NOT only is it a potentially decisive night for ENGLAND and SCOTLAND, but it’s the start of a pivotal six days across the globe as the field for next summer’s World Cup starts to take shape.
We already know eight of the 32 teams in Russia but by next Tuesday night, we could have as many as 18 more.
The headline news comes from the fact that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s two best players, are far from certain of embarking upon a mission to Moscow next June and July.
So here’s a quick guide to what could happen over the next few days.
South America: Brazil
Asia: Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia
The South American campaign has been a marathon one, lasting since October 2015, involving 18 matches for all ten countries. Now we have reached the final double-header and all the focus is on ARGENTINA. Lionel Messi and Co. currently lie in fifth place, which is only good enough for a play-off against Oceania winners New Zealand next month. They started off with a surprise defeat to Ecuador and their campaign has been a struggle ever since. Despite their array of attacking talent, they have only managed 16 goals in 16 games and in Jorge Sampaoli, they are now on their third manager.
Argentina have been in every World Cup since 1970, winning it twice and being runners-up twice, including in Brazil last time out, and they bring colour and interest to every tournament. But their football faces a huge week. First up, it’s a home game against Peru, the team above them in fourth before they finish with an away game at altitude in Ecuador. Anything less than victory tonight in Buenos Aires is unthinkable, as three points in Quito will be far from assured.
Uruguay and Colombia start the round off in second and third position and both sides know that a win – away to Venezuela and at home to Paraguay respectively – will effectively seal their place in Russia. The team in biggest danger is Chile. The Copa America holders and the winners of the enlarged Copa America Centenario in the USA last summer begin the week outside of the play-off spots in sixth, so Alexis Sanchez needs to inspire his team-mates to beat Ecuador at home to keep alive their hopes of participation at a third successive World Cup, before ending the campaign away to Brazil.
Group A: The World Cup runners-up from 2010 and third place in 2014, the Netherlands are almost certain not to be heading to Russia next summer after another terrible campaign. The Dutch are third with two games remaining and will have to win both and overturn a six goal margin over Sweden above them, although those two nations meet in Amsterdam on Tuesday. France top the group, but despite all their glittering talent, they have still not secured their automatic spot. But drawing at home to Luxembourg doesn’t help much. They lead the Swedes by a point as they head to Bulgaria, but it’s likely to come down to their final game at home to Belarus at the Stade de France to get the job done.
Group B: European Champions Portugal began with a 2-0 defeat in Switzerland and have been playing catch-up ever since. The Swiss have not dropped a point and the Portuguese have been flawless since that night in Basel. The group is almost certain to come down to next Tuesday at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. Victory for Cristiano Ronaldo’s team would secure first place. If not, they would be heading for November’s play-offs.
Group C: World Champions Germany have not dropped a point in qualifying but are not yet assured of their place in Russia. A point away to NORTHERN IRELAND tonight would suffice. If not a win against Azerbaijan on Sunday would do it. Northern Ireland are already guaranteed to finish second and should easily make the play-offs.
Group D: Serbia are in pole position to win the group. Three points either in Austria tomorrow or at home to Georgia on Monday will be enough. That would leave WALES and the REPUBLIC OF IRELAND fighting for second. The Welsh have a one-point lead but are without star man Gareth Bale for both games. They are away to Georgia tomorrow and the Irish are at home to Moldova before they meet in a blockbuster encounter in Cardiff on Monday night. It promises to be a nerve-shredding few days for the Celtic nations.
Group E: Not the most eye-catching section. Poland were well on course for first place until a 4-0 loss in Denmark last month but they still hold a useful three-point cushion over the Danes and Montenegro. The Poles need four points from a trip to Armenia and a home game with Montenegro to qualify, whereas the meeting between Montenegro and Denmark will probably decide second place.
Group F: ENGLAND and SCOTLAND’s group. Victory at Wembley tonight over Slovenia guarantees England’s place and would also be a big favour to Scotland, provided Gordon Strachan’s men do the business against Slovakia at Hampden. That would set up a final-game showdown away to Slovenia as the Scots look to end their 20-year exile from major tournaments.
Group G: Spain’s 3-0 win over Italy in Madrid last month was effectively a knockout game for a place at the World Cup and moved them three points clear. Victory over Albania tomorrow would be enough for the Spanish, given their vastly superior goal difference and head-to-head record against the Italians, who would be heading for the play-offs.
Group H: Belgium’s win in Greece last month ensured they were the first European side to qualify and Roberto Martinez’s star-studded side have smashed in 35 goals in eight matches. Bosnia stole ahead of the Greeks in the battle for second, but whoever finishes in that spot may still miss out on the play-offs as the weakest of all nine groups.
Group I: The most open of all the sections in Europe. Four teams could still claim the automatic spot or the second place, yet two will be eliminated completely. Croatia occupy top spot on goal difference from Iceland, with Turkey and Ukraine both just two points behind. Trying to predict what happens is foolish but Turkey versus Iceland tomorrow and Croatia’s trip to Kiev on Monday feel pivotal.
ALL eyes are on the USA. The Americans have been in every World Cup since 1990 but are suffering a traumatic campaign with only two wins from eight games in final qualifying, which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job. Bruce Arena is back in charge as they sit fourth out of six with only the top three qualifying automatically.
The Mexicans have wrapped up their spot, Costa Rica are likely to join them with the US, Panama and Honduras competing for the third one. The Americans host Panama in Orlando tomorrow before heading to Trinidad and Tobago for the last game. Third place will book their place in Russia. Fourth means a two-legged play-off against either Australia or Syria next month. Fifth place is simply unthinkable.
There are still two rounds of matches to be played in Africa, one this month and one next. Only the five group winners will secure their place at the World Cup, none of which have yet been decided. As it stands, the five countries occupying the top spots are Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Egypt.