With FIFA World Cup qualifying at its halfway stage, UEFA.com sees how the nine European groups are shaping up. Only the Netherlands and Russia are yet to drop points, while both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro look well-placed to reach their first final tournaments.
The nine group winners qualify directly for the finals in Brazil. The eight runners-up with the best record against the teams finishing first, third, fourth and fifth in their section go into November's play-offs.
This looks a two-horse race between Belgium and Croatia, whose only dropped points came when they drew 1-1 in Brussels in September. Serbia, in third, are nine points back. The top two are at home on 7 June – when Belgium play Serbia and Croatia face winless Scotland. Crucially, the pacesetters will meet in Zagreb on 11 October.
Italy sit three points above fellow unbeaten side Bulgaria and have a game in hand on rivals who must visit them on 6 September. Bulgaria have also played one match more than the two teams immediately behind them. The Czech Republic are two points adrift, with Denmark another two back. Even Armenia are not out of it, three points shy of Denmark with a further game in hand. On 7 June, Italy go to the Czech Republic and Armenia host Malta before four days later travelling to Denmark.
Germany have dropped points only in their extraordinary 4-4 home draw with Sweden, whom they lead by eight points – albeit having played two matches more. Austria and the Republic of Ireland, after sharing four goals on 26 March, are level with Sweden but have each had a game more. Austria entertain the Swedes on 7 June, when Ireland welcome the Faroe Islands, who four days later visit Sweden.
The Netherlands have made short work of qualifying for recent tournaments and that trend has continued with six straight victories. They hold a seven-point advantage over Hungary, with Romania one further back but three clear of Turkey, who themselves are one above Estonia – all with four fixtures left. The next of those are on 6 September, when the Oranje can move to the verge of qualification by winning in Estonia, while Romania tackle Hungary and Turkey encounter Andorra.
Switzerland lead two teams aiming for finals debuts, Iceland and Albania, by two points, with Norway two points further adrift. Cyprus and Slovenia lie, respectively, three and four behind the Norwegians in a group where all six sides still have mathematical hopes. There is a full programme next up, as on 7 June Albania play Norway and Iceland face Slovenia, with Switzerland taking on Cyprus the following day.
Russia boast the only perfect record other than the Dutch, though they have played four matches rather than six. That gives them two fixtures in hand on seemingly their only real challengers, Israel and Portugal, who are both a point behind – yet eight in front of Northern Ireland. Russia await their toughest test yet in Portugal on 7 June, while Israel do not return to action until a 6 September date with Azerbaijan.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, after play-off heartbreak in their last two campaigns, are in pole position for automatic qualification thanks to a three-point cushion over Greece, whom they beat in Zenica on 22 March having previously drawn in Piraeus. Slovakia are within two points of Greece and sit three and four clear of Lithuania and Latvia respectively. The Latvians host the leaders on 7 June, when Greece are in Lithuania and Slovakia journey to Liechtenstein.
Montenegro's late equaliser against England on 26 March kept them two points clear of their opponents, with both countries still unbeaten. Poland and Ukraine are each four points behind England and have a game in hand. These are played on 7 June, when Ukraine visit Montenegro and Poland go to Moldova, who are England's next challengers at Wembley on 6 September. England then travel to Ukraine and in October welcome Montenegro and Poland, so matters remain in their hands.
Spain, having been held at home by France and Finland, won 1-0 away to Les Bleus so the holders now stand a point clear of the two-time champions, each with three matches to go in the only five-team section. Both sides sit out the June fixtures, when Finland and Belarus face off home and away. On 6 September, France make the trip to third-placed Georgia and Spain head to Finland for their final away game, with Belarus and Georgia to come at home in October.
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