Europe’s 14-month group stage of qualifying for the region’s 13 berths in the 2018 World Cup has come down to its final day. Seven teams (plus host Russia) have qualified: Belgium, England, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Serbia and Spain. Five others — Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Italy and Northern Ireland — have clinched spots in two-leg playoffs for four more spots. That leaves two automatic berths and three playoff spots to be decided Tuesday. Here’s a quick look at what to watch for, and a look back at what we’ve seen:
Pressure for Ronaldo and Portugal
A World Cup without one of the sport’s two biggest stars and without the reigning European champion is a possibility.
Portugal’s clash with Switzerland in Lisbon will decide who wins Group B and takes the automatic spot in Russia. The Swiss lead after nine straight wins, and a point will be enough for them to secure the top spot and force Portugal into a playoff against one of the other second-place teams. Portugal, three points behind, would go direct to Russia with a win, thanks to a superior goal differential.
Vladimir Petkovic’s Switzerland has been hugely impressive throughout qualifying, with its latest victory a 5-2 triumph over Hungary on Saturday while Portugal labored to a 2-0 win over the group’s weakest team, Andorra, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring after being called off the bench at halftime.
The superstar winger is expected to start in Lisbon but he is one yellow card from a single-game suspension, which puts him at risk of missing the first leg of the playoffs if Portugal fails to win.
Switzerland beat Portugal, 2-0, in the first meeting but Granit Xhaka, its Arsenal-based midfielder, expects a very different encounter this time. “It is almost like a World Cup final for me,” he said. “It’s a unique situation that only rarely arises in qualifying. If you win, you’re heroes. But if you don’t, then you’re losers. That might sound harsh, but that’s the way it is. All the games we’ve won up until now are irrelevant, which makes us want the points we need even more.
“We’re not going into the game looking to defend for 90 minutes, that’s just not our style. We want to play football and show we can be bold. But yes, Portugal have to make the running, only a win will do for them. That could play to our advantage. We’re in a comfortable position and can bide our time, and perhaps hit them on the break.”
France should be fine but the Dutch are cooked
Group A’s final round of games will see the talent-packed France team gain automatic qualification if it can deal with a Belarus team that has won just once in qualifying. Les Bleus have already secured at least a playoff spot and will not need to worry about an extra two games if they take care of business at Stade de France. A draw would be enough if second-placed Sweden fails to beat the Netherlands and even a defeat would also send them to Russia if Sweden also loses.
The Dutch are in third place, three points behind the Swedes but due to weaker goal differential they need to win by seven goals — equal to as many as Sweden allowed in total over its last nine matches. Barring a miracle, we won’t be seeing Arjen Robben in Russia.
Germany looked dominant
Germany tends to hit its best form when it matters most — in the knockout stage of tournaments. It didn’t wait nearly that long this time around. Joachim Loew’s side sealed its place in next June’s tournament with a game to spare and rounded off its campaign in style with a 5-1 crushing of Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern on Sunday. The final balance: 10 wins in 10 matches, 43 goals scored and just four conceded. Not bad in a far-from-easy group that included the Czech Republic, Norway and surprise runner-up Northern Ireland.
The Icelandic miracle continues
If anyone thought Iceland’s win over England at the Euro 2016 was the peak of the tiny country’s rise in football, think again. A 2-0 win over Kosovo on Monday ensured its first place in a World Cup. The country with a population of around 350,000 is now the smallest to qualify, breaking the mark held by Trinidad and Tobago (1.3 million) in 2006. And it wasn’t as if Gylfi Sigurdsson and Co. had an easy route: Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey all finished below them in Group I.
England is miserable even in victory
The trauma of that defeat to Iceland in France lingers for the Three Lions. Not even an unbeaten qualification campaign with an eight-point gap between them and second-place Slovakia has been able to alter the mood of extreme pessimism in England. Dull performances have led pundits and former players to opine all week about the apparent deep-seated problems facing Gareth Southgate and his team. And yet, how many national team coaches would like to have Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy as their attacking options?
Belgium looked like a contender
Another coach who can’t complain about his choices of creative players is Roberto Martinez, whose Belgium side, upset by Wales in the Euros, looks to be maturing in time for a real push in Russia. Already qualified, Belgium will finish off its campaign against Cyprus on Tuesday. With Premier League stars Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard capable of unlocking any defense — and not even mentioning the status going forward of the recently injured Marouane Fellaini — Belgium should be real contenders in Russia.
Italy is left to sweat in the playoffs
Having been drawn in Group G with Spain, second place is no surprise for the Azzurri but Gian Piero Ventura’s side is far from a shoo-in in the playoffs after an unconvincing qualification campaign. Veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has had to deny that senior players have been plotting against the coach. A 1-0 win over Albania on Monday did little to change the mood. But, injury problems and form aside, which of the teams in the playoffs would really want to be drawn against the four-time world champion?
Simon Evans is a Reuters soccer correspondent based in Northern England.