ZURICH, Aug 29 (Reuters) - A group-by-group preview of this week’s European World Cup qualifiers.
The winners of the nine groups qualify directly for Russia while the best eight of the second-placed teams take part in two-leg playoffs for four more places.
Results against the bottom team in the group will be discarded in calculating the best eight runners-up.
(Sweden 13, France 13, Netherlands 10, Bulgaria 9, Belarus 5, Luxemburg 1)
The Dutch are sitting in last chance saloon and know they must at least pick up a point — and preferably three — away to France on Thursday to have any chance of making it to Russia.
Sweden, meanwhile, visit Bulgaria knowing that a win for the hosts could throw the group wide open. Both France and Sweden face relatively straightforward matches the following Sunday when the French host Luxemburg and Sweden visit Belarus, while the Dutch and Bulgarians face each other.
(Switzerland 18, Portugal 15, Hungary 7, Faroe Islands 5, Andorra 4, Latvia 3)
The group has boiled down to a two-horse race between Switzerland, who have a 100 percent record, and Portugal, who have won all their games since losing to the Swiss in their opener, and should be settled when they meet again in Lisbon on Oct 10.
In the meantime, both are expected to easily win their next matches on Thursday when Switzerland host Andorra and Portugal entertain the Faroes.
Hungary, however, could throw a spanner in the works by taking a point or three off the Portuguese in Budapest on Sunday.
(Germany 18, N. Ireland 13, Czech Republic 9, Azerbaijan 7, Norway 4, San Marino 0)
Having won all six matches so far, world champions Germany face a potentially awkward trip on Friday to the Czech Republic who really need to win to keep their chances flickering.
The Czechs would ideally have to also pull off another win against Northern Ireland three days later, especially if Michael O’Neill’s team beat San Marino on Friday in what appears to be a formality.
If Germany win in Prague, they could seal top spot on Monday by beating Norway at home - provided Northern Ireland fail to beat the Czechs.
(Serbia 12, Ireland 12, Wales 8, Austria 8, Georgia 3, Moldova 2)
Wales host Austria on Saturday in a match which will almost certainly end the losing side’s interest in the group. Meanwhile, Ireland visit Georgia and Serbia host Moldova. Ireland then host Serbia in a top-of-the-table clash on Tuesday.
(Poland 16, Montenegro 10, Denmark 10, Romania 6, Armenia 6, Kazakhstan 2)
Poland visit Denmark on Friday knowing that a win would give them a chance to wrap up qualification at home to Kazakhstan the following Monday.
Montenegro need three points from their long trip to Kazakhstan on Friday to keep up their chances of a first-ever World Cup final appearance. They currently have the worst record of the nine second-placed teams.
(England 14, Slovakia 12, Slovenia 11, Scotland 8, Lithuania 5, Malta 0)
Although it is hard to believe after witnessing their performances in the last World Cup and European championship, England are formidable opponents in qualifying matches where they are unbeaten in 35 outings since Oct 2009.
They should extend that run away to Malta on Friday while Slovakia host Slovenia in one of the group’s key encounters. England then host Slovakia on Monday while Slovenia are at home Lithuania.
(Spain 16, Italy 16, Albania 9, Israel 9, Macedonia 3, Liechtenstein 0).
The group is a straight battle between Spain and Italy for top spot and direct qualification which should be settled when they clash in Madrid on Saturday.
Italy are defending a remarkable 56-match unbeaten run in Euro and World Cup qualifiers stretching back to 2006, while Spain have not lost since 2014 - 14 games ago. The 2010 world champions are also unbeaten in 10 matches since Julen Lopetegui took over as coach following Euro 2016.
(Belgium 16, Greece 12, Bosnia 11, Cyprus 7, Estonia 4, Gibraltar 0)
Unbeaten Belgium should move close to direct qualification on Thursday when they host Gibraltar who have conceded 24 goals on their way to losing all six games.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez left AS Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan out of the squad for the game but the player has denied a newspaper report that he has quit international football as a result.
The race for second place appears to be between Greece and Bosnia. Both will expect to pick up wins as the Greeks host Estonia and Bosnia visit Cyprus.
(Croatia 13, Iceland 13, Turkey 11, Ukraine 11, Finland 1, Kosovo 1)
Having qualified for Euro 2016, Iceland are now bidding to reach their first World Cup. They visit an out-of-sorts Finland on Saturday in a match they need to win, before hosting Ukraine in a key showdown on Tuesday.
Ukraine face an equally important match at home to Turkey on Saturday. Leaders Croatia should beat Kosovo at home on Saturday before visiting Turkey three days later. (Compiled by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar)