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 hopeful nations look to punch their tickets and a trip to Moscow for the 2018 World Cup.
With Serbia having clinched at least a playoff slot, three teams in Group D are ultimately fighting for one of the two slots for a trip to Russia. Wales and the Republic of Ireland are within striking distance of the Serbians, while Austria will be needing every ounce of a miracle to get to the potential playoff slot, as they are unable to secure a direct spot.
Due to the table and implications, it is very little surprise that Austria hosting Serbia will be considered the match to circle. Serbia held Austria off by a 3-2 margin Belgrade a year ago, and a replication of such result would eliminate the Austrians while giving Serbia a ticket. A result that is expected, as Austria is coming off a dissapointing draw versus Georgia. I like Serbia here by a 2-nil margin.
Speaking of Georgia, they’ll be hosting Wales in a match of two teams that have compiled five draws, one of which was a 1-1 result in Cardiff. What separates the two nations is the Welsh have three victories to go with the stalemates, while Georgia is sitting with three defeats. Needing to keep their narrow advantage over the Republic of Ireland, I like Wales escaping with a narrow 1-0 victory.
Ireland are coming off a three game winless streak, which included draws against Austria and Georgia, and a devastating defeat against Serbia in Dublin, have the perfect chance to bounce back with a date against bottom-dwelling Moldova, who are yet to record a victory in this cycle. Expecting the Irish to come out with fire and take out Moldova 4-nil, setting up a decisive date against Wales on Matchday 10, and a potential playoff spot.
The odds of Spain, who are guaranteed second in the group at the worst, and Italy not clinching a direct ticket and a playoff spot are absolutely microscopic. Albania is hoping they can defy the odds and leapfrog Italy and snag a playoff position, which would require victories over both Italy and Spain teamed with a Macedonian upset over the Italians. In other words, microscopic might be too ambitious.
As stated, Italy hosts Macedonia in a rematch from a year ago, where Italy needed two goals from Immobile to escape Skopje with three points. One of those tallies came in stoppage time, devestating the 19 thousand plus in the stands. With that said, Macedonia’s defense has been solid, allowing just 10 goals through eight matches, which should be able to hold Italy to just one goal. All Italy will need to walk out 1-0.
Spain will be hosting Albania, needing a mere point to guarantee a spot in Russia. Knowing they’ll need all three, Albania isn’t going to make it easy for the hosts, who are going through political issues within their own nation, something the visitors will be hoping provides a big enough distraction for them to walk out of Estadio Jose Rico Perez with all three points. A valient effort won’t be enough for the visitors, as Spain takes this 3-1.
Liechtenstein will be welcoming Israel with hopes of notching their first point, as they have lost all eight matches. Allowing 34 goals and scoring once isn’t the result anyone wants, unless they are facing that side. Israel was the side that allowed Liechtenstein to score, during a 2-1 home win. Can’t see that occuring once more, and I take Israel 2-0.
Unlike Group G, Group I is absolutely wide open as four teams are separated by a mere two points. Kosovo, the newcomers to FIFA & UEFA didn’t receive a warm welcome, netting a single point and scoring on three occasions while giving up 20 goals, six of which came in a single match against Croatia.
Iceland making the trip to Turkey is the lone match pitting together two of four sides that are neck and neck, as the Turks hope for revenge after losing 2-nil in the reverse fixture. Knowing that Iceland’s final match day is against Kosovo, you can expect Turkey to come out firing in an attempt to secure three much needed points to leafrog the Nordic side. I expect the Turks to come out with a 2-nil victory, putting them in the front seat of, at least, a potential playoff spot.
Croatia gets to host a struggling Finnish side, needing a victory to ensure a chance in Russia via a potential playoff slot, at the worst. The Finnish, playing for pride, won’t make it easy for the Croats, and should have some momentum, coming off victories versus Iceland and away to Kosovo. As expected, an upset doesn’t occur and Croatia walk out 3-nil.
With a date against Croatia to close out the group, Ukraine heads to Kosovo with the full intentions of walking out with all three points. Playing for pride, in what is their final home game of their debut cycle, Kosovo will do everyhing possible to end a seven game losing streak and hope to net their second point. It will be all for not as I like the Ukranians taking a 4-1 win.