World Cup qualifying in Europe: State of play in groups
LONDON (AP) — As World Cup qualifying reaches the midway point in Europe, The Associated Press looks at the state of the groups. The winners qualify automatically while the second-place teams go into playoffs.
France coach Didier Deschamps will be without the world’s most expensive player against Luxembourg. Even without the suspended Paul Pogba, there is little reason for the leaders to be worried.
Deschamps can count on the new crop of French players — a gifted generation that includes teenager Kilyan Mbappe. The 18-year-old Monaco striker, who has scored a league goal every 82 minutes this season, is among the five newcomers included in Deschamps’ squad, alongside Monaco defender Benjamin Mendy (22), Marseille winger Florian Thauvin (24), Lyon midfielder Corentin Tolisso (22) and Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko (22).
France has a three-point lead over the Netherlands, who travel to Bulgaria. Level on points with the Dutch, Sweden hosts Belarus.
Losing to Hungary could seriously jeopardize the chances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal making it to the World Cup. It would be some fall for the first-time European champions.
“Every team wants to beat the European champion and that only motivates us to keep doing better,” Portugal midfielder Joao Mario said ahead of Saturday’s home match.
Portugal is only two points ahead of Hungary in second place and already facing the possibility of having to contest a playoff to make the final tournament in Russia.
Switzerland leads the group, holding a three-point advantage over Portugal heading into Saturday’s game against next-to-last Latvia. Andorra, yet to earn a point, hosts the Faeroe Islands.
With a perfect record and 16 goals scored without reply in its last four games, Germany is wrapping up qualification quickly.
However, the world champions need to blood younger players to replace stalwarts like the recently retired Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, who ended his international career by scoring in Wednesday’s 1-0 friendly win over England.
Joachim Loew is still hoping more experienced players such as Mario Gomez, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira overcome knocks to face Azerbaijan in Baku on Sunday.
Germany holds a five-point lead over Northern Ireland, which hosts Norway and is only ahead of Azerbaijan on goal difference. The Czech Republic, which is two points further back, plays last-place San Marino.
After its incredible run to the semifinals at the European Championship, Wales is out of the playoff spots on the path to Russia, sitting third in the group behind Serbia and Ireland. But it’s a good time on Friday to be facing Ireland, which is four points ahead in first.
Ireland coach Martin O’Neill has seen several key squad members ruled out of his plans through injury and suspension, including the versatile Robbie Brady, who has played in both midfield and at left back for his country.
Gareth Bale has already scored four times in the group to move within two of equaling Rush’s 28-goal record for Wales and he’s back from ankle surgery to face Ireland.
“I’d like to see him break the record in Dublin because it would mean he’s got a hat trick,” Rush said.
Second-place Serbia is at Georgia and Austria hosts last-place Moldova.
Robert Lewandowski and group leader Poland are keeping their plans flexible ahead of Sunday’s visit to second-place Montenegro.
A win could send the Poles five points clear and help Lewandowski pull ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as the top scorer in qualifying. The Bayern Munich and Real Madrid forwards have seven goals apiece.
Third-place Romania is hosting fourth-place Denmark in Cluj after previous crowd trouble meant the Romanians were banned from using their national stadium in Bucharest.
England holds a two-point lead over Slovenia heading into Sunday’s game against Lithuania. England coach Gareth Southgate will be without Gary Cahill, the central defender who has assumed the captaincy with Wayne Rooney left out of the squad.
Southgate experimented with a three-man defense in the creditable loss to Germany, a sign of the team’s flexibility.
“He felt we had the personnel to fit in and it worked,” England midfielder Adam Lallana said. “A lot of the lads are playing three at the back at their clubs and in the short time we had to work on it, he utilized the time really well so we had a good few sessions to work on it.”
Slovenia is at Scotland and Slovakia plays at Malta, which is without a point.
Spain and Italy can take advantage of home games to solidify their group lead and open a comfortable gap to their contenders.
Spain plays third-place Israel in Gijon, while Italy hosts fourth-place Albania in Palermo on Friday.
Italy and Spain each have 10 points after four matches, one point more than Israel and four more than Albania. Liechtenstein and Macedonia, which have yet to earn any points, face each other in Liechtenstein.
The top-two meet on Saturday, with Belgium looking to maintain its perfect record when it hosts Greece and extend its lead to five points.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is three points behind Greece in third place but has an easy game against Gibraltar, which is without a point.
Cyprus and Estonia, who have little prospect of making the playoffs, play each other.