1) History repeating itself at La Bombonera?
Lose or draw at home against Peru in their penultimate qualifier and Argentina could find themselves relying on favours from others just to make the play-off place for Russia that would pit them against New Zealand. Peru currently occupy the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot in South America, level on points and goal difference with Argentina but ahead of them by dint of goals scored. With their final match against Colombia, who may secure automatic qualification before the sides meet next Tuesday, six points will guarantee Peru qualification for their first World Cup finals since 1982, four will probably get them at least a play-off spot and even three could be enough depending on how teams below them fare. Argentina, by contrast, face an unappealing trip to Ecuador in their final game, where the high altitude could cause them all sorts of problems. The Argentinians have already switched this match to the cauldron of La Bombonera to give them every advantage and in a tight group where only Brazil have already secured qualification, what promises to be an extremely tense encounter should make for riveting viewing. It may not be prove an omen, but the last time Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup finals was in 1970, when a 2-2 draw with Peru at La Bombonera ended their hopes of making Mexico. BG
2) Will Iceland incur the wrath of Warnock?
Just two points separate the top four in Group I, where Croatia are level on 16 points with second-placed Iceland, whom they lead on goal difference. Behind them, Turkey and Ukraine have 14 points each and are level on goal difference, with the Turks edging it courtesy of one extra goal scored. While things could scarcely be more exciting, the unlikely figure of Neil Warnock has been helping to stir things up, as only he can. The Cardiff City manager is outraged that Aron Gunnarsson has been summoned for international duty by the Iceland manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, despite Warnock’s insistence that a muscle tear means the midfielder is unfit to play against Turkey or Kosovo. “It’s such an important game for them. These two, they’re really crucial, but if they play him and he [tears it again] we’ll be very, very annoyed,” said Warnock. “So we’ll make sure we send all the medical evidence over, and if they play him we want written agreement that if they see the scans it’s got to be their responsibility to pay his wages [if he is injured]. I don’t see why we should if they gamble on him.” With a place in their first ever World Cup finals within touching distance, incurring the fabled wrath of Warnock by risking their experienced captain is a punt Iceland may happily take. BG
3) A do-or-die Scotland debut for Callum McGregor?
Having resuscitated their faint qualification hopes with three wins from four matches, Scotland hold their destiny in their own hands with matches to come against Slovakia and Slovenia. Beat both and they’ll finish second in the group and hopefully not end up as the side that misses out on a play-off. Scotland, being Scotland, have now been hit by a midfield injury crisis, with Matt Ritchie, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong all ruled out of the crucial double-header. Callum McGregor and John McGinn have been called in as cover. Not a manager renowned for taking risks, Strachan has faced calls to start McGregor, who has yet to make his senior international debut. The in-form Celtic midfielder has been playing well this season and scored two fine goals against Hibs to help maintain his side’s long domestic unbeaten run last weekend. He is unlikely to look out of place in Scotland’s engine room, although the smart money suggests the conservative Strachan may opt for the more experienced but arguably less effective Barry Bannan. BG
4) Will Northern Ireland’s ‘dirty’ half-dozen fall off tightrope?
Even with second place in their group guaranteed, Northern Ireland cannot afford to relax in their forthcoming matches against Germany and Norway. As preposterously unlikely a scenario as it is, they could still technically overtake Germany with two wins but would need Azerbaijan to beat Joachim Löw’s side in Kaiserslautern next week to do so. Second it is, then, but failure to take any points in their final group games against Germany and Norway could damage their chances of making the play-offs or affect their world ranking and land them against tougher opposition in the eliminators. At Euro 2016 Iceland were the only team with a smaller pool of players than Northern Ireland, so with six of his players only one booking away from a suspension, O’Neill has a problem. Should he rest the players in question, field inadequate replacements and risk two defeats or pick the disciplinary tightrope half-dozen and order them to take it easy? His team’s approach to matches is nothing if not commendably full-blooded and their usual approach may well result in O’Neill losing key players to suspension for any play-off they end up contesting. As somebody who has barely put a foot wrong in his past four years managing Northern Ireland, it is no surprise that O’Neill has said he will not instruct his players to “tiptoe” through these matches. Only time will tell if they take his advice – or lack of it – on board. BG
5) Will Holland sort their mess?
Bidding to avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify for two successive major tournaments, Holland still have an outside chance of making the play-offs, but will have to beat Belarus and score an emphatic win over Sweden to do so. A tall order by any standards, not least considering their recent history. With few young players stepping up, it is perhaps a measure of just how grim things have got for Holland that Arjen Robben remains their most exciting player at the age of 33, while Ryan Babel has earned a recall at the expense of Wesley Sneijder. It gets worse: the coach, Dick Advocaat, has also been singing the praises of the Tottenham flop Vincent Janssen and seems to be pinning his hopes of qualifying for a play-off on Sweden not putting too many goals past Luxembourg. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say the Dutch situation is a total mess, but to paraphrase Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men: “If it ain’t it’ll do til the mess gets here.” BG
6) Senegal must make most of second chance
Senegal lie only third in their four-team group but, unlike the leaders Burkina
Faso, they know that if they win their remaining matches they will reach
the World Cup. That is because they have a game in hand following Fifa’s
decision to order a replay of last year’s South Africa-Senegal match, which
Bafana Bafana won 2-1 thanks to a penalty awarded by the referee Joseph
Lamptey, who has since been banned for life. As a result, Senegal will play
South Africa home and away next month – but in order to ensure that they
still have their destiny in their hands by then, they must not lose on
Saturday at Cape Verde Islands, the other team in the group who know
winning their remaining matches will guarantee progress to Russia. Sadio
Mané’s team have not been convincing on their travels so far, conceding a
late equaliser to 10-man Burkina Faso last month, and will need to
demonstrate their superiority against depleted hosts in Praia if next
month’s replay is to have the significance they hope. PD
7) Super Eagles ready to fly high
Nigeria will confirm qualification for the World Cup if they beat second-place Zambia at home on Saturday but that will be no straightforward feat. The Super Eagles may have won in Lusaka last year – and, in fact, have not lost to Zambia since a friendly defeat 20 years ago – but the Chipolopopo have improved as this group has progressed, as exciting young talents such as the 19-year-old midfielder Enok Mwepu and the 18-year-old striker Patson Daka helped fire them to home and away wins over Algeria last month. But Nigeria have a wealth of young talent too – Moses Simon should continue dazzling – as well as the relative veterans who helped to inspire last month’s 4-0 thrashing of Cameroon, Victor Moses and Mikel Jon Obi. Even Odion Ighalo was impressive in that match and may retain his starting place ahead of Kelechi Iheanacho, while Alex Iwobi will probably have to make do with bench duty after returning from injury. Anything other than a home win looks improbable; but a cracking contest is likely. PD
8) Crunch showdown in Cardiff
The Republic of Ireland have not won a competitive match since their best player, Séamus Coleman, suffered a double leg-break as a result of a tackle by Wales’s Neil Taylor in March. Now the Irish need to win both of their remaining group games if they are to have any hope of qualifying for the play-offs. It is not a foregone conclusion that they will win the first of them – against Moldova on Friday – given that Coleman and Jonathan Walters are injured, Robbie Brady and James McClean are suspended, and Martin O’Neill’s creative approach seems a little haphazard. But even if they beat Moldova, and even if a Gareth Bale-less Wales drop points in Georgia, Ireland will still need to win in Cardiff on Monday and hope results elsewhere go in their favour, because only eight of Europe’s nine runners-up qualify for a play-off. The imperative for victory, coupled with the ill-will spawned by Taylor’s tackle, means the Wales-Ireland match will be a gripping showdown. PD
9) No margin for error for Australia against Syria
The cow-grass pitch to be used in Thursday’s first leg in Malaysia will be bumpy and tricky and evoke memories of the one on which Australia played when drawing with Thailand early in their group campaign, a result that ultimately cost them automatic qualification and forced them into a dicey play-off with Syria. But the pitch was not the only factor in that result: imprecise finishing and the shabby use of a back three were also factors. If those faults are not corrected this week, then Australia’s hopes of reaching a fourth successive World Cup – via another playoff, against either Honduras, Panama or USA, could be dismantled by Syria. The underdogs are well organised and highly spirited and, in Firas Al-Khatib, Omar Kharbin and Omar “The Arabian Zlatan” Al-Soma, they have dangerous attackers who could exploit any defensive shortcomings by the Socceroos. PD
10) European champions bid to get on to the world stage
Greece were the last European champions to fail to qualify for the subsequent World Cup but they did not have Cristiano Ronaldo. On the other hand, even if they are only second in their group with two games to go, Portugal have performed better than the Greeks did in the 2006 qualifiers, when they finished fourth in their group behind Ukraine, Turkey and Denmark. Portugal are behind a decent Switzerland side – whom they could leapfrog by winning when the countries go head-to-head in Lisbon on Tuesday. Mind you, both teams have tricky games before that: not in terms of the result – both will certainly win – but of attendant hazards: Portugal’s opponents, Andorra, were absurdly rugged when losing 6-0 (and having two players sent off) when the sides met earlier in the group, so Ronaldo may be spared from playing against them this time; meanwhile, Switzerland may omit the midfielder Ricardo Rodríguez from their meeting with Hungary so that he will not get a yellow card that would rule him out of the duel in Portugal. PD