PARIS: Qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia ramps up again this weekend in Europe, as the group stages reach the halfway point and with some countries already with one foot in the finals.
AFP Sport picks out five clashes to watch out for in the games from Friday to Sunday:
Bale and Wales in trouble
They may be Euro 2016 semi-finalists and have one of the best players in the world in Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale, but Wales have failed to fire after those heady summer days in France when they stunned Europe to reach the last four. Wales trail leaders Ireland by four points after four games in Group D and defeat in Dublin on Friday would leave them in grave danger of missing out on a place in Russia. If they are to beat a dogged Ireland they will need Bale at his brilliant best. All the ingredients are there for a Wales win — they are at full strength whereas Ireland are blighted by injuries and suspension.
There is all to play for in an intriguing Group G: Spain are top on goal difference from Italy. But Israel are very much in the hunt, just one point behind. Only the top team from each group is guaranteed a place in Russia with most of the teams finishing second going into play-offs. That means either Spain or Italy — both former World Cup winners — are going to have to do it the hard way. On Friday, Italy will fully expect to brush aside Albania. The same evening Spain will need to be wary of Israel. His side might be the underdogs, but Israel boss Elisha Levy said his side will go on the attack in Gijon.
Clash at the top
The top two clash in Group I when table-toppers Croatia entertain Ukraine on Friday in Zagreb. Something needs to give: both are unbeaten after four games and victory for Croatia would give them a comfortable buffer in a group that also includes Euro 2016 surprise package Iceland and Turkey, third and fourth respectively. Turkey’s campaign has been a disappointment so far and they must beat Finland at home to keep any hopes of Russia alive. Iceland travel to the bottom side Kosovo.
Belgium, under coach Roberto Martinez and with Thierry Henry by his side, have been flying. They have a 100 percent record from four games and have hit 21 goals and conceded just one. They will do well though to keep up that scoring rate of five goals a game when they host an obstinate Greece on Saturday in top versus second in Group H. Greece don’t score many but they have conceded only twice from their four games. However, in Romelu Lukaku, free-scoring Belgium have one of the hottest strikers in Europe. Good news though for Greece: Eden Hazard is out injured.
England can already start thinking about where they are going to stay in Russia, topping a weak Group F despite managerial upheaval. But world football’s great underachievers are often compelling viewing — if only to see the national handwringing each time they fail to produce the high standards the English public demands. But even England will surely send fourth-placed Lithuania packing with ease on Sunday at Wembley in coach Gareth Southgate’s first qualifier since being named on a permanent basis following the sacking of Sam Allardyce.