It’s crunch time in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers, with the sixth round of fixtures taking place this weekend. The last set of fixtures marked the half-way point in the road to Russia, and the home nations have had a mixed time of it thus far.
On Saturday Northern Ireland play away in Azerbaijan, while Scotland take on England which promises to be a heavyweight clash in Group F.
Sunday sees Ireland host Austria, while fellow Group D side Wales face a stern test against Serbia in Belgrade.
Here’s our thoughts and predictions for all four matches.
Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan, 5pm
Michael O’ Neill’s side have performed admirably thus far, only losing once to table-toppers, Germany. The Green and White Army have carried their good form on from Euro 2016, and have only conceded two goals in their first five matches.
They are effectively a ‘surprise’ side, who don’t have many star players and that is what has held them in such good stead over the last 18-months. Kyle Lafferty is the top-goalscorer in this campaign (2), and I would expect him to score against an Azerbaijan side that have lost their last two matches.
Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans have shown that they are rock-solid, both for club and country, and for that reason you’d expect Northern Ireland to keep a clean-sheet against an Azerbaijan side that sit 76th in the latest FIFA World Rankings.
An away test in a place like Azerbaijan has the ability to ruffle a few feathers to begin with, but I expect Northern Ireland to come away with all three points in this match.
Prediction: 1-0 Northern Ireland
Scotland v England, 5pm
It goes without saying that this should be a cracker of a match, as rivalries ignite between these two sides. England sit comfortably at the top of Group D, while Scotland have some work to do down in fourth place.
This is the type of match where history goes out of the window, and while England are the clear favourites to win the match Scotland will hardly go down without a fight.
Scotland have several Premier League players among their squad, along with a strong presence from this season’s invincibles, Celtic.
The real problem for England is likely to lie with who Gareth Southgate chooses to start in attack. Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Jermain Defoe, and Marcus Rashford are all available, but Southgate could well opt to play only one of those upfront.
With Scotland having the home advantage, I’d like to sway towards a stalemate but I can’t look past England for the win, particularly when you compare the form of the two sides. England won the reverse fixture 3-0 back in November, but this one will be a much tighter affair I think.
Prediction: England 1-0
Ireland v Austria, 5pm
Both of these sides will be hoping to continue their good form in this campaign, and many arguing that Ireland have already over-achieved as they sit in joint 1st in Group F.
Martin O’ Neill’s side were unlucky to only take a point from their previous match against Wales, while Austria have had to play without a number of key-players in their first five matches.
Austria are arguably the better side on paper, and will be hoping to secure a result that sees them move up from joint 3rd place in the group. Ireland know that if they draw or win, and the result of Serbia v Wales favours them then they will be firmly in the driving seat in terms of qualifying.
This game doesn’t look like being the most exciting, although you never know what will happen on the international stage. Nevertheless, I don’t see either side outscoring eachother, and think that it will end in a draw.
Prediction: 1-1 Draw
Serbia v Wales, 7:45pm
This match is the ultimate test for Chris Coleman’s side, and they will have to go away to Serbia without their most-valued asset in Gareth Bale. Wales had an unbelievable run in Euro 2016, but have struggled throughout this qualifying campaign.
Both sides are unbeaten going into this fixture, though Wales have drawn four of their five matches. Serbia currently top Group F, and Wales know that if they do not pick up at least a point in this match then their chances of automatic qualification are all but gone.
Bale is known by many Wales’s ‘team-carrier’, and their record when playing without him is poor. Seven wins, nine draws and 16-losses show just how important he is, and Chris Coleman’s side will need to be at their best if they are to win here.
Wales are very organised in defence, but are going to lack a lot of goal-threat without Bale. There will be an added incentive for the away side after conceding a late equaliser in the reverse fixture, but I think it’ll end in a draw.
Prediction: 1-1 Draw