World Cup 2018 – European qualifying Matchday 9 and 10 preview

In a decisive six nights of internationals, the penultimate and final matches of European Qualifiers are on the horizon and we will learn the identity of eight nations that will join Belgium as group winners in next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Nine groups and 45 games will be previewed, some much more important than others with many dead rubbers and bankers, but Luxembourg showed us last month nothing is ever, ever certain no matter how unlikely it seems.

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It is worth noting that one second place side will miss out on the playoffs as only eight spots are available from the nine groups.

All second place sides have the points they won against the bottom side in the group deducted and are then placed in a table with the top eight progressing to the playoffs.

Group A

MD9 Fixtures – Sweden vs Luxembourg, Belarus vs Holland, Bulgaria vs France
MD10 Fixtures – Luxembourg vs Bulgaria, France vs Belarus, Holland vs Sweden

With the top four all still in contention for the top two spots in the group, the game in Sofia on matchday 9 and Amsterdam on matchday 10 will seemingly decide the group.

Should France win in Bulgaria, they will surely go through as group winners with a game at home to Belarus remaining, any repeat of their 0-0 draw with Luxembourg would be incredible.

Any slip ups by Les Bleus will open the door for Sweden who are a point behind in second place and will fancy themselves to beat Luxembourg at home. If France lose to Bulgaria, only four points may be required for Janne Andersson’s side.

Bulgaria can mathematically still qualify but will relying on a mini miracles as they sit four points off Sweden but the Dutch are not dead and buried just yet.

Three points behind Sweden, and a six-goal overhaul needed to match their goal difference, they will need a big win in Minsk and most likely a handsome victory against Sweden too at home if they are to nick a playoff spot.

Belarus, who rather embarrassingly so find themselves bottom below Luxembourg, could still have a massive say in the group in both their final two games, playing Holland and France.

But Holland vs Sweden is the game to watch in Group A this week. Marcus Berg and Emil Forsberg have done well to fill Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s boots since he retired after Euro 2016 and they will hope they can lead their country to their first World Cup since 2006 while the Dutch will be desperate not miss out on a second consecutive major tournament for the first time since the mid-1980s.

Group B

MD9 Fixtures – Faroe Islands vs Latvia, Andorra vs Portugal, Switzerland vs Hungary
MD10 Fixtures – Latvia vs Andorra, Hungary vs Faroe Islands, Portugal vs Switzerland.

With Switzerland and Portugal so far ahead in the group, only one game seems like it has any meaning, when the top two meet on the final matchday.

Switzerland have the edge after eight wins from eight while Portugal’s only defeat came against the Swiss last year.
Two draws will see Switzerland through as group winners but a defeat in Lisbon will almost definitely see them have to settle for a playoff spot due to their inferior goal difference.

Portugal are favourites to win the group because of their goal difference and the fact that the game is at home against the Swiss. Plus any side with Cristiano Ronaldo in very rarely ends up defeated.

But they did look lackluster in their narrow 1-0 win away to Hungary last month so a  better performance will be mandatory against an impressive Switzerland side.

There is still plenty of pride to play for in the other group games. Hungary will be seriously seeking a win at home to the Faroes otherwise they will finish below the minnows in what has already been a disastrous campaign which has included a 1-0 defeat in Andorra.

On the other hand, the Faroes are heading towards their best ever points tally and a win at home to Latvia will round off another campaign which has exceeded expectations after they finished above Greece in Euro 2016 qualifying.

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Group C

MD9 Fixtures – Azerbaijan vs Czech Rep., San Marino vs Norway, N. Ireland vs Germany
MD10 Fixtures – Norway vs N. Ireland, Czech Rep. vs San Marino, Germany vs Azerbaijan

In truth, Group C looks done and dusted. 24 points from a possible 24 means Germany are almost certain to be in Russia, while Northern Ireland, who already have second spot secured ahead of Azerbaijan who surprisingly find themselves third, will be praying to the heavens that they and Azerbaijan can beat Germany. It does not seem even relatively feasible that Germany will lose both games though.

The only change in the group will likely be the Czech Republic leapfrogging Azerbaijan into third in what has been another disappointing campaign for the Czechs.

But do not be surprised to see Azerbaijan continue to grow as a footballing nation. The national stadium in Baku has already hosted a UEFA Super Cup and national champions Qarabag are competing in the Champions League for the first time.

They have already given the world champions a mini scare when the previously met in the group and with nothing to play for and nothing to lose they will be aiming to do so again in Kaiserslautern.

Group D

MD9 Fixtures – Georgia vs Wales, Rep. of Ireland vs Moldova, Austria vs Serbia
MD10 Fixtures –  Moldova vs Austria, Serbia vs Georgia, Wales vs Rep. of Ireland

One of the most interesting groups before qualifying even began has lived up to expectations as the race for second place will go down to the final game as long as Ireland can avoid disaster at home to Moldova.

One point edges Wales ahead of Ireland going into the break and the two meet off in Cardiff on matchday 10 in what will be an unmissable, shootoff for a precious playoff spot in Group D.

If Wales can win in Tbilisi only a point will be required against Ireland who realistically should comfortably beat Moldova.

But with talismanic Gareth Bale leading the side, Chris Coleman’s side certainly look favourites on paper, but paper does not win football matches.

Recent wins in massive games against Bosnia to qualify for Euro 2016 and Italy to progress through their Euro 2016 group shows this Irish side show up for the big occasion.

There is only room for one of them to progress any further though as Serbia have done enough to guarantee at least a top two finish and a win in either of their games against Austria or Georgia will crown them group winners.

Two wins for Austria will give them an outside chance of nicking second spot but only if both home nations lose on matchday 9.

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Group E

MD9 Fixtures – Armenia vs Poland, Montenegro vs Denmark, Romania vs Kazakhstan
MD10 Fixtures – Kazakhstan vs Armenia, Poland vs Montenegro, Denmark vs Romania

A three horse race with three free scoring outfits will battle for top spot in Group E. One will be delirious, one will be content and one will be heartbroken, the identity of this is up in the air with two games remaining.

Poland, Montenegro and Denmark’s destiny is all in their own hands. Poland will be expecting a win in Yerevan which will guarantee a top two finish and if Montenegro vs Denmark ends as a draw, they will qualify automatically.

With Arkadiusz Milik out long term again, Robert Lewandowski will be carrying the nation’s hopes on his shoulders who already has 12 goals in Group E.

Stevan Jovetic has contributed to 10 of Montenegro’s 18 goals and one of the younger countries competing will be hoping he can skipper the side to their first ever major tournament as an independent nation, but unenviable games against the other two sides in the top three means they have the toughest run in for sure.

Denmark will fancy themselves especially having Christian Eriksen and Thomas Delaney who have been superb for both club and country in 2017.

Unfortunately for Romania, another World Cup qualifying campaign has come and gone with no success as they will have to wait another four years to try and reach their first since the turn of the millennium.

Group F

MD9 Fixtures – Malta vs Lithuania, Scotland vs Slovakia, England vs Slovenia
MD10 Fixtures – Lithuania vs England, Slovenia vs Scotland, Slovakia vs Malta

England may embarrass themselves in major tournaments, but they will seemingly now have no problem getting to next year’s World Cup, a win in Vilnius will do even if they do slip up at Wembley against Slovenia.

Scotland will be hoping the old enemy down south can do them a huge favour as they find themselves below both Slovenia and Slovakia but just one point separates the three nations.

It is certainly a tall order for Scotland but Hampden Park can be an intimidating place to visit.

Their win at home to Slovenia was critical and they will need another one at home to Slovakia if they are to have a realistic chance of reaching the playoffs.

Slovakia having a home tie with Malta makes them favourites for second as both Scotland and Slovenia have very tricky fixtures to finish with.

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Group G

MD9 Fixtures – Liechtenstein vs Israel, Italy vs Macedonia, Spain vs Albania
MD10 Fixtures – Macedonia vs Liechtenstein, Israel vs Spain, Albania vs Italy

Spain’s excellent 3-0 win over Italy last month has all but decided Group G. Many questioned Gian Piero Ventura strange 4-2-4 formation which was destined to fail before a ball had been kicked against Spain’s contrasting 4-6-0 formation.

Isco playing as a false nine ran the show and an 8-0 win in Liechtenstein three days later mean Spain can relax knowing they have the quality to get past Albania and Israel this week.

While Italy prepare for the playoffs, they will be hoping for a less dramatic encounter with Macedonia than what they endured in Skopje when they trailed 2-1 at one point only for Ciro Immobile to win it in stoppage time.

Albania who really drew the short straw being drawn with two powerhouses would have fancied their chances in every other group, but they have still followed up on their first major tournament appearance well with a respectable 13 points so far.

However, with games against Spain and Italy to come, they will be turning attentions to next September when Euro 2020 qualifying begins.

Israel will be trying to fix the mess left behind from the last round of qualifiers. After losing 1-0 at home to Macedonia, captain Eran Zahavi retired immediately from international football before losing in Italy.

Anything but a win in Liechtenstein will cause more disgust amongst supporters.

Group H

MD9 Fixtures – Gibraltar vs Estonia, Bosnia+Herz. vs Belgium, Cyprus vs Greece
MD10 Fixtures – Greece vs Gibraltar, Estonia vs Bosnia+Herz., Belgium vs Cyprus

Belgium became the first European country to qualify excluding hosts Russia after their 2-1 win in Greece on matchday 8 meaning only second place is left to play for in Group H.

Greece look on course to finish second with a short trip to Cyprus followed by a home tie to Gibraltar in Piraeus.

They sit one point behind Bosnia but have much more favourable fixtures to finish the group with.

Bosnia’s tie with Belgium will define the group, a defeat for Mehmed Bazdarevic’s side will leave them relying on other results.

Edin Dzeko has been in excellent form yet again for Roma and he will hope he can fire his country to another World Cup via the playoffs, a win against a Belgium side that may take their foot off the gas will be pivotal.

Cyprus could have still been in with a great chance had they not slipped up in stoppage time against Estonia last time out after an incredible 3-2 win vs Bosnia a few days earlier.

They could still have a big say in the group though when they welcome Greece to Nicosia.

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Group I

MD9 Fixtures – Kosovo vs Ukraine, Turkey vs Iceland, Croatia vs Finland
MD10 Fixtures – Iceland vs Kosovo, Finland vs Turkey, Ukraine vs Croatia

Just two points separates the top four in this incredibly intense group as all four sides would not look out of place playing in a major tournament.

Kosovo got dealt a very tough group to make their professional debut in and have been the whipping boys while Finland have also struggled.

Iceland’s defeat to Finland could prove to be decisive should they not progress as they are the only points Finland have picked up excluding those they earned against Kosovo.

The top four have all traded blows against each other but it is Croatia and Iceland who lead the way both on 16 points while Ukraine and Turkey sit on 14 each.

A group impossible to predict will be without doubt the most interesting to keep an eye on as it will go down to the final matchday.

Turkey need a result at home Iceland otherwise they will be in real trouble while Croatia and Ukraine will expect to win on matchday nine.

A big win in Reykjavik against Kosovo will help Iceland’s causes but the crunch tie between Ukraine and Croatia may determine the outcome of the group. Both sides have all their key men available and Andriy Yarmolenko will be confident after making a great start to life in Dortmund.

Ivan Rakitic has been a key part of Barcelona’s 100% winning start in La Liga while Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic have been in form in Serie A too.

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Andrew Delaney

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