We already have a good idea of the teams that will be jetting off for a summer of angst and expectation in Russia. A few are confirmed, but there are a fair few who are in for a pivotal fixture in the coming days.
International football has its critics, but this may well be the most exciting part of any qualifying campaign. Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the best bets from the upcoming matches…
WALES vs Republic of Ireland
It’s hard not to get lost in hyperbole when discussing this match. It is an enormous game for both Martin O’Neill and Chris Coleman, with their sides separated by a single point in Group D ahead of the final matchday.
Currently in second and third, Wales and Ireland are fighting for a World Cup place. Wales will do so without superstar Gareth Bale, but they did pick up three points over Georgia on Friday without their talisman. Aaron Ramsey’s role becomes even more important offensively, how his runs are tracked from midfield could define this match.
Ireland were effective – if uninspiring – as they overcame Moldova last time out, but O’Neill’s side must win in Wales. The hosts are a well organised unit, and will sit back with the attacking onus on the visitors.
A repeat of their 0-0 draw from earlier in the group stage is extremely unlikely, but Wales could just pip it as O’Neill’s team are forced to play a different way.
TIP: Wales to win @ 27/25
POLAND vs Montenegro
Montenegro are in with an outside chance of qualifying for the playoffs, but need to win away in this one and hope that Romania can do the same in Denmark. Improbable, perhaps, but it at least adds some interest to Group E’s final games.
Defeat for Poland here, though, could see them drop out of top spot in the group if Denmark beat Romania.
Poland ran out 2-1 victors over Montenegro when they faced in Podgorica in March. Led by the world’s best striker in Robert Lewandowski, Poland are strong favourites to secure their place in World Cup group stages.
The visitors may have only conceded eight in nine games, but halting this Poland attack will take a special performance, especially with Lewandowski coming off a hat-trick last time out.
If we are to be treated to a dramatic end to this group stage, it’ll need a significant upset in Poland. Unfortunately, I just can’t see that happening.
TIP: Poland to win @ 3/10
SLOVENIA vs SLOVAKIA
After making immensely tough work of beating Slovakia at home on Thursday night, Scotland have set themselves up with a rare chance to go to a World Cup. Gordan Strachan has faced a lot of criticism, but he could put that all to bed if he can guide the Scots to victory in Slovenia on Sunday.
It’s been three clean sheets in a row for the visitors, while Slovenia have scored a mere 10 in the group stage so far, including a 1-0 defeat at Hampden Park in March.
Slovakia – who are two points behind Scotland and have better goal difference – play Malta, meaning a draw is not an option for Strachan and his side. Their defensive solidity might be compromised if they are forced to attack, and the first goal could well decide this one.
TIP: Under 2.5 goals @ 11/20
Lithuania vs ENGLAND
This match has no meaning for either team, other than the chance for some ranking points.
England will be hoping to go out on a high having underwhelmed for an hour and a half against Slovenia on Thursday night. Gareth Southgate’s side got the job done, but that was about all they did in front of a lot of empty Wembley seats.
The hosts failed to beat Malta last time out. Despite that, notching draws with Slovenia and Scotland means there are positives to be taken from this campaign and they will be eyeing a great scalp in match 10.
Southgate should rotate, and we could get a chance to see some of the fringe players get a few minutes. If we do, there is an outside chance of some rare excitement.
TIP: England to win and over 2.5 goals @ 13/10