Football: Final frontier: Rupert Metcalf on the twists and turns of the World Cup qualifying story

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The Independent Online
Group One

It will be some night in Athens. The group leaders, Denmark, travel to the Olympic stadium on Saturday knowing that just one point against Greece will book their ticket to France. A home win, though, would mean the Greeks wiping out the Danes' three-point lead and qualifying for the finals on goal difference. If Greece do not win, Croatia can snatch second spot and a place in the play-offs by winning away to their Balkan neighbours and the group's bottom team, Slovenia. Verdict: wins for Denmark and Croatia.

GRoup TWO

ENGLAND look full of confidence; Italy, where the football media seems to be plagued by pessimism, do not. England need a point in Rome to qualify and should get at least that.

GRoup THREE

NORWAY, unexciting but hugely efficient, have already won the group. Second place and a play-off ticket will be decided in Helsinki, where Finland entertain Hungary. The Finns are probably the better of two average teams, and the talents of players such as Jari Litmanen and Antti Sumiala plus the coaching experience of Richard Moller Nielsen, who won the 1992 European Championship with Denmark, should earn them the victory they need to overhaul the Hungarians.

GRoup FOUR

AUSTRIA, talented but inconsistent, should gain the win they need at home to Belarus to win the group. If Scotland beat Latvia at Celtic Park, they should also qualify for France as the best of the second-placed teams. The Scots ought to win, but it will not be easy. The Latvians are easily the best of the three former Soviet republics in the group, and their top players such as Vitaly Astafyev and Vladimir Babichev have improved greatly in the last four years, thanks to both international experience and the European exploits of Skonto Riga. If the Scots slip up, Sweden can seize second place by beating Estonia at home. Three home wins are the likeliest results, though.

GRoup FIVE

ALL over. Bulgaria have won the group, Russia cannot be caught in second place. Russia against Bulgaria in Moscow on Saturday is therefore a meaningless fixture - but try telling that to Trifon "Wolfman" Ivanov and his cohorts in the Bulgarian side, who are always glad of a chance to do some damage to Russian reputations.

GRoup SIX

SPAIN have qualified. Even if they lose at home to the Faroes and Yugoslavia win in Malta to grasp first place, Spain would be the best runners-up. An away victory for the Faroes, though, is about as likely as David Seaman scoring a hat-trick in Rome. Yugoslavia cannot finish lower than second, and will be formidable opponents in the play-offs.

GRoup SEVEN

HOLLAND will win the group unless they lose heavily at home to Turkey and Wales gain a big win in Belgium. Both results are unthinkable, so the Belgians will surely have to settle for the play-offs. The Welsh are out of it whatever happens and so are the Turks - unless the above unthinkable results become reality. Belgium are average, but still good enough to beat Wales.

GRoup EIGHT

ROMANIA have won the group without dropping a point so far - but they may take it easy and settle for a draw in Dublin on Saturday, which would confirm the Republic of Ireland's place in the play-offs. Even if the Irish lose, Lithuania will surely not gain the big win they would need in Macedonia to grab second place.

GRoup NINE

GERMANY will beat Albania in Hanover to win the group - that is a safe bet. The other two games are less predictable. Ukraine are favourites, just, to win in Armenia and finish second, but if they drop a point or more Portugal can pip them by beating Northern Ireland at home. Bryan Hamilton's team are, however, accomplished at achieving unlikely away results.

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