The 10 big talking points ahead of this week’s World Cup qualifiers

Lowdown on the crunch matches that could seal qualification for Russia 2018 - or see major nations on the scrapheap - with Jon O'Brien

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After hundreds of matches spread across umpteen international breaks, we now get down to the business end of the lengthy 2018 World Cup qualifying process. Come October 10, at least 13 more teams will have joined Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia as definites for the tournament, which kicks off in Moscow next July.

These are the 10 major talking points with qualification on a knife edge for several nations, including World Cup royalty.

1. Could Argentina really miss out?

Argentina have had a few close shaves before. They needed a recalled Diego Maradona and a fortunate deflection to separate them and Australia in their 1993 David vs Goliath inter-confederation play-off. Later on, only a late Mario Bolatti goal ensured they wouldn’t have to go through a similar route to reach the 2010 World Cup.

If a struggling Argentina lose to dark horses Peru on Friday – whose superior goal difference is currently pushing Messi and co. out of an automatic spot – then there’s a real possibility that the two-time World Cup winners may miss out on the tournament for the first time since 1970.

2. The battle of the African underdogs

World Cup 2010 hosts South Africa have had a dismal qualifying campaign, losing twice to minnows Cape Verde and having their 2-1 victory over Senegal annulled following FIFA’s banning of referee Joseph Lamptey for match manipulation.

However the real story of Africa’s Group D is the emergence of Burkina Faso. The team formerly known as Upper Volta will edge one step closer to a first ever World Cup should they add to South Africa’s misery in their penultimate qualifying match on Saturday.

The two teams couldn’t be separated in their opening encounter, and a similar result could set the visitors up for a mouth-watering winner-takes-all showdown against fellow underdogs Cape Verde in November.

3. Team USA’s hopes may go down the Panama Canal

USA have sailed through qualifying for the last three World Cups, finishing top of the table each time. Their 2018 campaign, though, got off to a disastrous start with consecutive defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica ultimately costing Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

Brilliantly named Bruce Arena has got things back on track during his second spell in charge of the US, but automatic qualification is still far from assured.

They should have little trouble dispatching rock bottom Trinidad and Tobago next week. However this weekend they’ll first need to get a result against the team directly above them, Panama, who’ll be fired up at the prospect of reaching their first ever World Cup.

4. Can Scotland finally hold their nerve?

Although they currently sit in fourth place in Group F with just two games to go, Scotland’s fate is still in their own hands. Simply, defeat both Slovakia (in Scotland on Thursday) and Slovenia (away on Sunday) and a play-off spot is guaranteed.

Sure, it sounds like a tall order – especially considering the 3-0 loss to the former 12 months ago. But encouraging results against Slovenia, England and Lithuania have left the Tartan Army with a renewed sense of optimism that they could still make their first World Cup in over a quarter of a century.