More than two and a half years, almost 800 matches and precisely 2,177 goals after the first round of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup took place in Asia the identities of the 32 teams who will compete for football’s most prestigious trophy in Russia next summer is nearing completion.
During the next week up to 15 more nations can join the eight teams to have already secured a place in December’s draw in the Kremlin on Friday 1 December, with the home country already guaranteed to be joined by Brazil, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Belgium and Mexico. Back-to-back fixtures to round off the groups in each of the Uefa, Conmebol and Concacaf regions should ensure a nail-biting finale to a process that has already sprung several surprises, while Syria will attempt to prolong a remarkable run that has taken the war-torn nation within a play-off of the finals for the first time in their history.
Here is a breakdown of which matches to look out for this week as World Cup fever begins to take hold.
Group A France – rated as joint-favourites with the holders, Germany, by many bookmakers – require a victory in Bulgaria on Saturday and for Sweden to lose in Solna to Luxembourg, who defied their status as the group’s minnows by earning a point in Toulouse last month. Should they both win it will mean that 2014 semi-finalists Holland will be out if they cannot match their result in Belarus, with top spot resting on the final round of matches on Tuesday that will see France face Belarus at home and Sweden travel to Amsterdam.
Saturday: Sweden v Luxembourg, Belarus v Holland, Bulgaria v France.
Tuesday: France v Belarus, Holland v Sweden, Luxembourg v Bulgaria.
Group B Yet to drop a point from their eight matches, Switzerland are already guaranteed a play-off spot and will secure top spot if they beat Hungary in Basel on Saturday and Portugal fail to win in Andorra. Victories for both would create a final round showdown in Lisbon on Tuesday, with the loser definitely heading to the play-offs given their superior records in comparison to the other eight groups.
Saturday: Switzerland v Hungary, Andorra v Portugal, Faroe Islands v Latvia.
Tuesday: Portugal v Switzerland, Hungary v Faroe Islands, Latvia v Andorra.
Group C Germany, the only other nation with a 100% record in this section will secure their place with a point against Northern Ireland in Belfast on Thursday. Michael O’Neill’s side are already guaranteed to finish second and go into the penultimate round of matches in a healthy second place in the runners-up table.
Thursday: Azerbaijan v Czech Republic, San Marino v Norway, Northern Ireland v Germany
Sunday: Czech Republic v Hungary, Germany v Azerbaijan, Norway v Northern Ireland.
Group D Serbia are guaranteed to qualify if they defeat Austria in Vienna on Friday and both Wales and the Republic of Ireland fail to win, or if Wales lose in Georgia and Ireland fail to win against Moldova. Chris Coleman’s side can also guarantee second place if they win and Ireland do not, with Austria still also just in contention for the runners-up spot before the Cardiff showdown between Wales and Ireland on Monday. Whoever emerges on top after that may still not secure a playoff place, however, with Wales currently occupying the ninth spot in the ranking of second-placed teams – meaning they would be the unlucky ones to miss out.
Friday: Georgia v Wales, Republic of Ireland v Moldova, Austria v Serbia.
Monday: Moldova v Austria, Serbia v Georgia, Wales v Republic of Ireland.
Group E Poland need a point away to Armenia to guarantee a top-two finish and they will clinch the group if they win and Denmark draw in Montenegro, who are level on points in second place. The final round of fixtures on Sunday could see all three stand a chance of finishing in any combination of the top three positions.
Thursday: Armenia v Poland, Romania v Kazakhstan, Montenegro v Denmark.
Sunday: Denmark v Romania, Kazakhstan v Armenia, Poland v Montenegro.
Group F England qualify if they win, or if they draw and Slovakia do not win. Slovakia will secure second place if they beat Scotland and Slovenia lose to England but the picture becomes much more cloudy should Gordon Strachan’s side win at Hampden Park on Thursday. Scotland travel to Slovenia for their final match, where they are also likely to need at least a point to ensure a runners-up spot.
Thursday: England v Slovenia, Malta v Lithuania, Scotland v Slovakia.
Sunday: Lithuania v England, Slovakia v Malta, Slovenia v Scotland.
Group G The 2010 world champions, Spain, face Albania on Friday in Alicante and will qualify if they better Italy’s result against Macedonia in Turin. Victories for both would mean La Roja require just a point from their final match in Israel, while Italy would be almost guaranteed a play-off spot regardless of their result in Albania.
Friday: Italy v Macedonia, Liechtenstein v Israel, Spain v Albania
Monday: Albania v Italy, Israel v Spain, Macedonia v Liechtenstein.
Group H Belgium became the first European team to qualify in the last round of fixtures, with Bosnia and Herzegovina set to seal second place if they beat Roberto Martínez’s side in Sarajevo on Saturday and Greece lose in Cyprus. If not, an away fixture in Estonia should be enough to confirm that, with Greece due to play Gibraltar in their final match.
Saturday: Gibraltar v Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina v Belgium, Cyprus v Greece.
Tuesday: Belgium v Cyprus, Estonia v Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece v Gibraltar.
Group I Four teams go into the last two fixtures with a chance of finishing top in Europe’s closest group. Turkey and Ukraine will be eliminated if they lose to Iceland and Kosovo respectively and Croatia beat Finland in Rijeka. That would leave Iceland and Croatia to battle it out, although it seems likely to come down to the final round of fixtures, when Ukraine and Iceland will enjoy home advantage.
Friday: Croatia v Finland, Kosovo v Ukraine, Turkey v Iceland.
Monday: Finland v Turkey, Iceland v Kosovo, Ukraine v Croatia.
South America (Conmebol)
The round-robin format has once again thrown up a few surprises, with only Brazil guaranteed a place in Russia. Uruguay are in pole position to join them with one victory against either of the bottom two, Venezuela (away) or Bolivia (home), likely to be enough given their superior goal difference. After that it gets much more complicated, with six teams still in with a chance of claiming the other two spots. Thursday’s fixtures will be crucial, with third-placed Colombia having the chance to eliminate visiting Paraguay in Barranquilla and Chile – currently sixth – facing a similar scenario if they can beat Ecuador in Santiago. Argentina’s clash with fourth-placed Peru at the Bombonera in Buenos Aires is the pick of the round, with the side who went into qualifying as the No1-ranked in the world currently occupying the playoff position. A victory there for Jorge Sampaoli’s side would mean another win in their final match, in Paraguay, would be enough to secure automatic qualification. Chile could join them if
they can beat Brazil away from home on Tuesday. Anything else may open the door for Peru, who face Colombia in Lima in their final match. The side that ends up fifth will face Oceania winners New Zealand in a playoff, with the first leg scheduled to take place on 6 November.
Thursday: Venezuela v Uruguay, Chile v Ecuador, Colombia v Paraguay, Argentina v Peru, Bolivia v Brazil.
Tuesday: Brazil v Chile, Ecuador v Argentina, Paraguay v Argentina, Peru v Colombia, Uruguay v Bolivia.
Only one round of fixtures will take place this week, with the sixth and final matches of the third round slated for 6 and 7 November. Only the five teams who finish top of their groups will make it through.
Group A Leaders Tunisia could guarantee a place in Russia by beating Guinea in Conakry on Saturday although a victory for DR Congo in the Tunisian city of Monastir would give them a chance of making it next month.
Saturday: Guinea v Tunisia; Libya v DR Congo
Group B Nigeria can become the first African nation to qualify with a victory at home over second-placed Zambia. Defeat would leave all to play for in the final round of matches, when the Super Eagles travel to already-eliminated Algeria and Zambia entertain the African champions, Cameroon, who are also already out.
Saturday: Nigeria v Zambia, Cameroon v Algeria.
Group C In theory all four teams can still qualify but Mali need to beat the leaders, Ivory Coast, in Bamako on Friday to keep alive their faint hopes, while second-placed Morocco host Gabon in Casablanca on Saturday knowing they have a chance to seize control of the group before their fixture in Ivory Coast next month.
Friday: Mali v Ivory Coast. Saturday: Morocco v Gabon.
Group D Burkina Faso’s appeal against Fifa’s decision to order a replay of the match between South Africa and Senegal following the banning of a referee has complicated matters, with the top three now only separated by a single point. Cape Verde’s home fixture against Senegal – for whom the former Watford loanee M’Baye Niang may make his debut – could allow them to establish an advantage, although this group looks certain to go to the last kick even if the court of arbitration for sport upholds the Burkinabe’s appeal.
Friday: South Africa v Burkina Faso, Cape Verde v Senegal.
Group E Egypt, Uganda and Ghana are all vying for top spot, with the latter two’s showdown on Saturday one of the biggest fixtures of the weekend. The Pharaohs will be expected to beat eliminated Congo on Sunday, meaning a draw in Kampala would guarantee them a first finals appearance since 1990.
Saturday: Uganda v Ghana. Sunday: Egypt v Congo
North and Central America (Concacaf)
With Mexico already having booked their place, the other two qualifiers will be determined over the next two rounds, as will the identity of the nation to face a playoff against the winners of the Asian play-off between Australia and Syria. Costa Rica are guaranteed fourth place at least, with victory or a draw at home to Honduras meaning they would secure an automatic spot. Third-placed Panama play the USA in Orlando in another crucial match, with the former hoping to make it to the finals for the first time in their history. USA will still fancy their chances, however, given their final fixture is against already-eliminated Trinidad and Tobago, with Panama entertaining Costa Rica and Honduras at home to Mexico on Tuesday.
Saturday: USA v Panama, Mexico v Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica v Honduras.
Tuesday: Honduras v Mexico, Panama v Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago v USA.
Last month’s fixtures secured finals spots for Japan, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, meaning Australia must now get past Syria in their two-leg playoff to set up a meeting with the fourth-placed Concacaf side. The first leg takes place in Krubong, Malaysia, on Thursday before the return in Sydney.
Thursday: Syria v Australia. Tuesday: Australia v Syria.
Source: The Guardian