria, and Belarus to finish.

So, you say you had Sweden to win Group A in your pool? I believe you. They have every opportunity to turn the trick, as well. Janne Andersson's Blagult face the same schedule as France, practically in reverse order. His squad must simply match Les Bleus result for result while maintaining their two-goal advantage.

Group B

There is more clarity in Group B. Three countries are still in competitive positions, although one is an extreme long-shot.

Hungary have an up and coming squad. Yet, for Bernd Storck to expect the Magyars to claim a maximum twelve points while either team above them suffers a complete collapse is like having faith Nigel Farage will take the high road. It just isn't going to happen. To dream the impossible dream, Hungary will have to beat both Switzerland and Portugal, as well as more realistic challenges Latvia and the Faroe Islands.
Although sitting three points behind Vladimir Petkovic's Swiss side, courtesy a 2-0 Match Day One defeat, Fernando Santos' European champions needn't be as concerned as Didier Deschamps' France. With a ten-goal cushion in the difference column, Portugal need only take care of business against the Faroe Islands, Hungary, and Andorra before welcoming Switzerland to Lisbon for a cold dish of revenge.

Group C

Group C holds slightly more potential for late drama than B. Both the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan are within two results of wildcard holders Northern Ireland. The pair face one another and Germany, admittedly reducing their odds.

With that in mind, Karel Jarolim's side has the experience and pedigree to better face the challenge, not to mention an extra two points in the bank.

Michael O'Neill's Green and White Army is comfortably in the pole position, however. They, too, must face Germany. As well, the Czechs will be invading Windsor Park on 4 September.
A result in that match could secure Northern Ireland's place in the playoffs. A Czech victory could drag both into a struggle to avoid being the ninth-best runner-up.

Germany, of course, is Germany.

Group D

Ah, here we go again. Another serving of oh-what-a-tangled-web-we-weave. Georgia and Moldava, you lads can just move over. Sit right there, in the mathematically still alive section, right next to the door marked "Exit." Meanwhile, we'll try and sort out the other four Group D nations. Thankfully, the quartet has split into two readily identifiable pairs: contenders and pretenders.

Wales and Austria are the pretenders. These two might sort themselves, and sharpish, as Bullet Tooth Tony would say. They meet in Cardiff on 2 September. Afterwards, both get the mathematical twins, while Austria must contend with Serbia, and Wales draws the Republic of Ireland. The outcome is about as predictable as what Donald Trump will tweet next.

Austria/Wales' Vienna leg was a rollicking 2-2 draw. Hopefully the rematch will be just as compelling. One side or the other desperately needs all three points to help cut into the four-point gap between them and the contenders. Expect both sides to go for it. Gareth Bale for the winner, anyone?
Meanwhile, Serbia and Ireland only have eyes for the group's top spot. The Balkan nation is currently two the better on goal difference. They meet in Dublin on 5 September, after having opened the group stage with a two-goal draw of their own in Belgrade. Three points for the Republic will ease the pressure as Bale and company await to close the round out on 9 October. Anything else, and it could be game on.

Group E

Group E is essentially Robert Lewandowski Versus the World. This just in: the insatiable Bayern finisher is winning. The Poles have built up a six point advantage and are as close to Russia in a footballing context as they are in the geological.
Montenegro and Denmark share a four-point lead over Romania and Armenia. Which one eventually noses ahead may be immaterial, though. As it stands, they are locked in a battle with each other for the ninth-best runner-up slot. That and a crusty shilling will get you a nasty look from the barista at your local Costa.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is Kazakhstan, which is definitely not the same as being Germany.

Group F

So, this England team...

The Three Lions aren't dominating Group F as emphatically as they have other recent qualifying groups. Two draws mean they won't take anything close to maximum points this time around. On the other hand, it also tempers expectations, which, the last two World Cups being any indication, is a good thing.

Still, Gareth Southgate has his squad in the driver's seat for direct admission to the final. Nearest rivals Slovakia and Slovenia come to Wembley during the first weeks of September and October, respectively. Those two will battle each other first, while the Brits are padding their lead against pointless Malta. If the match in Slovakia ends level, Southgate will add a new item to his list of things to be thankful for, right after 'no more questions about Rooney.'
In all fairness, I should also mention Scotland has a chance to sneak into the picture, should Nigel Farage in fact decide to take the high road. There is no road to Russia for Lithuania.

Group G

One will turn out to be a rock. The other will be in a hard place. That is the situation for Spain and Italy in Group G. Albania and Israel are seven points behind the two powers. It's clearly a battle between La Roja and the Azzurri.

Spain has edged ahead through its superior attack. Italy's resolute defending has them right behind, however. The pair clash at the Santiago Bernabeu on 2 September. Anything but victory for Gian Piero Ventura's troops likely means they will face a playoff in November.
David Villa was called up by Julen Lopetegui, for the first time in three years. The NYCFC striker is just the savvy veteran who could come off the bench to stamp Spain's ticket. This is likely the match of the coming weekend.

Group H

Roberto Martinez has incredible resources at his disposal. Even without Eden Hazard, his squad is loaded to the hilt. It seems like they should be more than four points ahead in Group H already, even though they soon will be. The question is whether he can do better than Marc Wilmots in a major tournament or whether the Belgians have simply become the next England.

The battle here is between Greece and Bosnia for second place. Given Edin Dzeko's resurgence in Serie A, the Bosnians' positive performance at their first World Cup in 2014, and the Greeks' continued stodgy approach, neutrals have to be rooting for Mehmed Bazdarevic's squad.
The pair have already completed their head-to-head encounters. Bosnia will have to rely on some help. They have three winnable matches against Cyprus, Gibraltar, and Estonia, and a throwaway against Belgium. Greece face the same opponents but, playing at home, have a better chance to stave off the Belgian attack and steal a critical point.

Group I

Apparently, the folks who rig the draws in the UEFA offices know how to save the best for last. "I" is for innovative. And inventive. And interesting. Group I is the tightest group in UEFA qualifying. The four teams within two points of winning the group all play entertaining football.

Somehow Ukraine do it in the midst of war. For them, "I" also stands for invaded. You wonder what they'll do if they make it to Russia for the final. Pretty much everyone not named Vladimir Putin would love to find out. They have all three of their rivals on tap: Turkey and Croatia at home, Kosovo away. Their fate is in their own hands.

Although the smothering political climate in Istanbul doesn't inspire the same sympathetic hope, Mircea Lucescu's side is also controls its destiny. After a trip to Karkhov to face Ukraine, Croatia and Iceland come to the Ataturk Stadium. The easy match is against Finland.
Iceland and Croatia have smoother roads. They don't face each other but get both Kosovo and Finland, to help keep Ukraine and Turkey at bay. Already top through a sizable goal difference, it's difficult to see Croatia failing to qualify, especially with names like Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, and Dejan Lovren on the team sheet.

Iceland have continued to surprise after a strong Euro '16. The difference is people now see them coming. Most likely, it's the playoffs for the Nordic side.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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