The nine remaining places at World Cup 2018 will be decided in the next week. A serial winner, a pair of Africa’s greatest powers and a potential first timer are among those who have it all to play for. DW takes a look.
The draw for Russia 2018 is set to take place on December 1 at the Kremlin in Moscow. Seats are reserved for representatives of the twenty three nations who have already qualified but while those countries are playing friendlies, these teams will be going through the nail-biting process of confederation or intercontinental playoffs.
Sweden vs. Italy — November 10 and 13
Four time World Cup winners Italy could still be the biggest omission from next year's showpiece after finishing behind Spain in their qualifying group. The Italians are favorites to beat 11-time qualifiers Sweden, who will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic — the heralded Swedish striker retired after Euro 2016.
"I'd never want Ibra against me, not even at 40 years and with a broken leg," said Daniele De Rossi, who, alongside Gianluigi Buffon (pictured) and Andrea Barzagli, is one the players in the current squad that were part of Italy's world championship team in 2006. "To ask for faith from the fans would be inappropriate right now, it’s not the right time. We have to win this game."
But Sweden will be no pushovers. Despite a lack of star power, they knocked out the Netherlands to finish second behind France in Group A.
Croatia vs. Greece — November 9 and 12
This one features two teams who specialize in playoff wins. If Greece win, they will become the first European team to reach three successive World Cups through playoffs. Croatia have won all four of their qualifying playoffs for major tournaments.
While the Croats have the big names — Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic — Greece are the seeded side and play at home first.
"We have confidence but also [Greece is] a difficult rival" said Modric.
Croatia, who finished behind Iceland in their group, had a disappointing qualifying campaign, which led the country's football association to replace head coach Ante Cacic with Zlatko Dalic before their last qualifier. Despite that, Greece coach Michael Skibbe, a former assistant coach with Germany, believes Croatia are "the clear favorites" thanks largely to the experience in their ranks.
Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland — November 9 and 12
After a debut European Championship in France last year, Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland side are looking to make the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
"I see in this squad an opportunity they don't want to waste," said O'Neill, whose side enjoyed a strong qualification campaign and finished behind Germany. "But equally they've done everything so far and I think they will do everything in the next two games to make it a reality.
Switzerland enjoyed an even better qualifying campaign, with their perfect record only broken in the last match against Portugal, who topped the group as a result. The Swiss have been as high as number 7 in the FIFA rankings in 2017 and have players scattered around Europe's top leagues — there are 10 Bundesliga representatives in the current squad.
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland — November 11 and 14
Republic of Ireland face the eighth playoff of their footballing history after a stunning win over Euro 2016 semifinalist Wales in their last qualifier. They have won three and lost four of the previous ties, including the notorious game in France in 2009 when Thierry Henry's handball set up the extra-time goal that knocked them out.
While the Irish rely on a strong team ethic and organization, the Danes can call on Tottenham's Christian Eriksen, one of Europe's most gifted playmakers. "When there's been big questions put to the players, they've come up with the answers." Irish assistant manager Roy Keane said. "Denmark have a lot of skillful players, good options going forward and Eriksen is a really big player for them."
Honduras vs. Australia — November 10 and 15
After a rocky qualifying campaign that included a disastrous 6-0 hammering at the hands of the USA, Honduras beat Mexico in their final qualifier to pip the Americans to the playoff spot. An almost entirely domestic-based squad is ready for "one of the most important games of our lives," according to winger Romell Quioto.
Australia have already faced one playoff this year, having squeezed past Syria to book this tie. Tim Cahill, who scored the decisive goal against Syria, is a doubt with an ankle injury. Aussie coach Ange Postecoglu says the first game in Honduras will be vital.
New Zealand vs. Peru — November 11 and 15
Based on the FIFA rankings, this one's a mismatch. Peru are ranked 10 and their opponents 122. But the All Whites have punched above their weight in recent times, particularly in the 2010 World Cup, when they were the only side to remain undefeated. They will lean heavily on Premier League pair Winston Reid (West Ham) and Chris Wood (Burnley). If Peru qualify, they will travel to their first World Cup since 1982.
The are no playoffs in the African confederation, with the top side from each group qualifying. Tunisia need just a point from their game with already-eliminated Libya in Group A. Nigeria and Egypt are through from Group B and Group E respectively.
Morocco and Ivory Coast play each other for the Group C spot, a fixture where Morocco need just a point. With a match between South Africa and Senegal set to be replayed, either of those teams, plus Burkina Faso and Cape Verde Islands, could still qualify from Group D.