Barely 15 months from the World Cup in Russia, club football takes a hiatus and we return to international football in search of the teams who will make it to the 2018 extravaganza.
Yet, as continental qualification in Europe are heading into its fifth matchday, South America, Oceania and Asia approach the business end of the competition with every point being fought for.
The process which started in March 2015 with 210 teams vying for 31 spots has reached its two-thirds stage in terms of matches played, 561 out of a total of 851 matches having taken place to find the teams which will join Russia.
There is nothing in the sporting world as diverse and on the scale of World Cup qualification with 1631 goals scored so far across six continents, with 1850 yellow and 92 red cards shown.
Asia has witnessed a 86% completion rate in its qualification process, the highest of any of the confederations and has only 32 matches left in selecting it’s four representatives plus the one team contesting the playoff.
A hundred and eight teams are still in contention with no teams having been eliminated in Europe and South America. With the latter approaching its 13th matchday, the world’s toughest qualification process may throw up some answers. All confederations barring Africa are scheduled to play this international break.
European race hits his halfway mark
In July 2015, when the draw was made for European qualification was made, the nine top seeds placed in Pot 1 were: Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, England, Wales, Spain and Croatia.
As of March 2017, only three of those teams do not lead their respective groups after three of nine matchdays played. The Netherlands, one of these three has suffered the biggest fall from grace, failed to qualify for an expanded 24-team Euros tournament after reaching the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
France, ranked 22nd in the world and in pot two, reached the finals of the Euros on home soil and look favourites to win Group A after a 1-0 away win against the Dutch in Amsterdam. Considering that the best eight runners-up compete for four spots in the finals, the Netherlands will be desperate to put some daylight between themselves and Sweden.
Euro winners Portugal lost to Switzerland on the opening matchday and are three points behind them in Group B. It looks like the battle to decide the winner of this group will go till the last matchday of the group when the Portuguese host the Swiss.
The match of the round is taking place in Dublin as Wales travel to face group leaders Republic of Ireland. Chris Coleman’s men surprised everybody by reaching the semifinals of the Euros but find themselves in third in the group after dropping points to Georgia and Serbia at home.
A negative result could see the Welsh fighting for a runners-up spot in the group instead and a playoff to get to their first World Cup since 1958.
Spain host Israel in Group G, the latter just one point behind La Furia Roja and Italy, waiting for a slip-up from the two above them in the table. Everyone’s second favourite team and Euro quarterfinalists Iceland are third in Group I, behind Croatia and Ukraine and must beat UEFA’s newest member, Kosovo to keep pace with the top two.
Brazil comfortable, Argentina need two on two
The Selecao, are finally moving on from their 7-1 humiliation back home as they are on a six-match winning streak scoring 17 goals and conceding just one to storm to the top of the World Cup qualification charts. These games have incidentally, been the first six of new coach Tite’s reign.
It’s 1 vs 2 in South America as Uruguay host the leaders in Montevideo and Luis Suarez and Co. will be looking to bounce back from their 3-1 defeat at the hands of Chile who take on Argentina in Buenos Aires on the 23rd. Sitting fourth and fifth respectively in the table, it’s a must-not-lose clash for both teams looking to avoid the play-off.
La Albiceleste have witnessed turmoil this previous year with their talisman Lionel Messi announcing and then reversing his international retirement and a new coach in Edgardo Bauza. Playing Bolivia in La Paz on the 28th, at the site of one of their worst showings in recent times, a 6-1 defeat suffered during 2010 World Cup qualification, Argentina need two wins in two to give themselves some breathing space.
With two matchdays also to be played in Asia, the race for the four automatic qualification spots heats up with Group B being the tighest, where four teams are neck-and-neck for the top two places in the group.
Japan travel to Al Ain to take on the United Arab Emirates, the surprise package who shocked the seven-time qualifiers 2-1 in Saitama on the opening matchday. Heavyweights Australia also dropped two points to bottom placed Thailand in a 2-2 draw last time around and welcome the UAE to Sydney on the 28th, after going up against Iraq five days earlier.
Elsewhere, USA are in early trouble, having lost both of their matches in CONCACAF qualification. With the top three from the region qualifying directly, the Stripes and Stars must move on after Jurgen Klinsmann’s departure and try to beat Panama and Honduras in order to force themselves into the reckoning for Russia 2018.
A lot of questions may be answered this week as teams with serious aspirations of lifting the trophy in Russia look to take giant strides towards cementing a place in the final 32. The Race to Russia is well and truly on, and 90 minutes could or break a team’s fight towards world football’s most coveted prize.