England and Portugal are still far from certain of advancing automatically as group winners and could find themselves in next month’s playoffs, which will include the top eight second-place finishers from the nine groups.
Five countries will emerge from the two-legged playoffs in the African zone, which begin on Saturday and conclude next month, while Iran, Japan and South Korea and Australia have progressed in Asian qualifying.
The state of play in the six continental qualifying competitions:
Group A _ Unbeaten Belgium will qualify as group winner with a win or a draw on Friday at Croatia, which is five points behind in second place. If the Belgians lose in Zagreb, they have a second chance at home to Wales on Tuesday. The Croatians needs a point from their last two matches to secure second place, with Serbia the only other team able to catch them.
Group B _ Bulgaria, Denmark and the Czech Republic are battling to finish second behind already-qualified Italy. If Denmark loses at home to Italy on Friday, Bulgaria will seal the runner-up spot by beating Armenia. The Czech Republic is four points behind second-place Bulgaria and needs to win its last two games and hope for results elsewhere to stand a chance of reaching the playoffs.
Group C: Germany will guarantee top spot with a win against Ireland in Cologne on Friday, while a draw virtually assures progress before the game against second-place Sweden in Stockholm four days later due to its vastly superior goal difference. Sweden will make sure of finishing at least in second place by beating Austria at home on Friday.
Group D _ Second place behind the Netherlands is up for grabs, with Hungary, Turkey and Romania separated by just one point. If the second-place Hungarians beat the Dutch on Friday, they are virtually assured of being runner-up as they finish up at home to last-place Andorra. Romania can capitalize if Hungary loses in Amsterdam, with games left against Andorra away and Estonia at home.
Group E _ Switzerland holds a five-point lead and will finish top by beating Albania away on Friday or Slovenia at home on Tuesday. There’s a four-way fight for second place, with Iceland currently in the runner-up spot looking to hold off Slovenia, Norway and Albania. The four teams are separated by three points.