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MATCHDAY: Croatia, Dutch under pressure in WC qualifying

October 7, 2021 GMT
Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Espanyol's Adri Embarba challenge for the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between RCD Espanyol and Real Madrid at the Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)
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Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Espanyol's Adri Embarba challenge for the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between RCD Espanyol and Real Madrid at the Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)
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Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Espanyol's Adri Embarba challenge for the ball during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between RCD Espanyol and Real Madrid at the Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

A look at what’s happening in European soccer on Friday:

WORLD CUP QUALIFYING

GROUP E

With Belgium the runaway leader by nine points, the Czech Republic and Wales appear to be fighting for second spot and a place in the playoffs. The two teams both have seven points ahead of their meeting in Prague, where Wales will be without star player Gareth Bale because of a hamstring injury. Bale was due to win his 100th cap — becoming only the second Wales men’s player to do so — but the Real Madrid forward is rehabilitating in Spain with an issue that could also keep him out of the team’s final two qualifiers, against Belarus and Belgium. The Czechs have played one game more than Wales. Belarus is in fourth place in the five-team group, four points behind Wales and the Czechs, ahead of a trip to Estonia. Belgium has no World Cup qualifiers in this international window because the team is playing in the Nations League’s final four.

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GROUP G

For Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, the international break comes at a welcome time. His move from Liverpool to Paris Saint-Germain has not gone to plan and he needs game time after losing his form and his place at PSG. But Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal is still counting on him. The free-scoring Dutch have netted 22 goals in six games and are level at the top with Norway, with both sides on 13 points after losing once each. Dutch forward Memphis Depay is joint top scorer in qualifying with seven goals and will be confident of adding to that away to fifth-place Latvia in Riga. The Norwegians will be without prolific striker Erling Haaland for the Turkey trip. He has an unspecified muscle problem. Last-place Gibraltar has conceded 25 goals and hosts fourth-place Montenegro in the other game.

GROUP H

Croatia wants to avoid the indignity of failing to qualify for a World Cup after reaching the final in 2018 and it is neck and neck with Russia at the top of the group. A visit to last-place Cyprus is expected to be a simple three points for Luka Modric and his teammates, and could put the pressure on Russia. It could be a tricky game for the Russians at home against Slovakia, which won the reverse fixture between the two sides this year. Malta plays Slovenia.

GROUP J

New coach Hansi Flick got Germany’s qualifying campaign back on track with three wins last month following the team’s shock 2-1 loss to North Macedonia in March, which came under his predecessor Joachim Loew. Now Germany hosts a Romania team which has won only one of its seven away games in the last 12 months. Second-place Armenia, which is four points behind Germany, has surprised many with its strong start to qualifying and now takes on Iceland away. North Macedonia visits Liechtenstein.

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