World Cup qualifying state of play ahead of this week's internationals
By Pete Hall
Last Updated: 03/09/17 8:21pm
World Cup qualifying resumes this week, with the race to reach Russia 2018 gathering pace.
England look to get life without all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney off to a positive start against Malta and Slovakia in this latest round of fixtures, consolidating top spot in their group in the process.
Elsewhere, Wales need to start picking up wins, and fast, the Netherlands travel to France knowing defeat could leave them with a mountain to climb to even secure a play-off spot, while another defeat for Argentina could see them face an unexpected struggle to secure an automatic qualification berth.
Here, we run through the qualification state of play, to see which countries are on course and which teams have work to do, starting with the home nations and the Republic of Ireland. Remember, in Europe, the group winners qualify automatically, with the eight best runners-up facing a two-legged playoff.
UEFA Qualifying - Group C
In Group C, Northern Ireland have built on their impressive European Championships last summer to sit second behind runaway leaders Germany.
Michael O'Neill's men take on San Marino on Friday, live on Sky Sports, where they'll be expected to net their fourth successive qualification victory, before a pivotal meeting with third-placed Czech Republic on Monday. Win that and second place should be more or less theirs.
Germany could do the Green and White Army a huge favour in meantime, as they travel to Prague on Friday night.
UEFA Qualifying - Group D
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In Group D, Republic of Ireland are tied on points with leaders Serbia, while Wales, on the back of their own Euro 2016 heroics, have faltered of late, drawing their last four in a row to sit four points behind the top two.
It is do or die for Wales, and they could be out all but out of the running before the weekend is out. With Republic of Ireland and Serbia both expected to win their games on Saturday against Georgia and Moldova respectively, a loss to Austria, live on Sky Sports, would leave Coleman's men seven points off the top two spots with three games to go.
Tuesday sees the real blockbuster fixture take place, live on Sky Sports, as Republic of Ireland and Serbia face off. The winner will be in pole position to earn that automatic qualification spot.
UEFA Qualifying - Group F
Scotland v England did not disappoint last time out. Two stunning free-kicks from Leigh Griffiths looked to have given Scotland a famous victory at Hampden Park back in June, rejuvenating a faltering qualification campaign in the process.
However, that late, late Harry Kane equaliser leaves the Tartan Army staring at another summer watching their rivals in a finals tournament. Four points off second, Scotland must win their next two games to have any hope of a late challenge for that potential play-off spot. There can be no excuses, with Lithuania and Malta to come in this round of fixtures.
England's job is far from complete, but two wins in this round of fixtures and fans can start thinking about a Russian adventure. Malta should be disposed of on Friday night, before the crunch clash with second-placed Slovakia at Wembley on Monday.
Cause for concern?
Much has been made of the Netherlands' decline in recent years, but lose to France in Paris on Thursday night, also live on Sky Sports, and the forefathers of Total Football will be faced with the possibility that they could fail to qualify for successive tournaments for the first time in 22 years. Beating Bulgaria is a must on Sunday. It could all come down to a winner-takes-all clash with Sweden in October.
Portugal are three points off top spot in Group B, with Switzerland leading the way. Fernando Santos' men have a tough away match in Hungary on Sunday, but navigate past that, and a showdown with Switzerland awaits in October.
A vibrant Poland are running away with things in Group E, and four points from this round of fixtures will see them secure top spot, with Belgium facing the same task in Group H.
Group I is incredibly tight. Croatia and Iceland both sit on 13 points after the Nordic Islanders beat their rivals for top spot in Reykjavik in June. Ukraine and Turkey and two points behind in third and fourth.
Group G is a battle of attrition between two heavyweights of the international game. Spain and Italy are both locked on 16 points - seven clear of their group rivals - before their clash at the Bernabeu on Saturday. The winner will be in the driving seat to seal top spot.
Qualification for the 2018 World Cup is a convoluted affair, but the process is reaching the business end across the globe.
In Asia, unbeaten Iran have already booked their tickets to Russia, topping Group A. South Korea and Uzbekistan will tussle it out for the second automatic play-off spot, with Syria still harbouring hopes of making a late bid. What a story that would be. There is a battle royale in the offing in Group B, with Japan leading the way with 17 points, and Australia and Saudi Arabia just a point behind. Japan and Australia meet on Thursday. The third-placed teams from both groups go into a play-off where they'd face a fourth-placed team from Central and Northern America.
Mexico have qualified from the CONCACAF qualification process, while Costa Rica are almost there. USA still have work to do to secure that third qualification spot, but a win over Costa Rica on Friday will seal their spot in the World Cup finals.
Meanwhile, in South America, Brazil have rekindled their grandeur of old to breeze into the finals, holding a nine-point lead at the top of the group with four games to play.
The rest of the group is very tight, and makes for worrying reading for Argentina. Sitting in fifth, a point behind Chile in fourth, they could face a play-off against the top team in Oceania (most likely New Zealand) as it stands, or even worse, be eliminated altogether with Ecuador just two points behind in sixth. Only the top four qualify automatically.
With four games to play, it is wide open. A clash with third-placed Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday ensures it won't get any easier for a team who have won just twice in their last seven qualification matches. The lifting of Lionel Messi's four-match ban will certainly help their cause. Colombia travel to bottom side Venezuela hoping to consolidate second spot.
Meanwhile, in Africa, the third and final qualification stage is just two games old. Twenty teams have been split into five groups, with the winner of each pool qualifying for the finals. Ghana already sit five points behind Egypt in their group, while DR Congo and Tunisia both have two wins from two Group A, while Nigeria have maximum points in Group B