A journey that started just over a year ago, is fast coming to a close as European nations are bunkering down for the final two match days as only one side has punched their tickets to Russia for 2018.
Starting off in Group C, Germany is sitting pretty with 24 points with Northern Ireland behind them at 19 as the two sides that will make it out of the initial round. As fate would have it, they will face off with one another, in a game where Northern Ireland will absolutely need to take all three points if they wish to clinch and send the Germans to the playoff stage. Though, unlikely, as Northern Ireland faces Norway to finish the group and Germany takes on Azerbaijan.
Without looking forward, the Germans are undefeated through the first eight matches, with eight victories, including a 2-0 win in Hanover against Northern Ireland. A goal differential of +33 and only two allowed as well, is absolutely stunning. Their opponents come in with a solid 6-1-1 mark, and have also allowed two goals, both to their visitors for tomorrow’s date. Expect this to be an open game, which works out for the visitors, as they secure a 3-0 victory to clinch.
Czech Republic takes on Azerbaijan in one of the other two matches, in a battle for pride as the Czech’s sit in fourth place, a single point behind the Azeri’s. After being held to a scoreless draw in Ostrava, I don’t expect much different in Baku, as this ends the same way.
Finally, in the bottom match-up, Norway visits one of Europe’s biggest minnows, San Marino. A disappointing campaign for the Nordic side, who have only tallied seven points, get to put on a show for the fans prior to a date with Northern Ireland to close the campaign. Having scored only eight times (with two being own goals), offense will be hoped for, and given against a San Marinese side that has given up 38 goals in eight matches, nearly five a game. I like Norway here 3-nil.
An absolute dogfight in Group E, with three teams separated by three meager points. Poland leads the way with 19 points while Montenegro and Denmark sit equal in the possible playoff slot and 16 points.
Montenegro and Denmark also have the same exact goals for, goals allowed and goal differential, making the meeting between the two hopeful nations vital on Thursday. Montenegro will look for its first ever major tournament, while Denmark looks to get back into the World Cup after missing 2014. A 1-nil win in Copenhagen was huge for Montenegro, a result they’ll wish to replicate and Denmark wishes to erase. I like Montenegro here by a 2-nil margin, putting them within inches of, at least, a playoff slot.
Meanwhile, Poland will try to all-but clinch a direct spot to Moscow, as they visit Yerevan and an Armenian side that is in an absolute free-fall.Despite having, arguably, the greatest player in their history in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenians are sitting with a meager six points due to a stunning 19 goals allowed. Still, a dangerous side, Poland will be well aware after a stoppage time blunder by Aras Ozbiliz was followed by a Lewandowski finish, all within the final minute, helped the Poles escape with a 2-1 victory in Warsaw.I like the visitors here, in a high scoring 5-3 victory.
Finally, we have Romania hosting Kazakhstan and looking to avenge a scoreless draw in Astana. Sitting at nine points, Romania has been eliminated with full dissapointment and will look to take it out on the bottom dwelling Kazakhs, who have secured two draws. I like the Romanians here with a 2-0 margin.
Four of the six sides in the group still have hopes of a qualification slot, be it direct or through the playoffs. Though, it would take a major chokejob by England to drop out as they sit at a pretty 20 points, five ahead of Slovakia and six ahead of Slovenia and Scotland.
Crazier things have happened, which is what Slovenia will hope to happen as they visit Wembley Stadium, and hope to cut the deficit to just three with a game remaining. Having played a scoreless reverse fixture, it’s hard to fathom this ending up the same way. I like the hosts to come out with a 3-1 win and clinch a direct slot.
Scotland will look to wipe-out a 3-0 loss when they visited Slovakia during Matchday 3, and leapfrog into the potential playoff spot. Slovakia will have opposite intentions in mind, looking to return to the World Cup after missing the 2014 edition. With the knowledge that Slovakia has Malta, and three guaranteed points, remaining, I expect to see Scotland go all out and look to get the victory, leaving themselves open for a counter and a final tally of 1-1.