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The latest set of World Cup qualifying matches made it a little bit clearer which teams will be going to Russia next summer. But although seven of the countries that will be joining the hosts have been decided, there are plenty of question marks to be answered in the final round of games (playoffs excepted) in October.
From a Barça perspective, Paulinho’s Brazil and Thomas Vermalen’s Belgium are the only nations to have secured berths along with Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Mexico.
Even before this week’s games, Brazil had held onto their record of being the only country to have appeared in every single edition of the World Cup since it first began in 1930.
Paulinho has scored five goals in the Conmebol qualifying campaign, including one in the 2-0 defeat of Ecuador this week, while he captained the side in the 1-1 draw in Colombia.
Rafinha is another Brazil international, although he has not featured in the current qualifying campaign.
A draw against Argentina and a win in Paraguay mean that Uruguay are now second in the qualifying table. Their remaining fixtures are against Venezuela and Bolivia, so it would be a huge surprise if Luis Suárez and co don’t make it through.
Things aren’t quite so cheerful for the 2014 runners-up. After draws with Uruguay and Venezuela, they are now fifth, which would only earn them a playoff against New Zealand.
Leo Messi and Javier Mascherano will end with a crucial game against fourth-placed Peru and a trip to the Ecuadorian altitude, and with Chile lurking just one point below them in the table, they’ll need to make sure they get points in both games.
With 22 points out of a possible 24, the Red Devils can no longer be caught in Group H, making them the only European nation to have already qualified before the final two rounds of fixtures in October have even been played. Well done, Thomas Vermaelen!
Marc Andre Ter Stegen played in both of Germany’s games this week, conceding just one goal in defeats of the Czech Republic and Norway that all but mathematically clinch a place in Russia.
Northern Ireland could still theoretically take top place in European group C, but that’s not a very likely scenario.
Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Deulofeu were all in the squad this week, while Sergi Roberto, Paco Alcácer, Aleix Vidal and Denis Suárez are also potential selections by Julen Lopetegui.
The stunning 3-0 defeat of Italy didn’t confirm anything, but considerably improved Spain’s chances of avoiding a playoff. There are games against Albania and Israel still to come, but it would take a brave man to bet against them topping the group now.
Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne were among Les Bleus this week, while Ousmane Dembélé is also a favourite of coach Didier Deschamps.
After the 4-0 drubbing of Holland it looked like the 1998 champions were going to breeze through to Russia, but the shock 0-0 draw with Luxembourg has complicated things somewhat.
Even so, France still top the group and will stay there as long as they beat Bulgaria and Belarus in their final games.
Jasper Cillessen was named in goal for both of Holland’s games. The heavy loss in Paris set the alarm bells ringing, but a win against Bulgaria means the Oranje are still in contention.
Their game at home to Sweden on the final day is now likely to be a head-to-head battle for at least a playoff berth.
With André Gomes in the squad but not Nelson Semedo, the European champions got the job done this week with wins against the Faroe Islands and Hungary. But they’re still three points short of Switzerland.
However, the top two teams meet on the final day in Lisbon, and if Portugal win that one, their superior goal difference should push them to the top of the group.
Arda Turan and co’s World Cup bid was rescued by a 1-0 defeat of Croatia this week. They’re still two points behind second-placed Iceland, who they host in what is sure to be a nerve-racking game in October.
That defeat will not have pleased Ivan Rakitic, who missed the game though injury. Croatia do stay top of the group, but now know that they can’t afford any slip-ups in their final fixtures against Finland and Ukraine. Group I is going to go down to the wire!
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