5 talking points as Europe’s World Cup qualifying group stage draws to a close

Italy, Spain and Portugal are among the heavyweights looking to avoid the play-offs

<p>Italy, Spain and Portugal are among the heavyweights looking to avoid the play-offs</p>

Italy, Spain and Portugal are among the heavyweights looking to avoid the play-offs

Europe’s race to qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Qatar enters the final stages over the next few days.

Here, we pick out the main talking points.

Italian job to do

Roberto Mancini’s Italy face a tense finale (PA Media)

Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup for the first time in 60 years – and they have work to do to avoid a similar fate. Success at Euro 2020 and a world-record unbeaten run notwithstanding, Roberto Mancini’s men find themselves locked on 16 points with a Switzerland side who have lost only one of their last 36 World Cup qualifying matches. Friday’s meeting in Rome will go a long way to deciding who takes top spot in Group C and who will be forced into the play-offs.

Spain face pain

Spain, the 2010 world champions, are another heavyweight on the ropes. Luis Enrique’s side sit second in Group B, two points behind leaders Sweden. On Thursday they visit Greece, who held them to a 1-1 draw in March, knowing failure to win would give the Swedes the chance to wrap up top spot with victory in Georgia. Otherwise the group will be decided when Spain host Sweden in Seville on Sunday.

Last-day drama elsewhere

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal have a showdown with Serbia (Isabel Infantes/PA)

In total eight more European teams will confirm their places in Qatar by Tuesday. There is a last-day decider on the cards in Group G, where Holland host a Norway side who trail them by two points with two matches to play, and another in Group A when Portugal host Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday. Belgium would win Group E by defeating Estonia in Brussels on Saturday, although an unlikely loss could set up a group decider in Wales.

Bale still making hay

Gareth Bale is set for a landmark appearance (Nick Potts/PA)

Talking of Wales, Gareth Bale is set for his 100th cap against Belarus on Saturday. The 32-year-old, fit after a hamstring injury, would become only the second man – after Chris Gunter – to reach a century of appearances for Wales. Rob Page’s side enter their final qualifiers third in Group E and are looking at the play-offs as their most realistic route to a first World Cup finals since 1958.

Aaron sweater for Pickford

Aaron Ramsdale has been in superb form for Arsenal (John Walton/PA)

Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is still waiting to make his England debut, but over the past two months he has emerged as a serious contender to Jordan Pickford as the country’s number one. Ramsdale has been a revelation since joining the Gunners and he is yet to lose a game for his new club, conceding just four times in eight matches. His ‘save of the season’ from Leicester’s James Maddison will have no doubt caught England manager Gareth Southgate’s eye.

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