LONDON (AP) — Nine countries have already joined host nation Brazil in next year’s World Cup and more will secure their places when qualifying resumes across the globe from Friday.
Italy and the Netherlands were the first European sides to qualify. Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are on the verge of making it heading into Friday’s next-to-last round of qualifiers.
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.
Argentina is the only team to qualify so far from South America, while the United States and Costa Rica have advanced from the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
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:
QUALIFIED: Argentina, Australia, Brazil (host), Costa Rica, Iran, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, United States.
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.
Group F — Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will be pushed into the playoffs if group leader Russia beats Luxembourg and Azerbaijan away, as expected, in its final two games. Portugal is a point behind in second and will look for home wins over Israel and Luxembourg to keep the pressure on Russia.
Group G — Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece are tied on 19 points. The Bosnians are easily ahead on goal difference, so beating Lithuania and Liechtenstein should see them finish top. Greece, the 2004 European champion, closes with home matches against Slovakia and Liechtenstein.
Group H — The tightest of all the nine groups looks set to go to the wire, with the top four separated by three points and all playing each other in the final qualifiers. England leads by one point and has home games against Montenegro and Poland, who are both still in contention for first place. Ukraine, which is second with the same points as Montenegro, plays Poland on Friday and San Marino away on Tuesday.
Group I — World and European champion Spain is level on points with France, but has a game in hand, so will automatically qualify by beating Belarus and Georgia at home in its final games. France is already resigned to finishing second ahead of its final qualifier at home to Finland.
Two-time champion Argentina has already wrapped up one of four automatic qualifying spots. Three more are up for grabs with Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay in the mix. Venezuela has only a mathematical chance.
A fifth team can also advance by winning a playoff against Jordan, which came through an Asian playoff against Uzbekistan.
Argentina leads with 29 points followed by Colombia (26), Chile (24), and Ecuador and Uruguay with 22. Venezuela has 19 but has only one game remaining. The top five have two to play.
Colombia has been chasing Argentina throughout qualification and will advance with a draw on Friday at home against Chile, which can progress with a victory.
Brazil gets the automatic berth as the host nation.
The United States has already qualified for its seventh straight World Cup and Costa Rica has made it after missing out on 2010. Honduras is in third, the final automatic berth, with 11 points and Panama and Mexico have eight apiece, with the Panamanians ahead on goal difference for fourth place — which earns a playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand. Panama is trying for its first World Cup appearance.
Mexico, under new coach Victor Manuel Vucetich, hosts Panama on Friday at Estadio Azteca, where Mexico lost last month to Honduras — just Mexico’s second home loss in qualifying and first since 2001 against Costa Rica. Mexico has not missed out on the World Cup since 1990, when it was thrown out of qualifying for using overage players in a youth tournament, Honduras, trying to clinch its second straight berth, is at Costa Rica on Friday.
In the final matches next week, Mexico is at Costa Rica, Honduras at Mexico and Panama hosts the U.S.
Ten countries are still in with a chance going into the five two-legged playoffs that begin on Saturday.
Egypt, under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, has emerged as a strong contender for securing its second World Cup berth but must get past Ghana. Egypt was the only one of 40 teams to come through the main group stage with six wins from six.
Two other surprise teams have made it to the playoffs: Ethiopia and African Cup finalist Burkina Faso, who are both seeking a first World Cup appearance. Ethiopia was drawn against African champion Nigeria and its array of Europe-based stars. Burkina Faso may have a better chance of qualifying, facing Algeria.
Ivory Coast, the continent’s top-ranked team, will play West African rival Senegal a year after their African Cup qualifier in Dakar descended into a riot that forced the game to end early. Cameroon takes on Tunisia in the other playoff.
Jordan beat Uzbekistan 9-8 in a penalty shootout last month to secure an intercontinental playoff against the fifth-place finishers in South American qualifying. Iran and Japan advanced as winners of the two Asian qualifying groups, with South Korea and Australia joining them after finishing in second place.
New Zealand topped the four-team Oceania zone and will take on the fourth-place team from CONCACAF in a playoff to determine who goes through to the World Cup.
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