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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

2018 World Cup qualifiers: Lionel Messi's Argentina in danger, Syria fairy-tale continues

We take a look at the state of play in each region with the likes of Portugal and France still having plenty of work to do

It was a poor night for Lionel Messi and for Argentina as they drew with Venezuela. Marcos Brindicci / Reuters
It was a poor night for Lionel Messi and for Argentina as they drew with Venezuela. Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

As qualifying for the 2018 World Cup reaches its climax there is still plenty left to decide, including the fate of Lionel Messi's Argentina, who find themselves struggling in South American qualifying.

Cristiano Ronaldo's European champions Portugal need to overcome a three-point deficit to Switzerland, their final opponents in their European qualifying group, if they are to secure automatic qualification to Russia, and Syria face a two-legged play-off against Australia to keep their remarkable dream alive.

We take a look at the state of play in each region.

Argentina in danger

Brazil secured their place in next year's finals back in March, but three automatic berths remain up for grabs in South America ahead of the final two rounds of qualifying matches.

Messi's two-time World Cup champions Argentina, runners-up in Brazil three years ago, have plenty of ground to make up if they are to avoid missing out on a global finals for the first time since 1970.

Currently languishing in fifth place, which would only be good enough to send them through to a two-legged play-off against New Zealand, is by no means a forgone conclusion with Copa America holders Chile lurking just a point behind in sixth.

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Timo Werner was twice on target as Germany romped Norway 6-0 in Stuttgart. Getty Images
Timo Werner was twice on target as Germany romped Norway 6-0 in Stuttgart. Getty Images

Germany cruising, France on thin ice

Europe will provide 14 of the 32 competing teams in Russia, the hosts included. But so far only Belgium have punched their ticket to the finals going into the last two sets of fixtures.

World champions Germany, who need just a draw in Northern Ireland on Thursday, lead a handful of other sides who can wrap up qualification this week.

England are five points clear in Group F, while Serbia are in control of their section and 2010 champions Spain have the edge over Italy in their two-horse race.

The nine group winners progress automatically, while all but one of the runners-up advance to the play-off round to determine the final four qualifiers.

Portugal, while sure of at least making the play-offs, face a critical final match at home to Switzerland as Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates look to overturn a three-point deficit in Group B.

France hold a tentative one-point cushion over Sweden in Group A and will be all too aware of the dangers posed by a trip to Bulgaria, the country responsible for their absence at the 1994 World Cup.

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Report: France 'disappointed' after being held by lowly Luxembourg

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Nigeria and Tunisia within sight

Five places are on offer in Africa, but none as yet have been claimed. Nigeria are closing in on a sixth World Cup appearance, with reigning continental champions Cameroon and Algeria out of the running in a challenging section, but Zambia could still deny the Super Eagles.

Tunisia are well positioned to end a 12-year World Cup exile, leading nearest rivals the Democratic Republic of Congo by three points, while Egypt are in control of their destiny.

But other groups remain wide open with just the first-place finishers qualifying for Russia. Ivory Coast top Group C on seven points, but both Morocco (six) and Gabon (five) still harbour genuine hopes.

It is a similar situation in Group D after Fifa's decision to annul South Africa's 2-1 win over Senegal from November 2016 - a match manipulated by a Ghanaian referee. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde head the pool on six points, but Senegal trail by just a point with their match against Bafana Bafana to be replayed in November.

War-torn Syria head into play-offs

Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia will represent Asia in Russia next year, but Syria and Australia will attempt to join them via the play-offs.

Syria prolonged their fairy-tale World Cup campaign with a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser in their final group match to set up a double-header against Australia on October 5 and 10.

The Socceroos are bidding for a fourth straight finals appearance while Syria, who have never reached the World Cup before, have kept their dream alive despite the brutal civil war that has forced them to play all their home games abroad.

They will take on Australia in Malaysia in the first leg before travelling to Sydney for the return. The winner of the tie will meet the fourth-placed team from Concacaf with a spot in Russia at stake.

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Mexico and who else?

Mexico will compete at their seventh straight World Cup next summer, with Costa Rica also on the verge of direct qualification. But a third automatic berth is still in play, while the fourth-placed side can also qualify through the intercontinental play-offs.

Panama, in third, lead the United States and Honduras by a single point with two rounds of games still to play.

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