Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time at the 2014 tournament …

Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time at the 2014 tournament England are nearly there but a World Cup place for the other home nations hangs in the balance before the final group qualifying matches. Northern Ireland Wales and Scotland all have the chance to finish second in their group which may well seal a place in the play-offs for Russia 2018. But coming second and staying in contention are not necessarily the same thing. More on that later. Meanwhile the Netherlands and Iceland face a battle to go through while Argentina are in trouble and Syria are in a play-off to keep their unlikely World Cup dream alive. Here we analyse the scenarios to establish who needs what from the final two rounds of qualifiers. Bear with us – it's complicated but worth it. Europe – World Cup qualifying tables Scores and fixtures Putin says delays are 'unacceptable' Who has already qualified? The tournament will consist of 32 teams with hosts Russia joined by 31 qualifiers from around the globe. The holders no longer qualify automatically although Germany are on track to progress. Eight sides are already guaranteed to be there: Russia Brazil Iran Japan Mexico Belgium Saudi Arabia and South Korea. In Europe the country that tops each of the nine groups reaches the finals while the eight best second-placed sides go into play-offs. What about the home nations? Northern Ireland Group C – Thursday: Germany (h) 19:45 Sunday: Norway (a) 19:45 (all times BST) With just one defeat and only two goals conceded in eight matches Northern Ireland – second in Group C – have more points than some group leaders. Nine clear of third-placed Azerbaijan they are guaranteed a top-two place as they look to reach their first World Cup since 1986. Automatic qualification seems unlikely though – they need to beat Germany and Norway and hope the Germans lose their final match against Azerbaijan. The reigning champions need just a draw in Belfast to top the group. Wales Group D – Friday: Georgia (a) 17:00 Monday: Republic of Ireland (h) 19:45 "Don't take me home please don't take me home" sang the fans as Wales marched to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Now they want to cheer them in a second World Cup with their only previous finals appearance coming in 1958. However Chris Coleman's side must play their final two group matches without injured talisman Gareth Bale. A win in Georgia on Friday will be enough to secure a top-two spot if the Republic of Ireland fail to beat Moldova at home. Otherwise it could come down to Monday's meeting between Wales and Martin O'Neill's side in Cardiff. Serbia lead the group and will qualify with a victory in Austria or at home to Georgia. The Republic of Ireland can enter the play-off picture by defeating both Moldova and Wales. A win over Moldova and a draw with Wales would only be enough if the Welsh fail to beat Georgia. England Group F – Thursday: Slovenia 19:45 (h) Sunday: Lithuania (a) 17:00 Unbeaten England with six wins and two draws comfortably lead Group F and are poised to qualify automatically. They require one win or two draws or just a single point if second-placed Slovakia do not win both their matches. Scotland Group F – Thursday: Slovakia 19:45 (h) Sunday: Slovenia (a) 17:00 With just four points from their first four matches few were rushing to back Scotland to reach Russia. But victory over Slovenia a draw with England and wins against Lithuania and Malta have put them back in the hunt for a first World Cup appearance since 1998. Scotland could reach the play-offs by winning their final two matches but defeat by Slovakia will end their hopes. Realistically they need to beat Slovakia because they will surely take maximum points in their final match at home to Malta. The play-off puzzle There's no easy way of explaining this but here goes… Eight of the nine European runners-up go into a two-legged play off for four places at next year's finals. That means the runner-up with the fewest points misses out. That unfortunate position is currently occupied by Wales although plenty can change over the coming days. Bosnia-Herzegovina for example are also on eight points and face two difficult games against already-qualified Belgium and an away game in Estonia. It is important to note that results gained against the bottom-ranked sides in each group do not count in the final play-off standings. This aspect also affects Scotland – who do not feature in the table below because they are currently fourth in their table – because having beaten Malta twice like Wales they are effectively only on eight points. The ranking of second-placed teams is decided simply by the highest number of points but then – if required – goal difference followed by the highest number of goals scored the highest number of goals scored away from home and then fair play points. Fifa says teams will be seeded for the draw on 17 October with the top four sides according to its ranking at the time in one pot and the remaining four in another. The teams currently in second place are Portugal (3rd in Fifa rankings) Wales (13th) Italy (17th) Slovakia (19th) Northern Ireland (20th) Iceland (22nd) Sweden (23rd) Bosnia-Herzegovina (36th) and Montenegro (37th). So while there are plenty of permutations a Wales-Northern Ireland play-off is a possibility. Play-off table Position/Team Played Goal difference Points 1 Portugal 6 18 15 2 N Ireland 6 7 13 3 Italy 6 3 13 4 Iceland 7 3 13 5 Slovakia 7 6 12 6 Sweden 6 3 10 7 Montenegro 6 3 10 8 Bosnia 6 2 8 9 Wales 6 1 8 Rest of Europe – could the Netherlands miss out? Europe's places: 14 including hosts Russia. Already qualified: Belgium Russia They may be three-times World Cup runners-up but the Netherlands are in a scrap to reach next year's tournament. The Dutch are in third place in Group A behind France and Sweden and will be out if they fail to at least match the Swedes' result on Saturday. Sweden host Luxembourg before travelling to the Netherlands – who first visit Belarus – in a potential decider on Tuesday. Surprise Euro 2016 quarter-finalists Iceland who were the smallest nation to qualify for a major finals when they reached France two years ago are in second place but level on points with Group I leaders Croatia. Victories over Turkey and Kosovo would secure a play-off place at least although the Turks and Ukraine are just two points behind. Portugal while sure of at least making the play-offs face a critical final match at home to Switzerland on Tuesday as Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates try to overturn a three-point deficit in Group B. European World Cup qualifying: Fixtures – Tables Road to Russia: The key dates 17 October: Europe play-off draw (Zurich) 9-11 November: Play-off first legs 12-14 November: Play-off second legs 1 December: The groups are drawn 14 June-15 July 2018: World Cup finals Asia – The Syria story

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