With four rounds of qualifying remaining, all 13 European slots for the World Cup are still up for grabs. The picture should become clearer over the next week, with Germany able to secure its place at next year’s tournament in Russia.
The nine group winners qualify automatically. The worst runner-up will be eliminated, but the other eight second-place teams enter a playoff round in November with the four winners qualifying for the World Cup.
Here is the state of play in the groups:
After being in comfortable control of Group A, France is now in a more precarious position going into Thursday’s game against the Netherlands.
A comical error by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Sweden a 2-1 win in the last round, giving the Swedes 13 points at the top of the group alongside France and leaving the Dutch within striking distance.
A win for the Netherlands at Stade de France will move it level with European Championship runner-up France, and turn the group it into a three-way scrap with three matches remaining.
Sweden will be hoping France loses or draws but faces a tough trip of its own to Bulgaria, which can maintain its slim chances of qualifying with a win.
Last-place Luxembourg hosts struggling Belarus in the other game.
Switzerland has a perfect six-win record at the top of the group, while Portugal has won five straight since an opening 2-0 loss to the Swiss and has a much better goal difference. An Oct. 10 showdown in Lisbon will likely decide which team wins the group and which must go through the playoff round.
Until then, the No. 4-ranked Swiss host Andorra on Thursday and play at Latvia on Sunday.
European champion Portugal hosts the Faeroe Islands and travels to Hungary, which has slumped since reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016.
World Cup champion Germany, one of two countries to win its opening six qualifying games, looks unstoppable and could qualify over the next week.
If the Germans beat the Czech Republic on Friday, they will be guaranteed first place with a home win over Norway on Monday and if second-place Northern Ireland fails to beat the Czechs on the same night.
Germany has scored more goals (27) and conceded fewer (1) than any other country in European qualifying.
Northern Ireland, which last appeared at a World Cup in 1986, could close in on at least a playoff place by beating San Marino on Friday. The Czech Republic is in third place, four points behind the Northern Irish with four games left.
With the top four teams – Serbia, Ireland, Wales and Austria – separated by four points, there is still everything to play for in a group that looked difficult to predict from the outset.
Serbia is ahead of Ireland on goal difference, and they play each other in Dublin on Monday. Before then, Serbia hosts Moldova and Ireland is at Georgia on Friday.
Wales and Austria are even on points in third and fourth place, four points behind their rivals, and meet in Cardiff on Saturday. Whichever team loses will likely be out of realistic contention for a top-two finish.
Wales, which reached the semifinals of the European Championship last year and has Gareth Bale back from suspension, has drawn five of its six qualifiers.
Poland is closing in on securing a spot in the top-seeded pot at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.
Robert Lewandowski has scored 11 goals in qualifying – tied with Cristiano Ronaldo for most in the European zone – and Poland is six points ahead of second-place Montenegro. Poland plays Friday at third-place Denmark, and hosts Kazakhstan three days later.
Montenegro travels to play the winless Kazakhs before hosting Romania.
Denmark is level on points with Montenegro and needs to take three points from Armenia on Monday.
It has been an unconvincing qualifying campaign by England, which played one game under Sam Allardyce and subsequently Gareth Southgate. Yet the group favorites remain unbeaten and have won four of their six games to lead the group by two points.
A potentially defining match comes on Monday, when second-place Slovakia visits Wembley Stadium. A win for the English would bring the team close to a spot in Russia.
England will prepare for that match by playing last-place Malta on Friday, when Slovakia hosts Slovenia in Trnava. Slovenia is in third place, three points behind England.
It is England’s first round of internationals since Wayne Rooney, the country’s record scorer, retired from international duty. Although the striker had been dropped for recent matches, Southgate still wanted the experienced Rooney back in the squad for the upcoming qualifiers.
Spain and Italy meet in one of the most-anticipated games in European qualifying, with the winner moving into good position to qualify. Both teams have five wins in addition to the draw between them last year in Turin.
There will be only three games left for each of the teams after they meet Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, all against the group’s weaker teams.
Since only the group winner automatically qualifies, the winner of Saturday’s match will be set to make it to Russia without having to go through a playoff.
Belgium is on a smooth passage to the World Cup, which could get even smoother if the group leaders can complete the next week with victories over last-place Gibraltar and Greece. But the Greeks, four points behind in second place, are the only team to take points off Belgium so far by drawing 1-1 in March.
If Greece beats Estonia on Thursday and then secures a victory over Belgium on Sunday, the pursuit of first place would be wide open going in the final two rounds of matches in October.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is challenging for second place, a point behind Greece. Both of their meetings have been draws. The toughest game remaining for the Bosnians is against Belgium next month after trips to Cyprus and Gibraltar in the coming days.
The tightest European group, toughest to predict and most likely to make news off the field has Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine all separated by only two points.
Third-place Turkey has the biggest week ahead, playing at Ukraine and on Saturday and hosting first-place Croatia on Tuesday.
Iceland has kept momentum from its inspiring run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals and travels to Finland before hosting Ukraine. Croatia has a solid goal difference advantage over second-place Iceland and should solidify its group lead Friday against visiting Kosovo in Zagreb.
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni, Steve Douglas, Graham Dunbar, Rob Harris and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.