The race to Brazil

Posted by Dale Johnson

Group winners automatically qualify for the finals; the eight best runners-up go into two-legged playoffs.

Group A
Neither Croatia nor Belgium were in action on Tuesday so the group situation remains as it was, with Marc Wilmots' team on the verge of their first World Cup finals since 2002.

Belgium lead Croatia by five points with two games left to play. When the two teams meet in Zagreb next month, a draw will take the lowlands nation to Brazil. Croatia have to win that game and then hope results go their way on the final day -- when they travel to Scotland and Belgium host Wales.

Belgium are assured of one of the eight play-off spots if they do not finish top.

Italy Mario Baolotelli goal v Czech Republic
GettyImagesMario Balotelli completed Italy's comeback with his customary converted penalty, securing qualification.

Group B
ITALY became the second European team to qualify for the World Cup with a 2-1 comeback victory at home to Czech Republic.

The real fight is for second place, and while four nations might mathematically be in with a chance it is surely a two-horse race. Bulgaria won 2-1 in Malta to stay second on 13 points while Denmark, who looked virtually out of contention a week ago, claimed a massive 1-0 win in Armenia through a Daniel Agger penalty and are a point further back. Czech Republic and Armenia are on nine points, four behind Bulgaria, meaning their hopes are slim.

Bulgaria go to Armenia next month before finishing their campaign at home to Czech Republic, while Denmark must entertain Italy and Malta. Armenia are in Italy on the final day while the Czechs' other match is in Malta.

Group C
Germany must wait until next month to book their place in Brazil. They won 3-0 in the Faroe Islands but Sweden's slender 1-0 victory in Kazakhstan kept them mathematically in the hunt for top spot.

Germany lead Sweden by five points, and will effectively qualify with a draw at home to Republic of Ireland due to their vastly superior goal difference but need a win to confirm it.

Joachim Low's side will also be through if Sweden fail to win at home to Austria, and it is this game that probably holds more interest. Austria are three points behind Sweden with a better goal difference, so a win in Stockholm would all but book the playoff place with a trip to the Faroe Islands remaining. A draw would also keep them very much in the running, as Sweden must entertain Germany in the last match.

Republic of Ireland may not be mathematically out of the running but in truth they have no hope.

Germany are assured of one of the eight play-off spots if they do not finish top.

Robin van PErsie celeb Netherlands v Andorra
GettyImagesRobin van Persie's two goals against Andorra booked Netherlands' place at the 2014 World Cup.

Group D
NETHERLANDS were hardly convincing in winning 2-0 in Andorra, but it was enough to make the Dutch the first team to qualify from Europe and allow Louis van Gaal to start planning for Brazil.

The race for a playoff place saw another twist as Hungary's 5-1 win over Estonia and Turkey's fine 2-0 win in Romania sent them second and third respectively.

Hungary are on 14 points but their next game is away in the Netherlands before they finish up at home to minnows Andorra. Turkey, on 13 points, go to Estonia before entertaining Netherlands. Which means Romania, also on 13 points, are slight favourites with Andorra and Estonia left on their fixture list.

Group E
Switzerland's fine 2-0 win in Norway thanks to a brace from Fabian Schar has put Ottmar Hitzfeld's side on the brink of the finals. The Swiss need two points to be absolutely sure from an away game in Albania and a home date with Slovenia.

There is a titanic battle for second between Iceland (13 points), Slovenia (12), Norway (11) and Albania (10). Slovenia and Norway meet next time out, but with Iceland at home to Cyprus the islanders should go into the final day still in possession of the coveted play-off position. That effectively means a loser in the Slovenia-Norway tie would be knocked out, while Albania must beat the Swiss to stay in touch.

The final day sees Norway host Iceland, which could prove to be a shootout for second, and Albania travel to Cyprus.

Russia team celeb vs Israel
APRussia look set to seal their place at a first World Cup since 2002.

Group F
Russia played their game in hand against Israel on Tuesday, with Vasili Berezutski, Aleksandr Kokorin and Denis Glushakov on target in a 3-1 win in St Petersburg. That sent Russia a point above Portugal with two games left to play.

Russia's final two games are away in Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, which makes them overwhelming favourites to take the automatic spot. Portugal entertain Israel and Luxembourg and must win both, hoping that Russia somehow also slip up.

Israel still have a mathematical chance of qualifying but in reality their campaign is over.

Group G
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece remain separated purely by goal difference going into the last two rounds. Bosnia secured a vital 2-1 comeback victory in Slovakia, while Greece needed a Dimitris Salpingidis goal to edge out Latvia.

As Bosnia's goal difference is far superior they know a regulation win at home to Liechtenstein followed up with a victory away in Lithuania will send them to their maiden finals. Greece must win at home to Slovakia and Liechtenstein and hope another result goes their way.

Group H
It wasn't pretty, but England's goalless draw in Ukraine kept them firmly in control of their own destiny. They face Montenegro and Poland at Wembley next month and know that six points from those fixtures will secure a place at the World Cup.

England lead the group on 16 points, followed by Ukraine (15), Montenegro (15) and Poland (13). Ukraine and Poland meet in the first set of games, and whoever loses that game will probably be out of the running for top spot. In fact a draw for those two sides, coupled with a win for England over Montenegro, would effectively put England through on goal difference.

As well as England hosting Poland, the last day sees Ukraine travel to San Marino and Montenegro play host to Moldova.

Group I
France stayed in contention with a 4-2 win in Belarus, and are level on 14 points with Spain. But the world champions have a game in hand, and finish their campaign at home to Belarus and Georgia. Spain cannot officially book their place until the final day, but France are headed for the playoffs once again.

The top three nations in the final group stage qualify directly for the finals, with the fourth-place team facing a two-legged playoff against New Zealand.

David Richard/USA TODAY SportsEddie Johnson was on target as the United States booked a place at the World Cup.

The UNITED STATES and COSTA RICA booked the first two places from the region on Wednesday night. Goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan gave the USA a 2-0 home win over Mexico, which plunged El Tri into serious qualification trouble. Randall Brenes looked to have put Costa Rica on their way to a win in Jamaica only for Jermaine Anderson to level in added time. Later, however, Panama's 2-2 draw in Honduras meant the top two could no longer be caught.

Honduras would have been five points clear in third but for a 91st-minute leveller for Panama, which leaves the battle for the remaining places tight. Honduras (11 points) lead Panama and Mexico by three points, but with a superior goal difference of just two they have no margin for error.

Mexico and Panama meet at the Azteca Stadium next time out, and whoever loses that game would find it tough to qualify. Honduras, needing four points to reach Brazil, entertain Costa Rica on the same night. The final day of qualifying sees Honduras go to bottom-of-the-table Jamaica, Mexico travel to Costa Rica and Panama host United States.

The top four nations qualify automatically from the region, and the fifth-place team plays Jordan in a two-legged playoff.

ARGENTINA's 5-2 win in Paraguay, which included a penalty brace from Lionel Messi, ensured they will make the short trip to Brazil next summer.

Although Venezuela remain in with a mathematical chance of the play-offs, it is essentially a four-horse race for the final three places, with the nation that loses out headed for Jordan in the intercontinental playoff.

Uruguay boosted their hopes of an automatic spot as goals from Edinson Cavani and Christian Stuani earned a 2-0 win over second-place Colombia (26 points). La Celeste's wobble in qualifying means they still only sit in the playoff spot -- but are now level with Ecuador on 22 points after their 1-1 draw at bottom nation Bolivia. Chile are third on 24 points but did not play on Tuesday.

Colombia need only a point from their games at home to Chile and away in Paraguay. Chile require one win, with their other game being at home to Ecuador.

Ecuador will almost certainly take the final qualification spot if they match Uruguay's results due to their superior goal difference. The two nations meet in Quito next month and a home win would surely consign Uruguay, who are at home to Argentina to finish their campaign, to the play-offs.

The final places in the qualifying playoffs were decided over the weekend as Ethiopia, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon joined Ivory Coast, Egypt and Algeria in the final stage, when the ten nations will be drawn into five two-legged ties for a place at the World Cup. The draw takes place September 16.

However, Cape Verde Islands, who would have been the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, were thrown out as they fielded a suspended player in their final group game win in Tunisia. That meant Tunisia were handed a 3-0 win and went through as group winners.

The seedings for the draw are:

Seeded: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Tunisia
Unseeded: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia

With group play already completed, Iran and South Korea qualified from Group A, with Japan and Australia making Brazil from Group B.

The two third-place sides, Jordan and Uzbekistan, drew both legs of their playoff 1-1 which saw the tie go to penalties. Jordan emerged victorious in a thrilling shootout, winning 9-8. They will now face the fifth-place side from South America in the intercontinental playoff.

Qualifying was completed last year with New Zealand advancing to an intercontinental playoff against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF.


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