As it stands before this final set of European group qualifiers there are only three teams absolutely guaranteed of their place at the 2022 World Cup – four-time winners Germany, Denmark, and Qatar, with many international sides still hoping for the dream double of first getting there, and then being placed in the top-seeded hosts’ pool of four.
But although throughout most of the world those heading for the Middle East will not be known until next year, the qualification picture in Europe will be much clearer in a week’s time, with teams having either one or two games left to play.
And with only the first-placed teams automatically sealing a spot and second-placed teams heading into one of three play-off pools of four - that will include the two best-ranked group winners from the 2020-21 Nations League not already in the top two of their groups – the stakes are high for some illustrious football countries.
Those include newly-crowned European champions Italy, who having embarrassingly failed to qualify for Russia 2018 are desperate to secure their passage this time as soon as possible. That will not happen on Friday, when they host Switzerland - level with them at the top of Group C on 14 points – whatever the result on the night for Roberto Mancini’s team.
It may go to the final game against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in Belfast, and the head coach must put together a forward line to get the job done without main striker Ciro Immobile, who is injured. Like Italy, Switzerland are guaranteed at least a play-off spot and their last game is at home against Bulgaria.
Spain are sweating in what has proved a complicated Group B. From the 2-1 defeat in September in Stockholm against an Alexander-Isak inspired Sweden, ending an unbeaten run of World Cup qualifiers going back to 1993, they have had their work cut out to grab first place. Spain need to win in Greece to take it to the last match when they host Sweden. But if they don’t and the Swedes win in Georgia, Janne Andersson’s side will finish top with Spain likely to figure in the play-offs.
Defending world champions France can rubber-stamp their place from Group D by beating Kazakhstan at home on Saturday, and with the wealth of talent at Didier Deschamps’ disposal few would back against that happening. If Les Bleus come through, the second place will go to either Ukraine, Finland or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although they currently lie fourth, B&H play their two rivals in the last two games.
In Group A Serbia, the current leaders by a point from Portugal, will be hoping their rivals slip up in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday, but the automatic spot will be decided in any case in the final game when Cristiano Ronaldo and Co host the Serbians with their own talismanic goal-scorer in the shape of Aleksandar Mitrovic in Lisbon.
Belgium, still desperate to get a trophy to show for their gilded squad of talent, should be okay in Group E for first place. Either a win at home to Estonia, or Wales dropping points against Belarus, or both, would do it. And then it could yet come down if Wales beat Belarus to goal difference between Robert Page’s men – who host Belgium in their last game – and the Czech Republic. Wales will also be praying Gareth Bale is fit and can play in those two games.
With Denmark there in Group F already, Scotland can clinch a play-off spot by winning in Moldova on Friday, or even if they draw that could be enough depending on Israel’s result against Austria. Steve Clarke’s team then have a final crack, hosting the Danes on Monday.
The permutations are considerable in the highly competitive Group G. The Netherlands are in pole position and can even finish top on Saturday should they beat Montenegro and Norway fail to beat Latvia. After that they host Norway in Amsterdam on Tuesday. If both slip up badly at the weekend, Turkey could even sneak through, though their best chance looks to be a play-off spot especially if Norway lose in Holland.
Russia, the hosts for the last World Cup, are in the box seat currently in Group H. They will make it if they beat Cyprus on Thursday and - more unlikely - Croatia fail to beat Malta. If both come through those ties then top spot will be decided in Split on Sunday when the pair clash in the final game.
England face what appears the routine task of having to beat Albania and San Marino to guarantee finishing first and taking the automatic place. But a shock win for Albania – who have exceeded all expectations in this campaign - with Southampton’s on-loan Chelsea youngster Armando Broja their new star – would love to throw a major spanner in the works. The likelihood remains that the Three Lions will finish top with Poland taking the play-off spot in Group I.
And with Germany already having clinched Group J the race is to see who takes the play-off spot. Liechtenstein are technically the only team that cannot finish second, and Romania look the favourites for second – with fixtures against Liechtenstein and at home to Iceland. North Macedonia and Armenia are lurking should Romania falter.