UEFA World Cup qualifying preview: England, Germany, France aim high

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UEFA World Cup qualifying kicks back into gear Friday with group favorites France, England, and Sweden hoping to pad their leads on the paths to Russia.

Remember that only the first place teams in each group get an automatic spot at the 2018 World Cup, with eight of nine second-place squads squaring off in playoff ties in late 2017.

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France and Sweden duke it out for sole possession of first place in Group A. It’s not overstating it to call this a pivotal game in Sweden’s qualifying run. After drawing the Netherlands, snaring a road point or better from a perceived group power would be a statement. And a big one, as France will be heavily favored to run out of Friday as winners.

Gareth Southgate will lead England into Wembley Stadium for a rivalry match against Scotland. The stress is on Scottish boss Gordon Strachan, who could find himself level with the Three Lions or six points back of the top after the match. Wayne Rooney is captaining England after scoring a drought-ending goal for Manchester United a week ago. Group F could get cluttered near the top, too, depending on the results between Lithuania and Slovakia, and Slovenia‘s expected win over Malta.

Azerbaijan has to crush Northern Ireland‘s hopes in order to keep pace with Germany in Group C. That’s because the 3-0 Germans are off to a probable victory in San Marino.

Full Friday schedule
Armenia vs. Montenegro — Noon EDT
France vs. Sweden — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Czech Republic vs. Norway — 2:45 p.m. EDT
San Marino vs. Germany — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Northern Ireland vs. Azerbaijan — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Romania vs. Poland — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Denmark vs. Kazakhstan — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Slovakia vs. Lithuania — 2:45 p.m. EDT
England vs. Scotland — 2:45 p.m. EDT
Malta vs. Slovenia — 2:45 p.m. EDT