UEFA World Cup qualifying continues later this week. The nine group winners qualify automatically. The top eight second-place teams playoff for four additional places. Below, we break down the group races with predictions.
Group A: Belgium 16 (+10), Croatia 16 (+7)
Belgium and Croatia are nine points ahead of the third-place team with four matches to play (Serbia, Wales, Macedonia and Scotland are all but out). The question is which team receives the auto bid. Neither country has dropped a point, besides their 1-1 draw in Brussels last September. It’s probable this could come down to the return meeting in Croatia on Oct. 11. Croatia also has a contentious away trip to Serbia on Sept. 6.
Group B: Italy 13 (GP-5), Bulgaria 10 (GP-6), Czech Republic 8 (GP-5), Denmark 6 (GP-5)
The Italians are definite favorites. They have won four-straight after an opening draw with Bulgaria. An away result against the Czechs would put them in a commanding position. Denmark looks to have the inside track. Four of their final five matches are against Malta and Armenia. The fifth is against Italy. The trouble is either Malta or Armenia results will be thrown out for determining second-place playoff places. The Danes could earn 12/15 possible points to finish second, but that would leave them with just 12 when fighting for second-place playoff place.
Group C: Germany 16 (GP-6), Austria 8 (GP -5), Sweden 8 (GP-4), Ireland 8 (GP-5)
The Germans are all but qualified. Worst case: Sweden win both games in hand and creep within two points. They still must play at Sweden, but should already be through at that point. Austria and Sweden (with a game in hand) play twice (first time on Friday). Those meetings should decide second. Ireland are a bit of a wildcard. They can be resilient enough to earn draws away. They also can be dreadful enough to concede six to Germany in Dublin.
Group D: Netherlands 18, Hungary 11, Romania 10,
The Oranje have crushed everyone, winning all six matches by a combined 20-2 scoreline. Turkey and Estonia, while still relevant in the table, have earned one point combined against the top three. Romania is in an excellent position to grab second. They have already taken their beatings from the Dutch. Three of their four matches left are at home. The fourth is a guaranteed win at Andorra.
Group E: Switzerland 11, Iceland 9, Albania 9, Norway 7
Switzerland should take first. They have a two-point advantage (should have been five had they beaten Cyprus). They have conceded one goal in five matches. They still have home games against Slovenia and Cyprus remaining. Iceland have the favorable run for second. They play Albania at home. They also face Cyprus and Slovenia at home, while Albania travels to both destinations. Norway lost to Albania in Oslo in March. They may need a win in the opposite fixture on Friday to get back in this.
Group F: Russia 12 (GP -4), Israel 11 (GP-6), Portugal 11 (GP-6)
The Russians have won all four matches and have yet to concede a goal. Four of their six matches left are against Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland. They should qualify easily. For the playoff place, Portugal gets both Russia and Israel at home in the final four matches. Israel faces Portugal and Russia away in the final four matches. That could make the difference.
Group G: Bosnia and Herzegovina 13, Greece 10, Slovakia 8
These teams finish 1-2-3 as is. Slovakia plays four of their last five matches away from home. The home match is against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina have played both matches against each other. Neither have dropped a point against the bottom four teams in the group.
Group H: Montenegro 14 (GP-6), England 12 (GP-6), Poland 8 (GP-5), Ukraine 8 (GP-5)
Group H is the most wide open group remaining. Montenegro and England are ahead, but because they have each played San Marino twice. Poland have another match with them. Ukraine have two. This will be decided on the field. The schedules favor Ukraine and England. In addition to the two San Marino dates, Ukraine get England and Poland at home but travel to Montenegro. England get Montenegro and Poland at home, but travel to Ukraine. We would favor England on talent. But we would point out that England’s three wins so far came against Moldova and San Marino. They are also England.
Group I: Spain 11 (+6), France 10 (+4)
Spain reclaimed the initiative by beating France 1-0 in Paris. The Spanish have two of three matches remaining at home. The French play two of three matches remaining away. The standings should stay as is.
Prediction [Qualified]: Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, England, Spain
Prediction [Playoff]: Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Iceland, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, France
[Photos via Getty]