Six talking points ahead of the European World Cup qualifiers before the final two rounds are played between Oct. 5 and 10.
PLAYOFF LOOMS FOR EDGY ITALY
Barring major surprises, Italy will finish as Group G runners-up behind Spain and will have to face the uncertainties of the perilous playoff round – a prospect that has fans and media on edge.
Italian federation president Carlo Tavecchio has described the possibility of the four-time champions not qualifying as “the Apocalypse.”
He even suggested FIFA should change the rules in the future so that a team’s past record is taken into account during the qualifiers – though he did not elaborate on how this would work.
“It’s not right that they don’t take into account the four world titles; it goes against history,” he said.
Barring the inaugural World Cup in 1930, which they did not enter, Italy have appeared at every tournament except in 1958 when they were squeezed out by Northern Ireland.
ICELAND’S EURO 2016 PERFORMANCE NO FLUKE
Iceland’s displays in Group I have dispelled any suggestions that their run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals was a fluke.
They go into the final two rounds of matches level on 16 points with leaders Croatia and with an excellent chance of making at least the playoffs.
Under Heimir Hallgrimsson, who was joint coach alongside Lars Lagerback two years ago and is now in sole charge, Iceland, have a 100 percent home record with wins over Finland, Turkey, Croatia and Ukraine.
After a crucial visit to third-placed Turkey (14 points) on Friday, they host bottom side Kosovo three days later.
NETHERLANDS ON THE BRINK
Italy’s problems are minor compared to Netherlands who must win away to Belarus on Saturday and then beat Sweden at home, probably by several goals, next Tuesday to have a realistic chance of finishing second in Group A and making the playoffs.
Their campaign, featuring home-and-away defeats by France and a loss in Bulgaria, has already cost coach Danny Blind his job, with the reigns being handed to old favourite Dick Advocaat — recalled for a third stint in charge at the age of 70.
PORTUGAL, SWITZERLAND SET FOR LISBON SHOWDOWN
Switzerland kicked off Group B with a shock 2-0 home win against a groggy Portugal who had barely recovered from their Euro 2016 triumph two months earlier and were missing Cristiano Ronaldo through an injury sustained in that tournament.
Both teams have won all their matches since then, leaving the Swiss top with 24 points from eight games and Portugal second on 21, helped by 14 goals in seven outings from Ronaldo.
If Switzerland beat visiting Hungary on Saturday and Portugal win in Andorra that will set up a showdown in Lisbon on Oct.
10 where the European champions, who have a far superior goal difference, could snatch top spot by beating the Swiss.
BIG NIGHT FOR MONTENEGRO
Tiny Montenegro face one of the biggest matches in their short history when they host Denmark on Thursday. The teams, second and third respectively in Group E, are level on 16 points, three behind leaders Poland.
Montenegro, led by Sevilla midfielder Stevan Jovetic and Atletico Madrid’s Stefan Savic, are bidding to qualify for their first major tournament since independence in 2006.
Montenegro, with a population of only 650,000, beat Denmark away and, with a tough visit to Poland in their last match, would ideally need to beat the Danes again to stay on course.
GLIMMER OF HOPE FOR SCOTLAND
Scotland were last sighted at a major tournament in 1998, traipsing off the field after a 3-0 World Cup thumping by Morocco in their final group match in France.
Nineteen years and eight managers later, they host Slovakia on Thursday trailing their second-placed opponents by one point in Group F.
A win against the Slovaks followed by another away to Slovenia three days later would guarantee Scotland runners-up spot and probably take them into the playoff round.