Less than one year from now, 32 teams will square off in the grandest tournament on Earth: the FIFA World Cup. Hosted by Russia, the planet’s best players will compete for the biggest prize in soccer, with all the passion and spectacle of the world stage. Now deep in the qualifying stages, each continent features exciting action full of all sorts of teams: young, up, and coming; established powers; and even disregarded, minuscule nations looking to shock the world.
Barring the worst scandal the sporting world has ever seen (even by FIFA’s standards), Russia will host the 2018 World Cup, meaning they have an automatic bid. This bodes well for the Russians, as they will skip the trials of qualification completely, and do not have to risk injury to key players. Captain Igor Akinfeev has made almost 100 international caps as the team’s goalkeeper, and the expected return of key veterans from previous international competitions, including Aleksandr Kerzhakov, the most prolific scorer in the country’s history, leaves the team with plenty of time to improve any relative inexperience on the offensive side.
Setup: Nine groups total play home and away matchups, with the group winners automatically qualifying for the Cup. The eight best runners up will play a two-legged playoff for the remaining four spots.
Through five qualifying games so far, France sit atop Group A with 13 points. An opening, goalless draw to Belarus was the only hiccup for Les Bleus, after which they won their next four games. Anchored by attackers Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud up front, goals are scored at a premium; a midfield that features Dimitri Payet, N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, and Paul Pogba dominates just as easily. Hugo Lloris remains the elite keeper that has secured the French defense for years. Sweden and Bulgaria are not far back on the table, but neither team looks capable of overtaking a squad as elite as France.
Switzerland may currently be positioned on Group B’s summit, but Portugal possess control of their World Cup destiny. An opening 2-0 loss to the Swiss may have marked the only difference so far between the two nations in the standings, but Portugal have an incredible +16 goal differential in just five games. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo has been godlike over the past four games, but there is so much more to this team that won last year’s European Championship. The defense, headed by Bruno Alves and Fábio Coentrão, has surrendered only one goal following the collapse to Switzerland, and João Moutinho has been a force in the midfield. The rematch against Switzerland will be in Portugal, and in such a close race for an automatic qualifying spot, it could honestly decide who goes on to win the group.
Already well out in front of their group after going five matches without a blemish, Germany look poised to defend their title in the upcoming World Cup. The balanced, possession-dominating play features world-class keeper Manuel Neuer in goal, with a defense in front that has only given up one goal in match play. An offense that averages 4 goals per game is led by scoring machine Thomas Müller. Youngsters Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler have already solidified significant roles, making Germany just as good, if not somehow even better, than the team that won it all in 2014.
With Serbia and the Republic of Ireland fighting for the top spot, Group D might end up just being a toss up. Defenders Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov anchor a back line that has secured a point from every game in qualifying so far. Forwards Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Mitrovic have each contributed 4 goals apiece to boost a capable attacking front. Group D does not feature much elite talent, and this puts Serbia in prime position to hold off the likes of Moldova, Austria, Wales, and Georgia and at least make a playoff spot. Barring any injuries, look for Serbia to edge out Ireland and win the group outright.
Like Ireland and Serbia in Group D, Poland’s rise to the top of Group E has been due to the lack of equal competition. Unlike Group D, Poland has no rival to hold off, as the current second place teams, Montenegro and Denmark, have accumulated a meager 7 points in five matches. A team that impressed in the 2016 Euros, the Pols are lead by the prolific Robert Lewandowski, who has already accumulated an astounding 8 goals in qualifying play. This lineup features a myriad of top-league talent, with the likes of D Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund), D Igor Lewczuk (Bordeaux), keeper Wojciech Szczesny (Roma), Napoli teammates F Arkadiusz Milik and midfielder Piotr Zielinski, and Jakub Blaszczykowski (Wolfsburg) all combining for a formidable side come World Cup time.
Aside from a scoreless draw with Slovenia, The Three Lions have breezed through qualifying so far. Manager Gareth Southgate has changed the lineups from game to game, but the talent of England’s roster is undeniable. Efforts by defenders John Stones and Gary Cahill, along with veteran keeper Joe Hart have resulted in an extraordinary total of zero goals allowed through five games. Forwards Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane can score almost at will, and a midfield comprised of Dele Alli and Adam Lallana control the pace of the game. Drawing from the talents of the Premier League, England have the ability to make it through qualifying unscathed.
Antonio Conte’s offseason departure to Chelsea seems to have had a minimal effect on Italy. Drawn into a tough qualifying group with Spain and spunky Israel, Italy have yet to lose. Featuring an impenetrable defense consisting of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and the immortal Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Italy are capable of shutting down even the most paramount of offenses. The Roma duo of Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi cement a patient and controlling midfield. Previously not known for offense outside of Ciro Immobile, young Andrea Belotti has already amassed 3 goals, adding depth to a historically weak part of the squad. Despite the Italian dominance in their group, they are currently second to Spain in Group G on goal differential. September 2nd will likely determine who grabs the automatic spot from the group, as Italy will have to win in Spain to take command of the group.
Roberto Martinez has found new life as Belgium’s manager after being fired from Everton, unlocking the potential of current Toffee Romelu Lukaku (6 goals, 1 assist). The Belgium roster features once in a generational talent, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Mousa Dembélé, Radja Nainggolan, Thibaut Courtois, Dires Mertens, and Kevin Mirallas on roster. Belgium sport one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the world, but every major competition has seen them bow out before making a deep run. Aside from a draw with Greece, no opponent has stood much of a chance against Belgium; Cyprus, Bosnia, Estonia, and Gibraltar have been outscored 21-1. Challenging road games against Greece and Bosnia remain, but Belgium seem destined for a World Cup birth.
While Iceland, Turkey, and even Ukraine are within striking distance of the Group I lead, Croatia seem to possess a commanding advantage. A 6-0 throttling of Kosovo left Croatia with the majority of its +10 goal differential, so even a loss to Iceland alone would not be enough to relinquish Croatia’s hold on the group. Thanks in large part to the heroics of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, and Luka Modric, Croatia have established themselves as a team capable of both shutdown defense and enough offense to secure points.
Setup: North America sends three teams to the World Cup, so the top three teams in the group of six will advance automatically. Additionally, a fourth team advances to a playoff round against the Asian playoff team.
Yet to lose through four qualifying matches, Mexico have established themselves as heavy favorites to advance, and their impressive play indicates no chance of them slowing down. Wins over Costa Rica, the United States, and Trinidad & Tobago have propelled Mexico to the height of the CONCACAF table, and with qualifying nearly halfway done, Mexico seem to be a clear lock for World Cup play. Different players have scored all five goals, and a lone Bobby Wood goal has been the only thing to get past the goalkeeping rotation of Alfredo Talavera and Guillermo Ochoa. Blessed with talent across the board and depth at every position, Mexico will look to contend for more than just the Round of 16 this time around.
2. Costa Rica
Surprising the world with a run to the quarterfinals in 2014, Costa Rica appear to be a lock for another World Cup appearance. With a 4-0 drubbing of the States early in qualifying action, Costa Rica proved the team possesses the ability to score when needed, and can dominate a game if overlooked by an opponent. Midfielder Christian Bolaños’ offensive performances (2 goals, 3 assists) have had a hand in over half the squad’s goals, and Joel Campbell has added two of his own. Allowing less than a goal per game, Costa Rica possess a well-rounded team, and the experience of 2014’s run will be priceless down the stretch of qualifying.
3. United States
Overcoming a horrendous start and the ouster of head coach Jurgen Klinsmenn, America showed its resiliency and talent with a recent 6-0 win over Honduras and drawing on the road with Panama to climb into fourth place in the group. The return of Clint Dempsey has been a godsend, as he scored four goals over those two games after coming back from heart problems, and young Christian Pulisic is playing at an elite level previously unseen for an American player his age. The Americans still possess many problems, notably the inconsistent play of midfielder Michael Bradley and the aging of key veterans. A rough schedule remains, so the Yanks will have to play at their best to keep an automatic spot.
Setup: The ten South American teams play each other in both a home and an away match, for a total of eighteen matches. The top four teams in this singular group directly qualify for the World Cup, while the fifth place team enters a playoff battle with the winner of the Oceania region.
Having already secured enough points to qualify for the World Cup, a dominant Brazil side has brushed aside their competition, posting an incredible record of 10-3-1 in the fourteen matches played thus far. Boasting an offense that scores 2.5 goals per game, Brazil feature a plethora of talent up front, including Barcelona forward Neymar (6 goals, 6 assists), Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino, and young Manchester City prodigy Gabriel Jesus (5 goals, 3 assists). With world-class superstar defenders like Juve’s Dani Alves, Real Madrid’s Marcelo, PSG’s Thiago Silva, and Chelsea’s David Luiz, the Canarinho look poised to make another deep run in what will be their twenty-first World Cup berth. Hopefully this time around nobody puts seven past the defense.
Looking to build off a thrilling Copa América Centenario championship, Chile now find themselves in position to directly qualify for the upcoming World Cup. The final four games on the schedule include three teams in the bottom half of the table (Paraguay, @Bolivia, Ecuador), and a road matchup against Brazil will likely conclude qualifying matches. Led by Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez (6 goals, 4 assists) and Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal (6 goals), Chile boast a potent offense that at times has slashed though the best teams of South America. Combining that with the elite talent of Man City keeper Claudio Bravo and defenders Gonzalo Jara (101 caps), Gary Medel (Inter Milan), and Mauricio Isla (Cagliari) on the defensive side, Chile look to be one of the more complete teams in the world, and therefore should move up in the standings.
Currently sitting in second place, the Colombian squad possesses talent at every position. Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Ospina combines with defenders Cristián Zapata (Milan) and Santiago Arias of PSV to form an intimidating backline, while the talented midfield of James Rodríguez (Golden Boot winner in the 2014 World Cup), Carlos Sánchez (Fiorentina), and Juan Cuadrado (Juventus) creates plenty of scoring opportunities for the deadly forwards Carlos Bacca (Milan) and Colombia’s all-time leading scorer Radamel Falcao (Monaco). A third place showing in last year’s Copa América proves this team can compete with CONMEBOL’s best, so a tough final four games should not be much of a problem.
The fate of Argentina seemed up in the air just a few months ago when FIFA suspended Lionel Messi four games for insulting a referee. With the team currently sitting in the fifth spot in the group, it appeared that Argentina ran the risk of dropping a few spots and missing the World Cup entirely. Luckily, the ban was completely overturned, meaning the Argentines will have one of the two best players in the world eligible for the homestretch of World Cup qualifying. When fully healthy, Argentina boast such an incredible lineup even without Messi. Defenders Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Nicolás Otamendi (Man City), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Ramiro Funes Mori (Everton), Marcos Rojo (Man U), and Pablo Zabaleta (West Ham) create such a depth of top-tier talent that it is no wonder Argentina have shut out six of their opponents. As for the goal scoring, Ángel Di María (PSG), Éver Banega (Inter), Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), Paulo Dybala (Juve), and Sergio Agüero (Man City) complement Messi’s potent scoring abilities. If Argentina can stop losing winnable games, they should easily gain points on the teams in front of them.
Setup: Now in the final stage, the Asian side of World Cup Qualifying features two groups of six teams. The top two finishers in each group will directly qualify for the World Cup, while both third place teams will square off in a two game playoff round, with the winner playing CONCACAF’s fourth place team in another playoff matchup.
Riding a six match unbeaten run, Japan find themselves at the top of Group B, holding off Saudi Arabia on a slim goal differential margin. The Samurai Blue boast a potent offense, spearheaded by Hertha Berlin striker Genki Haraguchi (4 goals), Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki, and Dortmund attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa. Averaging 2.0 goals per game, Japan’s defensive resolve will be tested with upcoming matches against experienced Australia and high-scoring Saudi Arabia.
The only remaining undefeated team of Group A, Iran looked poised to become the first Asian team to punch their ticket into the 2018 World Cup. Thanks to a stifling defense led by veteran Jalal Hosseini, Iran have yet to allow a single goal in seven games. Young players Sardar Azmoun (22, FC Rostov), Saeid Ezatolahi (20, Anzhi Makhachkala), and Mehdi Taremi (24) have been infused into the lineup, adding both talent into the lineup and legitimate rays of hope for the future of a nation with only one World Cup win to date.
3. South Korea
An embarrassing loss to China has kept South Korea from keeping pressure on the group leaders, to the point where they sit just one point above Uzbekistan for second in Group A. Headed by the trio of Premier Leaguers Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea), Lee Chung-yong (Crystal Palace), and Son Heung-min (Tottenham), South Korea boast plenty of experience and talent across the midfield. Other top-flight players in FC Augsburg teammates Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won round out the elite talent on this roster. Despite their talent, every match but a 0-0 draw with Syria has been decided by one goal, signifying South Korea may not be well-rounded enough to compete with the higher level of talent in the World Cup.
While still undefeated through seven games, Australia find themselves as the third place team in Group B, and the fact that they have more draws (4) than wins (3) is a big reason why. Aston Villa midfielder Mile Jedinak leads the team with three goals, while forwards Matthew Leckie and Tomi Juric have two apiece. The diminished role of aging veterans like Tim Cahill and Mark Milligan have left the Socceroos without the firepower needed to break away from competition. With this in mind, Australia would need to win all three of its upcoming games (Saudi, Japan, Thailand) in order to vault up to second place.
Setup: The final stage of CAF qualifying features five groups of four, with the five group winners advancing straight to the World Cup.
1. Democratic Republic of Congo
Benefiting from a weak qualifying group, Congo have already amassed a +6 goal differential in just two games. Everton midfielder Yannick Bolasie and West Brom midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu lead a strong team that can dominate possession, and Hull striker Dieumerci Mbokani anchors an explosive attack more than capable of lighting up the scoreboard. DRC may not make much of a run in the World Cup, but just making it would be monumental for a country that has been mostly insignificant on the world soccer stage.
Despite being sorted into Group B, where three of the four teams qualified for the 2014 World Cup, Nigeria have amassed a large lead through just two games. One of the youngest teams in the world (no frequently-used player is older than 30), the Super Eagles have ridden the successes of their youth to become one of the most intriguing teams in Africa and possess loads of potential. Captain Jon Obi Mikel provides much needed experience to the midfield, but young Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses, and Kelechi Iheanacho combine with former Watford stalwart Odion Ighalo to provide Nigeria with plenty of offensive firepower.
3. Ivory Coast
With much of the squads that lit up African competition for the past decade retired, the Ivory Coast find themselves with plenty of their signature offensive firepower, but a rather weak defense. Talented Wilfried Zaha joins established veterans Salomon Kalou, Seydou Doumbia, Wilfred Bony, and Gervinho on the attack, while Serey Die and Max Gradel provide experience to a plethora of young talent at midfield. The retirements of CDM Yaya Toure, CB Kolo Toure, and GK Boubacar Barry, however, leave Côte d’Ivoire thin at already weak positions. PSG’s Serge Aurier and Man U’s Eric Bailly provide some talent across the Ivorian defense, but an overall lack of depth and talent along the back will spell trouble for Les Éléphants in the World Cup.
In Group D, three distinct teams each have a legitimate shot at winning the direct bid to the World Cup: Senegal features the star studded players of Europe’s top flights; South Africa has talent spread across its lineup from the country’s respectable Premier Soccer League; and Burkina Faso feature plenty of invaluable guidance from experienced veterans. The most complete of these teams would have to be Senegal, who, despite an early loss to South Africa, only find themselves a point away from leading the group. Their star-studded lineup includes the likes of Everton midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye, Liverpool forward Sadio Mané, Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, and Stoke City forward Mame Diouf. With two upcoming matches against Burkina Faso during the dying days of summer, Senegal have plenty of time and opportunities to take the Group D lead.
Looking to qualify for just their third World Cup since being founded in 1920, Egypt are riding the backs of their established veterans to the top of Group E. Abdallah Said and Roma forward Mohamed Salah have been sensational, both scoring two goals each through a pair of qualifying matches. The rest of the roster features an extraordinary amount of experience, with GK Essam El Hadary at the young age of 44 (153 caps), RB Ahmed Fathy (120 caps), Hull City fullback Ahmed El Mohamady (74 caps), Mohamed Abdel Shafy (45 caps), and Arsenal’s Mohamed El Nenny (52 caps) consisting of the team’s core. With such proven capability, Egypt have both the stability and offense to make some noise come next summer.
Setup: The final stage of Oceania qualifying consists of two groups of three, with every team playing the other two twice. The group winners then face off in a two-game playoff, with the victors playing the fifth place CONMEBOL team for a spot in the World Cup.
New Zealand def. Papua New Guinea
Having already played their games for this stage, New Zealand can sit back and relax, knowing that the ten points they secured from four games will be enough to get them past fellow Group A competitors Fiji and New Caledonia. Youth abounds on this All Whites squad, with most of the key players under the age of 30. No world-class talent resides on the roster, but the likes of Marco Rojas (3 goals) and Ryan Thomas (2 goals) provide plenty of offense for a side that has dominated the lesser competition of Oceania.
While New Zealand have dominated Group A, Group B has been much more chaotic. All three teams have traded wins and losses, yet Tahiti find themselves atop the group. However, they sit just three points ahead of the Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; Tahiti have completed their four games, but PNG and the Solomon Islands play each other twice more. Needing to win one game and just secure a draw in the other, PNG sit in prime position to unseat Tahiti when the dust settles. No matter what happens, none of these teams stand a match against New Zealand, and they will quickly fold in the Oceania playoff.
Currently fending off fellow Group A members Bulgaria and the Netherlands, Sweden sit in second place, and while it appears they have what it takes to become a World Cup-quality team, a previous loss to France makes it unlikely the Swedes make win the group outright. The future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international career has been up in the air since last summer, and he has already said he will not play any qualifying matches. His absence from the offense has not been felt though, as Sweden has 10 goals through five matches. Seven different players have scored so far, with Emil Forsberg leading the pack with three. Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson and defenders Andreas Granqvist, Victor Lindelof, and Martin Olsson, bring an experience to the back, while midfielders Sebastian Larsson and Pontus Wernbloom create plenty of scoring opportunities. Sweden’s youth teams are among the best in the world, so plenty of help could make its way into the senior ranks before 2018.
Currently holding a three point edge over Portugal for the Group B lead, Switzerland will have the massive pressure to not drop any points, as Portugal have a goal differential over twice that of the Swiss. With Group B qualifying to conclude with an epic matchup between both nations in Portugal, it becomes hard to determine which one will qualify and which one has to go through the playoff round. In a lineup where nine different players have scored, big names like Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri will have to step up in moments with everything on the line.
3. Northern Ireland
Despite being slotted into the same group as Germany, Northern Ireland seem like clear favorites to advance to the playoff round by sheer process of elimination. Not to say that Norn Iron aren’t a solid team in their own right, but the bottom four teams of Group C simply don’t have the talent to compete. San Marino and Norway have been all but eliminated, Azerbaijan possess a negative goal differential, and Czech Republic have scored in just two matches. The Irish have plenty of Premier League talent spread through the roster: West Brom defenders Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley lead a solid defensive lineup that have only surrendered two goals (both to Germany) in five games, midfielders Steven Davis (Southampton) and Chris Brunt (also West Brom) help establish possession, and, while he doesn’t play in the EPL, Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has already netted three goals.
4. Republic of Ireland
Not really considered a European soccer powerhouse, Ireland benefit from playing in a winnable group. Currently tied with Serbia at the top of Group D, Ireland have the advantage of a home matchup against Serbia in mid-September. Seamus Coleman’s leg injury is a brutal loss for the back line, but the defense held its ground after he left the game. Fellow defenders Paul McShane and Ciaran Clark will have to step up in his absence, and veteran CB John O’Shea will look to keep up his presence in defense. Ireland have struggled to score, as finding a replacement for national legend Robbie Keane has proved difficult.
After failing to earn a point, or even score a single goal, in their first two qualifying matchups, Slovakia seemed destined for a quick and humiliating elimination. However, these early failures only lit a fire under the Slovaks, who then rattled off three convincing wins over lesser opponents, with striker Adam Nemec scoring in each match and adding two assists. Six other players scored in those matches, and impressive play in the defense, led by captain and former Liverpool center back Martin Škrtel, has resulted in only three surrendered goals through five games. A home rematch with Slovenia on September 1st will more than likely determine who advances, but Slovakia have already amassed an impressive goal differential of +7 that may come into play in the event they drop a couple of points.
Scoring an astounding 19 goals in their first five games, Spain look like one of the most complete teams in the world with just under a year left until the World Cup. Unfortunately, they were drawn into a group with Italy, so they will still have to fight in every game if they want to win Group G outright. Featuring world-class talent at every position, Spain feature a laundry list of premier talent. Defenders Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba, along with keeper David De Gea, form the backbone of a defense that has only allowed two goals, while attackers David Silva, Andrés Iniesta, and Diego Costa combine to form one of the most imposing offenses in the world. While nothing is certain in soccer, the unfortunate team that runs into the Group G runner-up will almost certainly watch a thrilling 2018 World Cup from the comforts of home.
7. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Group H has turned into a three team race, with only two tickets out of the group. Belgium have yet to create much separation, but their talent remains undeniable; they will surely win the group. That leaves just Greece and their Mediterranean neighbors for one spot in the playoffs, and on paper Bosnia seem to hold the edge in both talent and experience. After failing to advance to Euro 2016, Bosnia will look to qualify for just their second World Cup and improve upon the three points they earned in 2014. The young country boasts an impressive lineup, with forwards Edin Džeko (Roma) and Vedad Ibišević (Hertha Berlin) each scoring three goals so far, Juve’s Miralem Pjanić assisting on an impressive five goals in five matches, and former Stoke City keeper Asmir Begović posting three shutouts. Bosnia usually have no problems scoring, but questions in the midfield and defense might create potential problems in edging out Greece. Both teams square off for the final time in qualifying on June 9th, and it will almost certainly determine who should advance.
Everybody’s favorite scrappy little underdogs just have to make it, right? The Euro 2016 darlings stole everybody’s hearts through a heavy defensive focus, methodical offensive pace, and opportunistic set piece goals. Most of all, they played on the backs of their supporters, the 300,000 rabid fans of a small island nation. This time around, Iceland find themselves in winnable Group I, but the early dominance of Croatia does not seem likely to wear off soon. Through five games, the Strákarnir Okkar have not taken full advantage of their easy schedule, barley edging out cellar dwellers Finland and Kosovo, while hanging on to draw against a beatable Ukraine. The defense that was so stellar in the Euros, led by Hannes Halldórsson, Kari Arnason, Ari Skúlason, and Ragnar Sigurdsson, has been a near liability, giving up six goals to lesser talent. Alfred Finnbogason leads the squad with three goals so far, and star Gylfi Sigurdsson has played marvelously in combination with Jóhann Gudmundsson and Birkir Bjarnason in the midfield. As long as Iceland wins the games they have to without losing to Croatia, Iceland should advance out of the group just fine.
Missing out: Denmark
As previously mentioned, Group E pathetically lacks much world-class talent, so while giants like Italy and Spain battle it out for one direct qualification spot, Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, and Armenia (with a combined 26 points from 20 matches between them) will battle it out for second place. Denmark will likely get the nod, as they have some talent spread sporadically across the lineup. Led by Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, Denmark should not play a hapless style of soccer, but they will be far from elite or deserving of a spot in the World Cup. Luckily, the rules of UEFA qualification eliminate the weakest group runner up, so a mediocre team like Denmark will not make the second round of European qualifying at the same time as a solid Greece is eliminated due to a much higher level of talent to deal with.
Currently sitting at third place in the CONCACAF standings, Panama hold a mere 1-point advantage over the persistent Americans, and it remains only a matter of time until that lead collapses. Panama play well at home, having secured draws with Mexico and the US, but fail to impress on the road. Anything noteworthy about a win over lowly Honduras was cancelled out when just four months later Panama were shut out in a loss to Trinidad & Tobago, the bottom team in the table. Scoring a measly two goals, Panama have had to rely on an impressive defense led by the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres. However, with four of the final six games remaining against elite competition and mostly on the road, it seems unlikely Panama can accumulate enough points to stave off an American surge. Rest assured Panamanians, for Honduras and Trinidad pose almost no threat to overtake La Marea Roja.
Riding the wave of Edinson Cavani’s 9 goals, Uruguay have climbed up to the third spot in CONMEBOL qualifying. However, this position has come in spite of La Celeste’s recent form, as three losses in a row look like an omen of things to come. The dominant attack of Cavani, Barcelona’s Luis Suárez, Cristian Rodríguez, and the Seattle Sounders’ Nicolás Lodeiro have combined to form the second best offense in South America, but inconsistencies from the defense, notably Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid), Martín Cáceres (Southampton), and Maxi Pereira (Porto), have compromised Uruguay’s ability to beat sound competition. With the way recent games have gone, it looks like Uruguay drop points in the coming matches and slip down to the playoff spot.
While the Saudis currently possess a two-point lead over third place Australia, their upcoming schedule may be too hard to hold off the Aussies. To their credit, Saudi Arabia has scored nearly two goals per game, thanks in large part to the four goals of Nawaf Al-Abid. This is a very experienced side, as five players have at least 60 caps, and some youth has begun to trickle into the rotation. However, that daunting schedule remains. A road matchup in Australia kicks off their final three games, followed by another road game versus a solid United Arab Emirates squad. Saudi Arabia do play their final game at home, but to the Group B-leading Japan.
A complete unknown to casual soccer fans, Uzbekistan has established themselves as a threat to qualify for the first ever World Cup appearance in the country’s history. There may be no star players on this roster, but captain Server Djeparov leads a motivated and feisty team that has scored in every match but one so far.
Playoff Teams to Qualify:
Setup: The eight teams to qualify for the playoffs are drawn into four separate matchups, with the top four teams with the most points in the first round being paired with a random partner from the remaining pot of four. These four matchups then play two games, with one team playing at home and then switching locations with their opponent. The team with the most aggregate goals from both games will advance. The four teams to advance will cover the final four European spots in the World Cup. At this point, these matchups are completely hypothetical, but would be fun to see actually happen.
(1) Spain def. Northern Ireland
Going up against a top-five team in all of Europe, Northern Ireland stand no chance of advancement, and are promptly brushed aside by dominant Spain. Sent home agonizingly short of another World Cup appearance, Northern Ireland will still take pride in the team’s defiance in the face of certain elimination, sneaking in a goal or two while containing the Spanish onslaught.
Sweden def. (2) Switzerland
In the first big surprise of the World Cup, Sweden shock the current Group B leaders to send them home in a show of how far Switzerland will fall from grace. Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes his triumphant return to international football, and he cuts through the opposing defense like Swiss cheese to score the go-ahead goal in the dying minutes of the second game.
(3) Bosnia & Herzegovina def. Slovakia
Taking on a resilient Slovakia team, Bosnia take no chances, jumping out to an early lead thanks to an Edin Džeko hat trick in Game 1. That is enough to send Bosnia and Herzegovina through to their second World Cup, and almost makes up for the turmoil the country experienced in the 1990s.
(4) Iceland def. Republic of Ireland
This matchup features plenty of goals, and the heroics of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late goal send Iceland through on aggregate. Iceland prove the importance of hard work and mental toughness against much more talented teams, appearing in their first ever World Cup against great odds.
CONCACAF v. AFC
Setup: The fourth place North American team (Panama) battles the winner of the Asian playoff between the third place teams in both groups (Saudi Arabia def. Uzbekistan) in a two-game playoff; the winner qualifies for the World Cup.
Panama def. Saudi Arabia
This matchup features two incredibly close games, but in the end the playmaking abilities of Panama provide the edge over a balanced Saudi squad. The guiding experience of GK Jaime Penedo, D Roman Torres, Midfielder Gabriel Gómez, F Luis Tejada, and FC Dallas legend Blas Pérez (all over 100 caps each) becomes the difference, and Panama rides the streaky shooting of Pérez to a World Cup berth.
CONMEBOL v. OFC
Setup: The winner of the Oceania region takes on the fifth place South American team, with the winner of the two-game playoff round advancing to the World Cup.
Uruguay def. New Zealand
New Zealand blew through Oceania qualifying, but they will face an entirely different monster when Luis Suarez & Co. come to town. Going up against such a potent offense and incredible talent disparity, this matchup may not even be close, with Uruguay easily dispatching of their island opponents.
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Published on 5/31/17 at 9:24 AM EDT.Share this post on:
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