THE battle to make next summer’s World Cup finals is reaching boiling point, with 29 out of 32 spots set to be filled between now and November.
While some of the qualifiers will be familiar, there are a number of potential first- timers who are dreaming of claiming their place among the elite.
SunSport’s OSCAR PAUL looks round the globe to see the teams on the brink of claiming their place in Russia — and those who could be unhappy spectators when the biggest show on Earth kicks off in June next year.
Europe (13 places)
Nine group winners qualify automatically with the best eight runners up playing off in November for final four slots.
Group A: Sweden and France are battling for top spot. Holland, who face the French at the Stade de France tomorrow, have fought back to third spot after a disastrous start but cannot afford to drop any points ahead of final match showdown with Swedes in October.
Group B: This is a straight fight between Switzerland, who have won six out of six, and Portugal, who lost their opener in Basel but dropped no points since. Likely to be decided by final game in Lisbon.
Group C: World champions Germany are cruising after winning all six and can claim their finals berth by beating the Czech Republic and Norway if second-placed Northern Ireland drop points from their games with San Marino or the Czechs. Two defeats against the the top two would eliminate the Czechs.
Group D: Wales must take maximum points from their games with Austria and Moldova to take advantage of the Republic meeting Serbia in Dublin next week and keep alive their hopes of stealing top spot.
Group E: 100 per cent Poland will be assured of at least a play-off place by beating Denmark and Kazakhstan and would be group winners if Montenegro dropped any points.
The Danes cannot afford to lose Friday’s Copenhagen showdown with the leaders.
Group F: England have made heavy weather of a relatively simple group but wins in Malta and then over Slovakia at Wembley will leave them on the brink of qualification.
Wins over Lithuania and Malta would put Scotland back in the mix for second.
Group G: Saturday’s clash between Spain and Italy in the Bernabeu is likely to determine who finishes top of the group with the pair having both only dropped points in their opening draw so far.
Group H: Wins over Gibraltar and then Greece in Piraeus on Sunday will secure Belgium top spot if Bosnia fail to win both their games.
Group I: The most competitive group in Europe with just four points separating the top two.
Thing will be far clearer after next week with Turkey visiting Ukraine before hosting Croatia on Tuesday while England’s Euro 2016 humblers Iceland are facing Ukraine in Reykjavik.
Africa (5 places)
Five group winners qualify by right
Group A: Top two Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia meet twice in five days. Congo have not appeared at World Cup Finals since qualified as Zaire in 1974. Tunisia’s last Finals were in 2006.
Group B: Nigeria are in control after winning their first two games and if they can take four points off second place Cameroon in the head to head series they could be virtually there.
Group C: Gabon need to beat group leaders Ivory Coast at least once to keep alive hopes of a first Finals appearance. Two draws would open the door for either Morocco or Mali.
Group D: Burkina Faso, seeking their first Finals, are ahead of South Africa on goal difference but Senegal are just a point adrift of the pair.
Group E: Egypt have eked out a narrow advantage over Uganda but their meetings in Kampala tomorrow and then in Alexandria next week could prove decisive. Uganda have never qualified.
Asia (4½ places)
Top two in each of the final six-nation groups qualify automatically. The two third place sides meet for the right to face fourth team in Concacaf in November for place in Russia.
Group A: Iran were the second team to qualify with two games to spare but Ukbekistan know wins over China and then South Korea will take them to the Finals for the first time and consign Koreans to play-offs.
Group B: Japan hold a slender one point lead over both Saudi Arabia and Australia but having to play both of them over next week. Aussies travel to Saitama tomorrow before Japan go to Jeddah on Tuesday. Australia finish at home to Thailand.
CONCACAF (3½ places)
Top three qualify. Fourth side faces fifth team in Asia in November.
USA sacked Jurgen Klinsmann after a dreadful start to the “Hexagonal” final group and have now dragged themselves back above Panama into the final automatic slot with four to play ahead of clash with Costa Rica.
Mexico can clinch their place by beating Panama and will be sure of Russia by then avoiding defeat in Costa Rica.
South America (41/2 places)
All 10 teams play each other home and away. Top four go through with fifth team playing Oceania winners.
Brazil were the first team to qualify but other than Bolivia and Venezuela the other seven teams can still finish in the mix with just six points between second-placed Colombia and Paraguay in eighth.
Crunch match this week is fifth-placed Argentina’s trip across the River Plate to Uruguay.
Oceania (1/2 place)
New Zealand face Solomon Islands in a two-leg tie on Friday and Tuesday for the right to play the fifth-placed South American team in November.
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