Four teams have already booked their places at World Cup 2018 – Russia as hosts plus Japan, Iran and Brazil through their efforts in qualifying, and England could, theoretically, secure their passage to the big one next summer if results in Group F go their way.
Should the Three Lions beat Malta as expected tonight, and then go on to beat Slovakia on Monday, then they will finish as group winners if Slovakia and Slovenia play out a goalless draw tonight.
That probably sounds more complicated than it is; in short, Gareth Southgate’s boys are in the driving seat in Group F.
Of course, for all these permutations to go their way England must do their job, and really there is no way on earth that they won’t take all three points against Malta….is there? They are a general 1/20 play with the bookmakers, and that is reflective of their dominance over a stubborn but low-quality Maltese outfit.
But the fixture with Slovakia at Wembley on Monday could, on paper at least, be a more difficult nut to crack. The Slovaks have some decent players in their ranks, including the exceptional Marek Hamsik, and will have their hearts set on a play-off berth as the bare minimum.
So can England deliver the goods on a huge weekend of international football?
Supporting England can be a frustrating business, and it feels instinctively like they always seem to disappoint.
But if you actually look at the stats, the truth is that the Three Lions actually deliver exactly as they are expected to.
So defeats away from home at France and Germany in friendlies might feel disappointing, but in truth we shouldn’t expect any different – and the one-goal margin of loss is actually a decent enough return.
And if you look at the matches England SHOULD win, they generally do. Okay, so defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 wasn’t on the agenda, but comfortable wins over Scotland, Lithuania and Malta shows they are happy to play the role of flat track bullies.
But our record at Wembley Stadium is truly astonishing, and few teams in world football can boast a run of form as dominating as this. The last time England lost a qualification match at HQ was in November 2007 – almost a decade ago!
As mentioned, Slovakia are a decent enough side, but they have one major flaw in their armoury: defending, and specifically defending when playing away from home. They have shipped eight goals in their last three away matches, including a 0-6 hammering at Sweden and singles conceded at those football hotbeds Malta and Lithuania.
The Slovaks have only kept one clean sheet on the road in two-and-a half years, and when you combine that with England’s excellence at home there really is only one outcome that can be predicted. The Three Lions have to be a part of your international acca at 4/11.
Best of British
Of course, it’s not just England who have a big weekend of action to come. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all got Russia on their mind, and a decent showing over the next few days could help them on their way.
Scotland were hugely disappointed not to qualify for Euro 2016, and they will desperately be looking to make up for lost time. They’ve got a great chance in Group F too, with current second-placed team Slovakia facing a difficult double-header of fixtures against the English and their neighbours Slovenia.
The Sots are only four points behind the Slovaks, and their weekend matches are Lithuania away and Malta at home. Six points there and they could well leap into the play-off position behind England.
Wales are in the so-called Group of Death with Serbia, the Republic of Ireland and Austria, but they are making a decent fist of escaping it nonetheless. Much will ride on their game against the Austrians at Cardiff on Saturday – victory there will put the pressure on the Serbians and the Irish, who meet on Tuesday.
And last, but by no mean least, are Northern Ireland, and they are in pole position to claim second place behind Germany in Group C.
The boys in green have a four-point cushion over the Czech Republic in third, and they must surely get something from their meeting with Germans tonight. The Irish take a rather pleasant trip to San Marino, and they will be expecting to boost their points haul – and goal difference – prior to their clash with the Czechs on Tuesday.