Commentary

Mostly tight World Cup qualifying races as Europe breaks for summer

The long European season is finally over. National teams will break for the summer before the mad dash to the finish line. After playing just six games over the first five FIFA calendar windows, European teams will play four games over the next two windows to leave room for the playoffs in November.

Concacaf will send the top three teams in the Hexagonal to the World Cup and the fourth-place team to the intercontinental playoffs. Conmebol will send its four best teams to the World Cup and fifth-place team to separate playoffs. UEFA only sends its group winners automatically to Russia, and only eight of the nine runners-up even make the playoffs.

Two teams -- defending World Cup champion Germany and Switzerland -- are still unbeaten and untied, but there's a tie for the lead in four groups.

GROUP A. 1. Sweden (12-4), France (11-5) 13 points; 3. Netherlands 10; Bulgaria 9; Belarus 5; Luxembourg 1.

EDGE: France.

Sweden jumped into the lead (on goal difference) on Friday when it beat France, 2-1, thanks to Bleus keeper Hugo Lloris' shocking error that allowed Ola Toivonen to score into an empty net from distance in stoppage time. But the schedule still favors France, which plays three of its final games at home as opposed to Sweden, which is on the road for three of its last four games. First up for France on Aug. 31 will be the Netherlands, on a downward spiral since finishing third at the 2014 World Cup and now coached again by Dick Advocaat but still not out of contention.

GROUP B. 1. Switzerland 18 points; 2. Portugal 15; 3. Hungary 7; 4. Faeroe Islands 5; 5. Andorra 4; 6. Latvia 3.

EDGE: Portugal.

The Swiss beat Portugal, 2-0, in their opening game, but both teams have been perfect since then. They don't meet again until the final day of qualifying on Oct. 10. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 11 of Portugal's 22 goals, which give it a huge edge on goal difference over the Swiss (plus-19 vs. plus-9).

GROUP C. 1. Germany 18 points; 2. Northern Ireland 13; 3. Czech Republic 9; 4. Azerbaijan 7; 5. Norway 4; 6. San Marino 0.

EDGE: Germany.

The Germans, winners of all six games, will likely have to wait until Oct. 5 when they travel to Belfast to play Northern Ireland to clinch. Northern Ireland, which has not played in the World Cup since 1986, is in good position to claim second place and a playoff spot.

GROUP D. 1. Serbia (13-7), Ireland (8-4), 12 points; 3. Wales, Austria 8; Georgia 3; Moldova 2.

EDGE: Ireland.

Wales, which reached the semifinals of Euro 2016, is unbeaten but five of its six games ended in ties.  A 1-1 draw at Serbia on Sunday barely kept it alive. Probably the best it can is hope for is that Serbia or Ireland falters -- they meet Sept. 5 in Dublin -- and it claims second with a late run.

GROUP E. 1. Poland 16 points; 2. Montenegro, Denmark 10; 4. Romania, Armenia 6; Kazakhstan 2.

EDGE: Poland.

No European team has a bigger lead than Poland's six-point lead on Montenegro and Denmark.  Robert Lewandowski has scored in all six games for the Poles, hat tricks against Denmark and Romania giving him 11 goals in all.

GROUP F. 1. England 14 points; 2. Slovakia 12; 3. Slovenia 11; 4. Scotland 8; 5. Lithuania 5; 6. Malta 0.

EDGE: England.

England stayed unbeaten on Saturday when Harry Kane scored three minutes into stoppage time, spoiling a late comeback by Scotland, which had gone ahead, 2-1, on free-kick goals by Leigh Griffiths in the 87th and 90th minutes. The schedule favors the English, who host second-place Slovakia and third-place Slovenia in their next two home games.

GROUP G. 1. Spain (21-3), Italy (18-4) 16 points; 3. Albania, Israel 9; 5. Macedonia 3; Liechtenstein 0.

EDGE: Spain.

Their 1-1 tie when they met in Turin last October is the only blemish for Spain and Italy. Spain has the edge with a better goal difference and easier closing schedule. It also hosts Italy on Sept. 2 at the Estadio Bernabeu in Madrid.

GROUP H. 1. Belgium 16 points; 2. Greece 12; 3. Bosnia & Herzegovina 11; 4. Cyprus 7; 5. Estonia 4; Gibraltar 0.

EDGE: Belgium.

Belgium is unbeaten in qualifying under Spanish coach Robert Martinez, assisted by Thierry Henry, since they took over in August 16, but the Red Devils still have away games against Greece and Bosnia & Herzegovina, who make Group H the only European group with three 2014 World Cup finalists.

GROUP I. 1. Croatia (11-2), Iceland (9-6) 13 points; 3. Turkey, Ukraine 11; 5. Finland, Kosovo 1.

EDGE: Iceland.

Iceland, the darling of Euro 2016, pulled even with Croatia when it won, 1-0, on Sunday thanks to Horour Magnussson's 90th-minute goal. Iceland has the slightly better schedule but it is by no means a two-team race. Turkey (which still has home games left against Iceland and Croatia) and Ukraine are still lurking.
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