World Cup qualification preview: England's route to Rio could get much harder

Group H leaders Montenegro in action against Ukraine

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The Independent Football

England could be five points adrift in their World Cup qualifying group by midnight on Friday, or locked in a four-way scramble for the one automatic ticket to Brazil 2014. Roy Hodgson’s team headed for their holidays after returning from their reconnaissance trip to Rio de Janeiro but all their main rivals in Group H are playing this evening. Group leaders Montenegro host Ukraine knowing a win in Podgorica will give them a handy cushion before the programme concludes in the autumn. Victory for Ukraine, however, will take them a point behind England which is where Poland need to be after playing Moldova in Chisinau. A pair of away wins would leave the four teams separated by three points with Montenegro leading - but having played one match more.

Scotland are already out of contention for 2014 World Cup qualification, but are in desperate need of a result in Zagreb to gain rankings points ahead of the draw for Euro 2016 qualifying groups next March. Seeding will be based on Uefa co-efficients at the end of qualifying for World Cup 2014 (November). Scotland were 27 in Europe when the qualifying programme began but having gained two points from six matches so far are likely to have slipped significantly. Unless Gordon Strachan engineers an improvement in results they could well find themselves drawn in such a tough group even qualifying for a 24-team European Championship will be beyond them.

Croatia, fourth in the world (Scotland are 74), will be tough opposition. They are head-to-head with Belguim, who host Serbia tonight, in the chase for an automatic World Cup qualifying place and cannot afford to slip up. James Morrison skippers a Scottish team missing the spine of its side through injury with Gary Caldwell, Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher, Steven Fletcher and Kenny Miller ruled out. Croatia are without Luka Modric who is suspended.

Also under pressure are Portugal, a nation whose close ties with Brazil make qualification imperative.  But Fabio Capello’s Russia arrive in Lisbon top of Group F with two games in hand after four straight wins. Portugal are a point behind, tied with Israel. Cristiano Ronaldo will hope to be the first player to breach Russia’s defence in this qualifying series.

The Republic of Ireland expect to brush aside the Faroe Islands in Dublin while hoping Austria and Sweden play a stalemate in Group C’s other match. All three countries have eight points in a group in which Germany have effectively sealed first place already. Wes Hoolahan is expected to replace the suspended James McCarthy for Ireland. It would be the 31-year-old Norwich City midfielder’s first competitive start for his country.

Elsewhere Italy can go six points clear in Group B if they defeat the Czech Republic in Prague while, in the pick of matches outside Europe, Argentina play Colombia. Lionel Messi is expected to play for the albiceleste, who lead the South American group, against an in-form third-placed Colombian side spearheaded by new Monaco signing Radamel Falcao.



Croatia v Scotland, ESPN,  BBC Scotland.

Ireland v Faroes, Sky Sports 1.

Argentina v Colombia, Premier Sports