Eric Dier scored England's second in a 2-1 win against SlovakiaCatherine Kortsmik

With one round of matches left in this enthralling World Cup qualification campaign, Home Nations football finds itself in a rare position of strength. The possibility of all five sides from the British and Irish Isles qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next summer remains very much a live prospect. While the other four teams will almost definitely have to go through the play-off round, England find themselves in a very comfortable scenario going into the final round of matches, where anything other than finishing top of group F would be a major shock.

A win away to Malta followed by a gritty, tense 2-1 win at home against Slovakia at home gives them a five point cushion over the Slovaks with two games to go. An unconvincing first 45 minutes left many in the 67,823 strong Wembley crowd frustrated at a sloppy display, particularly when Marcus Rashford cheaply gave the ball away early on, leading to Stanislav Lobotka giving Slovakia a shock third minute lead. However, the Manchester United teenager somewhat made amends when Eric Dier turned in his corner for the equaliser, before he came full circle with a superb dipping effort that beat Martin Dubravka in the Slovakian goal after 59 minutes.

The build up to the international week was dominated by a barrage of dramatic story lines coming from the final day of the transfer window, and as such, all eyes were on Liverpool’s new £40 million man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. However, he failed to impress at Wembley, wasting a number of promising attacking opportunities (something which Arsenal fans are all too familiar with) in a display that may leave puzzled Liverpool supporters scratching their heads. A case of job done for England after moving one step closer to qualification.

Gareth Bale has scored three times for Wales so far in qualifiersДмитрий Журавель

From a number of attacking players frustrating fans up and down the country, to another with whom Liverpool fans certainly won't be disappointed – namely Ben Woodburn – who exploded onto the international scene for Wales during the past week. The Welsh find themselves in a very favourable position after wins against Austria in Cardiff and Moldova away, yet their biggest victory of this round seems to be the emergence of the 17 year old star on the world stage.

The Liverpool prospect stole the headlines with the winner on debut late on against Austria, and he also provided the assist for Hal Robson-Kanu’s key go ahead strike in Moldova, leaving both Wales and Liverpool fans giddy with excitement, along with England fans cursing a system that let the Chester-born teenager slip through the fingers of the England management. Having said all this, Chris Coleman’s men still face a tricky tie away to Georgia, who made life very difficult for a poor Republic of Ireland on Saturday night, before what is shaping up to be a winner-takes-all showdown versus the Irish in Cardiff.

Across the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland seem to be going from strength to strength under manager Michael O’Neill. After being given the huge challenge of being drawn in the same group as Czech Republic, Norway and not to mention World Champions Germany, few would have predicted them to go on a five-match winning streak. They have outperformed all expectations to secure 2nd place and a likely play-off spot behind the Germans with two games to spare.

A hallmark of the Irishmen’s campaign has been how few goals they have conceded. A defence anchored by Jonny Evans, who was reportedly a late transfer target for both Arsenal and Manchester City recently, kept two clean sheets this week in 3-0 and 2-0 wins over minnows San Marino away and at home to Czech Republic respectively. Germany come to Belfast in the next round and will certainly challenge that record, but the men from the North have nothing to lose with their qualification prospects not depending on the result due to their fantastic position.


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Despite this, no doubt they will endeavour to take a leaf out of their southern counterpart’s book in beating the world champions, something the Republic of Ireland did in 2015. Having said that though, the fortunes of Martin O’Neill’s side could not further contrast those of his Northern namesake. In what was a poor week for the Republic, a golden chance for three points was squandered in a dire display away to Georgia in Tbilisi in a 1-1 draw.

This was followed by a much improved showing in Dublin versus a stronger and more technically proficient Serbian side. Yet, despite a man of the match display from David Meyler in a much improved midfield display, along with Nikola Maksimovic’s 68th minute red card for a cynical challenge on Daryl Murphy, O’Neill’s charges could not prevent themselves from succumbing to an Aleksander Kolarov thunderbolt in a 1-0 defeat. The ex-Manchester city fullback’s bullet of an effort leaves Ireland needing two victories from their last two games against Moldova and Wales in order to finish second, along with other results to go their way in order to be one of the eight best runner-ups and earn a play-off spot.

Another team who find themselves scrapping for a play-off place is Scotland. Wins against Lithuania and Malta leaves them in fourth position in group F behind Slovenia on goal difference in 3rd and a point behind Slovakia in 2nd. With their last two fixtures being against the two sides directly above them, Gordon Strachan’s charges will go into these key matches with their destiny in their own hands, and after having 48 shots on goal in the last two games, something which was no doubt crucial to their success, they will certainly be looking to repeat the trick next time out.

The Scots will be confident of earning a result with at home in front of a partisan crowd in Hampden Park against Slovakia, especially considering that captain Scott Brown avoided a booking that would have seen him suspended for the clash. Should a positive result be procured, yet another cup-final like showdown would likely take place, with a trip to Ljubljana to face Slovenia providing a mouth-watering finish in the battle for a play-off place

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