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Italian soccer is on the brink of disaster


Germany, France in good shape, Italy on the up, Netherlands need a boost

On a steady course for Russia

Germany (Group C): Dismissed their closest competitors for top spot and showed just how far ahead they really are by beating Czech Republic 3-0 and Northern Ireland 2-0. May well end up with a 100 percent winning record.

France (Group A): A 1-0 win away to Netherlands, in what was probably their most difficult game, followed a 4-1 thrashing of Bulgaria and saw them cancel out the opening 0-0 draw with Belarus to fully take command of the group. It helped that Paul Pogba fully took control of a game.

Belgium (Group H): Roberto Martinez's new regime showed verve and a willingness to finally make the best of attacking talent by thrashing Bosnia and Herzegovina 4-0. They are top and, at last, look on top form.

England (Group F): For all the criticism of a dismal performance in Slovenia and the circus following the departure of Sam Allardyce, it says much that the 0-0 draw represented the first qualification points dropped by England since September 2013. Crucially, they're also still top of a forgiving group.

In good shape, but work to do

Spain (Group G): Looked back to their best in terms of performance, but should be better off on the actual table, having somehow only drawn 1-1 in Italy despite utterly dominating. That and the controversy over Gerard Pique are the only things that colour two excellent displays; Spain also won 2-0 in Albania. They appear to have recovered intensity under Julen Lopetegui and look like a team that could reclaim the trophy.

Portugal (Group B): Recovered from an opening defeat to Switzerland to beat both the Faroe Islands and Andorra 6-0, but the European champions need the Swiss to drop points in order to reclaim top spot. They have to make up for that first loss.

Cristiano Ronaldo made short work of Andorra on Friday.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored five goals in two games as Portugal earned their first World Cup qualifying wins.

Iceland (Group I): Followed their status as Euro 2016 revelations with the most rousing display of the entire week, as they turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win vs. Finland thanks to two goals in stoppage time. That leaves Iceland behind group leaders Croatia on goal difference.

Poland (Group E): If the team isn't firing as a whole, then Robert Lewandowski certainly is. He scored a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Denmark and then a last-minute winner against Armenia to extend to eight his run of scoring in successive qualifiers. Poland are level at the top of the group on seven points with Montenegro, who have a superior goal difference.

Moving in the right direction

Italy (Group G): Far from convincing against Spain and Macedonia, they nonetheless picked up four points thanks to goals after the 80th minute in both games. With Giampiero Ventura in charge they don't look like they are going to be as lively as under Antonio Conte, but retain resilience.

Sweden (Group A): They are not suffering too much without Zlatan Ibrahimovic so far, having beaten Bulgaria 3-0 at home to go joint top with France. Next up? A trip to Paris. Then we'll see how they really lie.

Northern Ireland (Group C): Put in a respectable showing in a 2-0 defeat to Germany following a 4-0 win over San Marino. That could be crucial as goal difference could be a deciding factor for second place between themselves, Czech Republic and group surprises Azerbaijan.

Republic of Ireland (Group D): Far from impressive but they continue to do what so many midlevel sides like them cannot and win the games they should win. That showed as they claimed six points against Georgia and Moldova, which helped provide the most solid foundations to qualify.

In need of some momentum

Netherlands (Group A): After the good feeling generated by a 4-1 win over Belarus, they were given a reality check in the 1-0 home defeat to France and now sit third, three points behind Sweden. Danny Blind's young side look so underwhelming and could be in real danger of missing successive tournaments for the first time since 1986.

Wales (Group D): Still riding the momentum of Euro 2016, they claimed a solid 2-2 away to Austria, before dropping two points at home in a 1-1 draw against Georgia. That could be a damaging result, given how tight their group is.

Despite Gareth Bale's best efforts, Wales took just two points from two games over the international break.

Austria (Group D): Supposedly one of the brightest young teams in Europe, but they continue to struggle to show it. After the failure of Euro 2016 came that draw with Wales, plus a 3-2 defeat in Serbia. The only consolation is that theirs is the most competitive group of all, with everyone likely to drop points.

Already in big trouble

Denmark (Group E): Lost at home to Montenegro and now, with just three points from as many games, have much to do if they are not to miss a second straight World Cup.

Scotland (Group F): It is not just their chances of a first qualification since 1998 that are in trouble, but manager Gordon Strachan. A poor 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania was followed by a 3-0 thrashing in Slovakia and the Scots look in disarray. The immediate future is a game away to England, although Strachan might be a part of the past by them.

Norway (Group C): A young side should have built on reaching the playoffs for Euro 2016 but, so far, have only one win and that came against San Marino, in a game that came close to greater embarrassment. A trio of goals after the 77th minute turned one point into three but they have a lot to do to enhance their chances of reaching Russia.

Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.


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