England can practically guarantee their place at the 2010 World Cup if they beat minnows Andorra at home in the last round of this season’s European qualifying matches.
England’s 4-0 victory in Kazakhstan on Saturday – their sixth win in six games – allowed them to open up a seven-point lead over second-placed Croatia in group six with just four matches remaining.
Victory against Andorra, ranked 196th in the world, would therefore put them 10 points clear and mean that a win at home to Croatia in September would be enough to secure their place in South Africa.
Croatia were the team that denied England a place at the 2008 European Championships, but captain John Terry says his side cannot afford to look too far ahead.
“We are playing well and are on the way to where we want to be,” he said.
“But there’s no point being at the top now and in a year’s time not being where we want to be. We know there are still improvements to be made.”
Croatia stunned England to reach last summer’s European showpiece in Austria and Switzerland, where they reached the quarter-finals, but on Saturday they drew 2-2 at home to Ukraine, who can move level with the Croats if they defeat Kazakhstan in Kiev.
If England’s path to the World Cup appears straightforward, the same cannot be said for 1998 champions France.
They currently trail Serbia by five points in group seven and the Serbs can extend their lead to eight points with victory in the Faroe Islands on Wednesday.
With only the top-finishing team in each group guaranteed to qualify, Radomir Antic’s side are in pole position to reach their first World Cup since splitting from Montenegro in 2006.
“I have enormous respect for the French,” said former Barcelona and Real Madrid coach Antic, who became Serbia coach in August last year.
“I only have good things to say about the team. But we?ve taken the dominant role in our group over the last few months, and I believe in my players.”
With Germany having taken command of group six, Russia and Finland are being forced to do battle for second place and a possible berth in the play-offs for the eight best group runners-up.
The sides meet in Helsinki on Wednesday, with Finland knowing that victory will take them above Guus Hiddink’s men into second place.
Sweden lost 1-0 at home to near-neighbours Denmark on Saturday, leaving them 10 points behind their Scandinavian rivals, who lead group one.
“Realistically, we’re setting our sights on second place and qualifying,” Sweden coach Lars Lagerback said ahead of their home game with Malta.
The Netherlands became the first European team to qualify for the World Cup when they beat Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavik at the weekend.
Bert van Marwijk’s team host group nine’s bottom side Norway, while Macedonia and Iceland will compete to go level on points with second-placed Scotland.
Fixtures (1700GMT unless otherwise stated)
England v Andorra (1915GMT)
Faroe Islands v Serbia (1815GMT)
Finland v Russia (1730GMT)
Macedonia v Iceland (1545GMT)
Netherlands v Norway (1845GMT)
Sweden v Malta
Ukraine v Kazakhstan
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