France and England cruising to World Cup in Russia, Portugal can't slip up
The UEFA qualifiers for World Cup 2018 reach their halfway stage at the weekend, but who has one foot in the finals already, and who has it all to do?
In the driving seat
France sit three points clear at the top of Group A, and with their nearest rivals facing tougher assignments, they have an excellent chance of improving their position away at Luxembourg. The minnows have improved in recent years and ran both Sweden and the Netherlands close at home for long periods on previous matchdays. All eyes, though, will be on how a freshened-up French squad, which includes Kylian Mbappe and three of his all-conquering Monaco team-mates, rises to the challenge.
A home match against Latvia should provide few problems for Switzerland, who have a three-point lead of their own in Group B and should maintain their 100 percent record against opponents who are yet to score on their own turf in these qualifiers.
It would already take an astonishing collapse for Germany, whose first four matches in Group C have brought four wins, four clean sheets and 16 goals, to miss out on a place in Russia. Joachim Low's side play in Azerbaijan -- who sit five points behind them and may yet mount an unlikely challenge for second place -- on Sunday and few would expect them to be derailed at this juncture.
Republic of Ireland lead a very even-looking Group D by two points, but Friday's meeting with Wales in Dublin will be an important test to negotiate if they are to stay on course. Anything but a win for the Welsh would extend their post-Euro 2016 hangover and see their chances of a World Cup place begin to slip away. Chris Coleman's side have drawn three of their games, and the Irish would probably not be too unhappy to hold them to a similar outcome if they cannot make home advantage tell.
Poland will take a giant step to Russia if they win in Montenegro, their nearest challengers in Group E, on Sunday. A tricky assignment might have looked even more daunting had Montenegro not let a two-goal lead slip in Armenia last time out. In the meantime, Adam Nawalka's side were winning 3-0 in Romania and perhaps ominously for the home supporters in Podgorica, Robert Lewandowski was scoring twice. Three points currently separate the teams.
There is little sign of England being detained unduly on their road to Russia. They top Group F by two points and host fourth-placed Lithuania, whom they comfortably beat twice in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, on Sunday. With the four teams directly beneath them likely to keep taking points off one another, England should extend their lead soon enough.
Group G is the best bet for a neck-and-neck race to the summit, and it is little surprise that Spain and Italy are battling it out. Spain lead on goal difference and will hope to improve it against third-placed Israel -- currently just a point off the top two -- while Italy visit an Albania team that will struggle to deliver anything like its achievement in reaching Euro 2016.
Belgium will be firmly in command of Group G if they defeat Greece, two points behind them in second, at home. The Belgians have scored 21 goals already, 12 of them coming in Brussels against Bosnia and Estonia. Greece have won in Tallinn and Gibraltar but would almost certainly take a draw, which would keep them on course for the playoffs.
It is a near-identical situation in Group I, where Croatia host second-placed Ukraine and would pull five points clear with a win. Granada's Artem Kravets has scored three times in as many qualifiers for the Ukrainians, who will hope he can provide a comparable level of goal threat to the hosts' Mario Mandzukic.
Can't afford to slip up
It was not a straightforward start to qualifying for Euro 2016 winners Portugal, who are still counting the cost of an early defeat in Switzerland despite three wins since. They host Hungary, with the visitors two points behind them in third and needing a result to retain realistic hopes of staying in the hunt for a playoff place at least.
Netherlands are only three points off the top and an away win in Bulgaria is needed to keep up the pressure. That will not be straightforward, even though Petar Hubchev's side struggled to defeat Belarus and Luxembourg in their previous two matches in Sofia. Sweden are similarly placed to Netherlands -- level on points but a goal worse off -- and dropping points at home to a Belarus team that does not travel well can hardly be contemplated if their campaign is to stay alive.
In Group C, it is likely Northern Ireland, five points behind the Germans, will battle for second place with Czech Republic. To preserve their two-point advantage, they will need to beat Norway at Windsor Park -- surely the Czechs can't slip up in San Marino -- but it is a fight that could go to the wire.
Serbia look a credible challenger to Republic of Ireland in Group D. If they win in Georgia on Friday, they could finish this matchday top of the group. Lose, and they are likely to become enmeshed in the scramble for second. That is a battle Austria are running out of chances to get involved in. If they cannot beat Moldova at home, David Alaba & Co., four points behind Serbia, can surely kiss their chances goodbye.
Romania have a chance to erase the memory of that humbling by Poland if they can overcome Denmark in Bucharest; whoever wins could climb to second if Poland get a result in Podgorica, but any defeat -- particularly for the home side, who are a point behind the Danes -- would leave hopes hanging by a thread.
This is already the last chance saloon for Scotland. They host a Slovenia side that need victory at Hampden Park to keep pressure on England at the top. The fifth-placed Scots can pull a point behind their opponents with a win, but with Slovakia heavy favourites to prevail in Malta, anything else would surely end their interest.
It was always going to be tough for Iceland to repeat their Euro 2016 fairytale, and Heimir Hallgrimsson's side, third in Group I after losing in Croatia last time out, cannot afford to lose anymore ground in their bid for a first World Cup appearance. They are not expected to: They should have too much for Kosovo, whom they face in the Albanian city of Shkoder on Sunday.
Still in with a shout
It is surely too much to ask for the Faroe Islands to sustain a run to the latter stages of qualifying as genuine contenders, but Lars Olsen's side are possibly Europe's biggest overperformers, and if nothing else, a win in Andorra would leave them breathing down the necks of whoever slips up out of Portugal and Hungary.
Armenia started their Group E campaign with three straight defeats, but with the teams above them playing one another, the expected victory at home to Kazakhstan would tuck them into the pack of possibles for a playoff place.
Bosnia are not quite the free-flowing force of four years ago but are lodged firmly in third place in Group E -- three points shy of Greece and four ahead of Cyprus. They should make light work of Gibraltar at home, and that would put them firmly in the race for, at worst, a tilt at second.
Turkey remain an enigma, their fourth spot in Group I surely not reflecting their talent pool. But they are still close enough to be in with a chance, and should they beat an uninspiring Finland in Antalya, they would tighten up the tussle with Croatia, Ukraine and Iceland.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.