World Cup Qualifying: Europe’s November Fixtures

After last month’s double-header fixtures in Europe, the World Cup qualifying picture is starting to emerge with a little more clarity.

There are those teams for whom the group is beginning to look comfortable – France, England, Germany, Belgium
There are those who are performing above themselves so far – Azerbaijan, Montenegro, Serbia
Ignoring those who never had a chance realistically, there are also those for whom the chances of qualifying are plummeting rapidly – Hungary, Czech Republic, Turkey, Slovakia
And there are many who are stuck in a battle for that qualifying place. All in all there is plenty of intrigue as things currently stand.

This month’s set of matches – just a single game for each team, and the final one until next March – should see a few realistic contenders continue their progress. And while completing four out of ten group matches won’t leave anyone eliminated yet, for those struggling to get points on the board time is running out on getting things going. With only one automatic qualifying place per group, an early stumble or two is potentially fatal to a qualifying campaign.

Group A

France probably belong to the group of teams who are making short work of the qualifying process so far, having won in the Netherlands last time out. If they follow that up with a win over Sweden in the Stade de France this Friday, they may as well start confirming their plans for Russia. Group of Death? Pah!

The Dutch face the short trip through the lowlands of north-western Europe to face Luxembourg in what would usually be seen as an easily winnable match. But this Luxembourg side are made of sterner stuff than many, or most, of their predecessors. Narrow losses to Bulgaria and Sweden were followed up by a dramatic draw in Belarus in which the referee blew too early for full-time meaning the Luxembourg celebrations had to be halted after the ref had prematurely blown, before they got to continue them again a minute later.

Sweden only edged a 1-0 win in Luxembourg which could suggest that the Dutch are in for a rougher ride than you would normally expect. But for all the evidence of Luxembourg progress and Dutch frailty the voice in my head just can’t imagine anything other than a Dutch win. Surely?

Bulgaria and Belarus play the other group match that will have little bearing on anything. Neither will qualify, and very few will care.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
11th November
France v. Sweden 3-0 France by 2 goals
13th November
Bulgaria v. Belarus 1-0 Draw
Luxembourg v. Netherlands 0-2 Netherlands by 3 goals

Group B

Things are going rather swimmingly for the Swiss so far. Three matches played, three wins, nine points. The fact that the first of those was against the European Champions Portugal makes it even more impressive. Their opponents this week are the Faroe Islands, and for all the progress and decent results the Faroese have caused in recent campaigns – they won 2-0 away in Latvia last month – the Swiss ought to have more than enough quality to see them off.

Portugal continue their chase by hosting Latvia, and again the odds are in favour of a home win, though Portugal do like to throw in the occasional stumble in their qualifying groups recently. To imagine failing against Latvia would be a step into the realms of fantasy, however.

Hungary simply must beat Andorra if they are to put any pressure on the top two. Having enjoyed a decent Euro 2016, the chances of a first World Cup appearance since 1986 are not looking overly rosy right now. A last minute defeat to Switzerland in an open and dramatic match last month has left the Magyars struggling to keep up. They avoided the Latvian banana-skin to record their first win, but they have to get another three points this week or their campaign will be more or less over before it ever really got going.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
13th November
Hungary v. Andorra 2-0 Hungary by 4 goals
Switzerland v. Faroe Islands 3-1 Switzerland by 3 goals
Portugal v. Latvia 4-0 Portugal by 2 goals

Group C

I wrote last month that this was Germany’s group. Two matches down the line there is nothing to suggest otherwise. And there are few mismatches in European football quite on the scale of San Marino v. Germany. Germany are yet to concede a goal, and that won’t change in this match. Come Friday night, Germany will be on 12 points and coasting to the World Cup.

The surprise chief challengers so far are Azerbaijan; a team who have never so much as troubled the qualification places before. Their campaign has so far been built on defence – Azerbaijan, like Germany, are yet to concede a goal in this group. However they aren’t exactly prolific in front of goal themselves either. Their two victories have both been 1-0, with the home win over Norway slightly more impressive than the single goal victory in San Marino. Their position in second place looks a little false given the calibre of the two teams they have beaten however, but arguably their best result was the one they didn’t win. Their last match was a 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic which will probably prove more damaging to Czech qualification hopes than overly beneficial to Azeris qualification hopes when it plays out.

But if they can follow that up with another positive result away in Northern Ireland this Friday, then perhaps we do have to start taking them seriously. The Irish came away from their trip to Germany with a 2-0 loss that was if anything less one-sided than the Euro 2016 clash that ended 1-0 to the Germans. For their part, Northern Ireland need a win to stake their claim to being the likeliest runner-up to Germany and the potential play-off place that comes with that position. This is the one to watch in this group, and I’m putting my faith in the Irish to get the job done. A win would put them ahead of Azerbaijan in second place.

Further back are the Czech Republic who are in danger of slipping too far behind even at this early stage. Goalless draws at home to Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan, as well as the expected loss to Germany, mean that the Czechs are already well behind the pack in the race for second place. Ignoring for now the fact that they will likely need to go to both Baku and Belfast and win, they simply must beat and rank average Norway team this week to get their campaign going. The Czechs are yet to score, however, so don’t expect a goal rush, and I fully expect this to be a fairly tight, edgy game.

Norway did manage four in their last match but their place in the headlines was more for being on the end of a San Marino equaliser in the second half of their last match. The sheer delight of the Sammarinese was wonderful to see, and many an observer was disappointed when Norway scored three very late goals to avoid embarrassment. That win doesn’t disguise the fact that this Norway team is fairly awful, but up against the fragile and desperate Czechs you never know.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
11th November
Czech Republic v. Norway 2-0 Czech Republic by 1 goal
Northern Ireland v. Azerbaijan 2-1 Northern Ireland by 3 goals
San Marino v. Germany 0-7 Germany by 4 goals

Group D

Things are rather more delicately poised in Group D; a fact that makes it one of the more interesting European groups. There is no stand-out favourite, and all of the current top four will feel they have the wherewithal to make it through to the Finals in Russia

Top of the pile after three matches are Serbia who claimed an impressive, and significant, 3-2 win over Austria last month in a hugely entertaining match. This month they travel to Wales to take on the European semi-finalists. They will find their hosts keen to put things right after their last home match in which they ended up drawing with Georgia. As impressive as the Georgians were, that is the kind of result which can severely dent a team’s qualifying hopes, particularly in such a strong, even group.

My gut instinct is that Wales have the greater quality, particularly with the return to fitness of Aaron Ramsey, and the return from suspension of Joe Allen. They need to transform that quality into a victory, and this will be a key match to watch this weekend.

Austria had a tough time of things last month, and against their direct rivals to boot. A draw at home to Wales and a loss in Serbia mean that they can ill afford to miss out on a win when they host Ireland on Sunday. If they do so, the qualifying picture will become even more congested, but they are a team that have struggled to match the heightened expectations brought about by their impressive European Championship qualifying campaign. They seem to have been stuck in a rut throughout 2016, but could really do with finding a way to win again against an average Ireland side who were themselves rather fortunate to beat Georgia last month. I’m picking Austria to do the business, but only just.

Georgia, impressive on the road last month, should be able to gain their first win when they host Moldova.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
12th November
Austria v. Ireland 2-1 Draw
Georgia v. Moldova 2-0 Georgia by 2 goals
Wales v. Serbia 2-1 Wales by 1 goal

Group E

The surprise group leaders after three rounds are Montenegro, who enjoyed a magnificent pair of results last month. A thumping win over Kazakhstan was followed up by a thoroughly impressive 1-0 win away in Denmark, and now the Montenegrins have put themselves in with a shout in what is proving to be a more competitive group than it had originally appeared. If they can continue that form with another victory in Armenia – and nothing so far suggests that they can’t – then it will have been a superb start to the campaign for one of Europe’s newer nations.

This group was meant to be fairly comfortable for Poland – the theory being that they had players of a far superior quality to any others in the group. Individually that is undeniably true, but a team is more than that, and it is here that Poland have not fully realised their potential. They flattered to deceive in Euro 2016, failing when they were strongly favoured against Portugal. And they have been far from impressive in this group so far.

An opening draw in Kazakhstan was a huge shock, and even the recovery which followed wasn’t particularly convincing. They were coasting at 3-0 against Denmark only to nearly throw it all away, and they only beat Armenia with a 95th minute winner. For all their talents, they are not producing the goods often enough or convincingly enough.

Of huge interest this week is their clash with Romania, who have begun the group fairly steadily. If that match has a loser, they may find themselves with a bit of a gap to overcome to the leaders. With Montenegro surpassing expectations so far, these two sides face an important test of their World Cup credentials in Bucharest.

Meanwhile Denmark simply must win against Kazakhstan if they are to keep pace after two losses last month.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
11th November
Armenia v. Montenegro 1-2 Draw
Denmark v. Kazakhstan 2-0 Denmark by 2 goals
Romania v. Poland 1-1 Poland by 1 goal

Group F

On the face of it, England’s qualifying campaign is going fairly smoothly. Two potentially tricky away trips have yielded four points, and an easy home win means that they sit on top of the group, as expected. And they now face a fairly weak, middle-ranked team at home

But as ever, there is so much more to it than that. The weak middle-ranked team they face is of course Scotland, and under the temporary leadership of the under-21s manager Gareth Southgate England have looked slow, ponderous and uninspired in the two matches he has taken charge of.

Scotland provide a wholly different test to England than they would to anyone else. It’s a rivalry as old and the game itself, and one that more often than not a fairly even one. International football’s oldest fixture isn’t played with the annual regularity it used to be, but will be no less intense for it. Competitive clashes between the two are few and far between, with the Euro 96 group match and Euro 2000 play-off being the most recent examples which both went England’s way, but were far from clear-cut.

Expect a blood and thunder clash, with a bigger than usual away following at Wembley providing a raucous atmosphere. England have the better quality, of that there is no doubt, but quality doesn’t always win the day in such encounters. If the English can keep their heads and dictate the game then this quality should prevail.

Scotland are in a state of crisis after nearly losing to Lithuania last month before meekly surrendering in Slovakia. Gordon Strachan remains in charge by the skin of his teeth, but defeat in England would probably be terminal to his reign. Scotland will need to produce a performance far better than they have managed thus far, but they won’t suffer for lack of motivation when it comes to facing England.

While old rivalries are being renewed in Wembley, Slovakia should beat Lithuania at home, while Slovenia ought to do the same in Malta.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
11th November
England v. Scotland 2-1 England by 2 goals
Malta v. Slovenia 0-2 Slovenia by 1 goal
Slovakia v. Lithuania 2-0- Slovakia by 3 goals

Group G

Italy had quite a month in October, somehow coming away with four points when they could easily have ended up with only one or even none. They fought back well to draw with Spain in a match they were second best in for some time. But that was just the precursor to the drama that unfolded in Skopje as hosts Macedonia oh-so-nearly pulled off a shock result. Leading 2-1 at one point, it wasn’t until stoppage time that Macedonia finally succumbed to the Azzurri 2-3.

If Italy have any trouble this month it would be beyond astonishing. They may not win by many, as Italy tend to do as much as is necessary and little more, but they will surely win at Liechtenstein on Saturday.

Expect Spain to show Italy how to put Macedonia away with minimum fuss, but the final group match – Albania v. Israel – is far harder to call. Both have enjoyed decent starts, but I’d plump for Albania to win on this occasion as the marginally stronger team. And yet there is the certainty that it’s futile either way – both teams are merely playing for third place in this nightmare group for the underdogs.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
12th November
Albania v. Israel 2-1 Albania by 2 goals
Liechtenstein v. Italy 0-3 Italy by 3 goals
Spain v. Macedonia 4-0 Spain by 5 goals

Group H

The most intriguing fixture in this group in November by far will be the Greece v. Bosnia-Herzegovina clash. These are the two teams best placed – in terms of the way they’ve started the group as well as the strength of their teams – to challenge Belgium for the single automatic place in the World Cup.

Greece have recovered from their disastrous and calamitous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign to make quite a positive start in the World Cup, and had a pair of 2-0 wins last month over Cyprus and Estonia. Nothing spectacular, but getting the job done – something they singularly failed to do in Euro qualifying last time around.

Things have been a bit more up and down for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who opened with a thumping win over Estonia before being on the receiving end of a similar shellacking from Belgium. This is now a key match for both teams as they are direct rivals for what is likely to be the play-off spot, but could potentially be the automatic place if Belgium slip up. There are no signs of such a slip as of yet, but if there is a winner in Greece this weekend, that team would be best placed to take advantage should it happen.

That said, Belgium are very unlikely to come a cropper against a very weak Estonia side in Brussels. Meanwhile Gibraltar, still ranked at the very bottom of the world rankings as they are yet to taste anything other than defeat since FIFA membership was gained in the summer, travel to Cyprus for the latest leg of their quest to pick up a point. After Estonia, this probably represents their best bet, but as always it will be a very long shot. They aren’t without spirit, but they are certainly more perspiration than inspiration.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
13th November
Cyprus v. Gibraltar 2-0 Cyprus by 2 goals
Belgium v. Estonia 4-0 Belgium by 3 goals
Greece v. Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0- Bosnia-Herzegovina by 1 goal

Group I

Group I is a very tough group, with four teams in realistic contention for the World Cup place. There may be no standout top team, but there is no dross either. In such a group, matches between the teams hoping to qualify carry a greater significance. Preventing your opponent gaining points can be as important as adding them to your own tally.

There is a key clash in every set of fixtures in this group, and this month it is in Croatia where the top two teams clash as the hosts face Iceland. Croatia haven’t been overly convincing so far – days after a big win over Kosovo, they laboured to a 1-0 win in Finland. Iceland too haven’t exactly shone as of yet – they also barely overcame Finland in a last gasp and slightly controversial manner. This is definitely one to watch, with Croatia surely the marginal favourites. They have the additional quality, but need to make it show against the ultimate “team”.

Turkey are winless so far, and that simply must change. They face Kosovo at home and anything other than a win will probably leave Turkey too far behind as we edge towards the halfway stage in the qualifying process. With Ukraine facing Finland at home, where the odds would favour a home win, Turkey can ill afford any more slip ups. But Ukraine won’t find things particularly easy against Finland. This campaign has seen a definite improvement in quality from the Finns. So unlucky to lose in Iceland, they have the wherewithal to cause a few surprises, though not enough to trouble the qualifying places.

My Prediction WGF Prediction
12th November
Croatia v. Iceland 2-1 Croatia by 1 goal
Turkey v. Kosovo 2-0 Turkey by 2 goals
Ukraine v. Finland 2-1 Ukraine by 2 goals