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We’ve made it! After what feels like an absolute shedload of international breaks, there’s light at the end of World Cup qualifying tunnel.
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OK, we haven’t quite put a full stop on the qualification process as there’s still the little matter of the play-offs next March but the meat and drink will be polished off over the coming days.
In case you’d forgotten, there are 13 spots reserved for UEFA countries at the 2022 World Cup. The 10 group winners qualify directly for Qatar, with a further three battling their way through the play-offs.
The play-offs are, in typical UEFA fashion, fairly convoluted. The 10 group runners-up will be joined by the two best group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League that haven’t automatically qualified or reached the play-offs. The 12 teams are then drawn into three play-off paths, with single-leg semi-finals and a final to determine the three qualifiers.
With the group stage reaching a climax in this international break we thought we’d take a look at the lie of the land and the permutations facing England, Scotland and Wales.
Unfortunately, the Republic of Ireland will not be in Qatar after a wretched qualification campaign with the Boys in Green picking up just five points from six games. Serbia currently have a one-point lead over Portugal, who have a game in hand, at the top of the group and the two teams meet in a crunch clash on Sunday.
Sweden lead Spain by two points and the two countries meet in Seville on Sunday in another game that is set to decide the outcome of the group, assuming both win their fixtures against Georgia and Greece respectively on Thursday.
The ultra-tight standings continue with Italy and Switzerland battling for top spot on 14 points apiece with two matches to play. All eyes will be on the Stadio Olimpico on Friday when the two teams duke it out. Northern Ireland cannot progress to the play-offs after picking up a solitary victory from their six matches.
France, the defending world champions, are set to come through a challenging, low-scoring group including Ukraine, Finland and Bosnia & Herzegovina as they lead Group D by three points with a game in hand over their nearest rivals. A win against Kazakhstan on Saturday secures their spot in Qatar.
Belgium top the pile by five points from the Czech Republic and Wales and a victory over Estonia on Saturday guarantees their spot in Qatar. The Welsh are level on points with the Czechs for the play-off spot with a game in hand. They have fixtures against Belarus and Belgium in the coming days so their destiny is in their own hands, with four points enough to confirm their place in the play-offs.
Delightful Denmark have already qualified for Qatar thanks to their perfect record from eight games. They haven’t even conceded a goal! Scotland look nailed-on for the play-off spot as they’re four points clear of Israel in second with two games to go. If they beat Moldova on Friday then they’re through to the play-offs.
The Netherlands, Norway and Turkey are separated by four points with two matchdays left. The trio of teams are kept apart in Saturday’s fixtures so things could be the same heading into the final round of fixtures. The Dutch host the Norwegians in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all match while Turkey are away to Montenegro and could pick up the play-off spot if things fall their way.
A two-point gap separates Russia and World Cup 2018 finalists Croatia, with the two teams set to meet in the final round of fixtures on Sunday. Before the crunch clash, Russia host Cyprus while Croatia travel to Malta.
England dropped points to Hungary last month to allow Poland to close the gap at the top of the table to three points. The Three Lions can secure qualification with a game to spare if they beat Albania at Wembley on Friday and Poland fail to beat Andorra, which let’s be honest is not going to happen. If both sides win then Gareth Southgate’s men would only need to draw against minnows San Marino on Monday to progress.
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