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Who’s going to Russia: Huge stars risk missing WC

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IRAN, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia will represent Asia in Russia next year, but Syria and Australia will attempt to join them via the play-offs.

Australia, champions of Asia, are not the only Confederation winner in danger: United States, Chile and Portugal in serious danger of missing out, with Cameroon already out of contention.

Syria prolonged their fairytale World Cup campaign with a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser in their final group match to set up a double-header against Australia on October 5 and 10.

The Socceroos are bidding for a fourth straight finals appearance while Syria, who have never reached the World Cup before, have kept their dream alive despite the brutal civil war that has forced them to play all their home games abroad.

They will take on Australia in Malaysia in the first leg before travelling to Sydney for the return. The winner of the tie will meet the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF with a spot in Russia at stake.

Mexico and who else?

Mexico will compete at their seventh straight World Cup next summer, with Costa Rica also on the verge of direct qualification. But a third automatic berth is still in play, while the fourth-placed side can also qualify through the inter-continental play-offs.

Panama, in third, lead the United States and Honduras by a single point with two rounds of games still to play.

United States head coach Bruce Arena, center, watches players go through drills

Saturday AEDT

United States v Panama

Mexico v Trinidad and Tobago

Costa Rica v Honduras

Wednesday AEDT

Trinidad and Tobago v USA

Honduras v Mexico

Panama v Costa Rica

The United States team stretch as they warm up.

AFRICA

Five places are on offer in Africa, but none as yet have been claimed. Nigeria are closing in on a sixth World Cup appearance, with reigning continental champions Cameroon and Algeria out of the running in a challenging section, but Zambia could still deny the Super Eagles.

Tunisia are well positioned to end a 12-year World Cup exile, leading nearest rivals the Democratic Republic of Congo by three points, while Egypt are in control of their destiny.

But other groups remain wide open with just the first-place finishers qualifying for Russia. Ivory Coast top Group C on seven points, but both Morocco (six) and Gabon (five) still harbour genuine hopes.

It is a similar situation in Group D after FIFA’s decision to annul South Africa’s 2-1 win over Senegal from November 2016 — a match manipulated by a Ghanaian referee. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde head the pool on six points, but Senegal trail by just a point with their match against Bafana Bafana to be replayed in November.

EUROPE

Eight countries will join already-qualified Belgium at next year’s World Cup in Russia when group play in the European zone is wrapped up over the next week.

There are two rounds of games still to be played, and Germany, England, Spain, Poland and Serbia look in strong positions to top their groups and advance.

The nine group winners will qualify automatically.

The worst runner-up will be eliminated, with the other eight second-place teams entering a playoff round in November. The winners of the four playoffs also qualify for the World Cup. Here is the state of play in the groups:

— GROUP A

After missing out on qualifying for the European Championship last year, the Netherlands could be out of the World Cup race by the end of the weekend. A three-time World Cup runner-up, the Dutch will miss their second straight major tournament if they can’t match Sweden’s result.

The Netherlands is third in the group, four points behind leader France and three behind second-place Sweden. The Dutch play at Belarus on Saturday, when Sweden hosts Luxembourg. Playmaker Wesley Sneijder has been dropped and winger Ryan Babel has been recalled for the first time in six years for the crucial game.

Dutch forward Arjen Robben (C) attends a training of the Netherlands’ football team in Katwijk.

The French will clinch first place and automatic qualification if they win in Bulgaria on Saturday and Sweden loses against Luxembourg. France would guarantee a top-two finish with a win.

— GROUP B

Even after seven straight wins – and an expected eighth at Andorra on Saturday – European champion Portugal is not sure to be at the World Cup. Group leader Switzerland has won eight straight, including an opening 2-0 victory over a Portugal team without Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead of hosting Hungary on Saturday.

It all points to a showdown in Lisbon next Tuesday to win the group and take the direct qualifying place. The Swiss currently lead by three points. Portugal has the edge if goal difference is the tiebreaker. Helped by Ronaldo’s European-best 14 goals, Portugal is already nine superior to the Swiss before facing Andorra, which it already beat 6-0 at home.

Hungary’s drop in form since Euro 2016 means the Faeroe Islands can go third by beating Latvia on Saturday.

— GROUP C

Germany needs only one point from its final two games, against Northern Ireland in Belfast on Thursday or Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern three days later, to ensure qualification as group winner.

The world champions have eight wins from eight games and coach Joachim Loew said that anything less than 10 wins from 10 would be a disappointment. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jonas Hector and forward Mario Gomez are out with injuries, while Loew also omitted midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira because of a right knee problem and right thigh strain, respectively. Germany has 24 points, five more than Northern Ireland, which is already assured of second place.

— GROUP D

Serbia leads by four points and will earn automatic qualification by beating Austria on Friday.

It looks to be a fight between second-place Wales and third-place Ireland for the runner-up spot – they are separated by one point and meet in Cardiff in the final round of games on Monday.

Before then, Wales visits Georgia and Ireland hosts Moldova. If Serbia doesn’t guarantee first place in Vienna, it has a second chance in a home game against Georgia on Monday.

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— GROUP E

Group leader Poland needs just a point from its game against Armenia in Yerevan to be assured of a top-two finish, while Montenegro and Denmark can both still qualify automatically ahead of their clash in Podgorica.

However, if Montenegro and Denmark – both on 16 points, three less than Poland – draw in Podgorica, Poland can qualify automatically with a win on Thursday. Otherwise, Poland faces a potential group-decider at home to Montenegro in Warsaw on Sunday, when Denmark hosts Romania in Copenhagen.

Poland is hoping its 4-0 loss in Denmark on Sept. 1 does not prove decisive.

— GROUP F

England leads its group by five points and needs only a point from its last two games, at home against Slovenia and at Lithuania, to secure first place. If England beats third-place Slovenia at Wembley Stadium on Thursday, second- place Slovakia will be guaranteed to finish as runner-up with a win at Scotland. Scotland has won three of its last four qualifiers to move level on points with Slovenia in fourth place, and could be in second place heading into the last round of games if it wins against Slovakia.

In the last round Sunday, Scotland travels to Slovenia and Slovakia hosts Malta.

England’s striker Harry Kane attends a team training session at St George’s Park

— GROUP G

Spain has a three-point lead over Italy and can close in a World Cup spot with a victory at Albania on Friday.

Spain has a much better goal difference than Italy (29 to 12), so it will likely win the group even with a setback in one of its final two qualifiers. Italy hosts Macedonia on Friday and plays at Albania on Monday, when Spain visits Israel. The Azzurri, who are without injured midfielder Marco Verratti, need one point from its final two qualifiers to secure second place and a playoff spot.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui won’t be able to count on Andres Iniesta, Alvaro Morata and Dani Carvajal because of injuries.

— GROUP H

With Belgium already qualified, Bosnia and Greece are in a battle for second place in the group.

Bosnia has a one-point advantage but an arguably harder task, hosting the Belgians Saturday with an injury-plagued squad. Haris Medunjanin of the Philadelphia Union was one of four late replacements. The Bosnians’ last game is at Estonia as they look to reach a second straight World Cup. Greece is at Cyprus and then at home against Gibraltar, and has recalled attacking midfielder Lazaros Chrsitodoulopoulos after an 18-month absence.

— GROUP I

In the tightest European group, the top four teams are separated by only two points. Group leader Croatia and Iceland have 16 points each, while Turkey and Ukraine are both two points behind.

Croatia hosts Finland on Friday and travels to Ukraine for the last match on Monday, while Iceland plays at Turkey and hosts Kosovo. Turkey plays the last game at Finland while Ukraine travels to Kosovo on Friday.

Because of its poor results in the team’s first attempt to qualify for a World Cup, Kosovo coach Albert Bunjaku has agreed to leave his post at the end of qualifying. Kosovo was accepted by UEFA and FIFA last year, and fast-tracked into World Cup qualifying.

SOUTH AMERICA

BRAZIL is in, and over the next week three more South American countries will join the five-time champions at the World Cup in Russia.

The fifth-place team from the region will also keep its chances alive, facing a playoff next month against New Zealand. That winner will also advance.

With two matches to play, Uruguay and Colombia are in the best shape to join Brazil at the World Cup. The biggest shock could be two-time champion Argentina, which will battle for a spot against Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador.

Bolivia and Venezuela have been eliminated.

Argentina, the runner-up three years ago in Brazil, has not missed a World Cup since 1970.

Here’s a look at the countries and matches set for Thursday and next Tuesday.

— ARGENTINA

Argentina and Peru play Thursday at Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera stadium, among the world’s most hostile venues for visiting teams. It’s the first World Cup qualifier there in 20 years.

Both countries have 24 points, and a victory by either would be a giant step toward qualifying. A slip, and Argentina will have to win the final match in Quito, Ecuador, where the altitude of 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) is a burden for visiting teams.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, left, and Federico Fazio, center, walk.

Peru, coached by Argentine Ricardo Gareca, is at home to Colombia in its final game.

Argentina will be without Sergio Aguero for both matches after he fractured ribs in a car accident last week. New coach Jorge Sampaoli has been unable to lift the team, which has drawn its last two matches, against Uruguay (0-0) and Venezuela (1-1).

— URUGUAY

Uruguay is in great shape. It has 27 points and second place in the standings, 10 points behind Brazil. The team finishes qualifying at Venezuela, and at home against Bolivia – the two countries that are already eliminated. Depending on other results, a draw at Venezuela on Thursday might be enough to guarantee Uruguay a place in its third straight World Cup.

Uruguayan footballer Edinson Cavani (R) takes part in a training at the Puerto Azul Club field, in La Guaira, Venezuela .

— COLOMBIA

Colombia has 26 points and beating Paraguay in the coastal city of Barranquilla could be enough to secure a place at its second straight World Cup. That would also eliminate long-shot Paraguay.

“We’re fired up, but relaxed, knowing that this group can win the match and bring happiness to Colombia,” defender Davinson Sanchez said.

— CHILE

The two-time defending Copa America champion has only 23 points and is teetering on the edge. Chile is home against Ecuador on Thursday, and then must beat Brazil next week in Sao Paulo.

Chile has lost its last two matches, against Paraguay and Bolivia, an indication of the state of play.

Chile’s Alexis Sanchez takes part in a training session

— PERU

Peru has 24 points and has won three games straight to get back into contention. After the match in Buenos Aires, it finishes at home with Colombia. “We’re going to arrive at that final game in great shape,” Argentina-born coach Ricardo Gareca said. “We’ve got this far with our determination.” Peru last reached the World Cup in 1982 in Spain.

— BRAZIL

Brazil is already in, and will surely test reserves in Thursday’s match in the thin air of La Paz. Look for the regulars to face Chile next week in Sao Paulo. Brazil coach Tite is undefeated in 10 qualifying games, and has won nine of them.

Brazil’s Neymar (C) and teammates take part in a training session.

— THE REST

Paraguay with 21 points, and Ecuador with 20, will need to win their final two matches and get help from others to have any chance. Bolivia and Venezuela are out.

Originally published as Who’s going to Russia: Huge stars risk missing WC

Source: sports dailytelegraph

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