Tuesday, May 30, 2017

2018 World Cup Update: The Field Narrows a Bit

Editor's note: I started writing this post a while back after the March qualifiers, but unfortunately I have been so busy with work and the few hours I've gotten outside of work lately that I've neglected the site. Since we're so close to the June qualifiers, I decided to finish the March post and then combine it with the preview for the upcoming qualifiers. So this post will be divided in two. Here's the review:

Just a quick update. Let's examine the action from March's set of qualifiers, leaving the June games for another post.

First, a quick farewell to the five teams that got eliminated on March 28th:
  • Thailand, which lost 3-0 at home to Saudi Arabia and currently are sitting on a single point from a shocking draw with Australia last November.
  • Bolivia got eliminated despite a 2-0 win at home over a Messi-less Argentina. How? It goes down to the matches involved. If Bolivia wins the rest of their matches, they could have 22 points, which would draw Argentina, who are currently in fifth place. It's not that simple, though. Argentina has 22 points currently and Ecuador has 20. Since Argentina and Ecuador still have one match to play, either Ecuador gets 23 points with a win, Argentina gets 25 points with a win, or Argentina gets 23 points with a draw. 
  • Venezuela's elimination, however, is much more straightforward. They lost 3-1 to Chile and simply cannot make up the remaining ground from 6 points with four matchdays remaining. Thus La Vinotinto will remain the only CONMEBOL team to have never qualified for the World Cup.
  • Down in the OFC, New Zealand swept their two matches with Fiji to get to 10 points, knocking both Fiji and New Caledonia out.
Meanwhile, we have our first team to qualify for Russia. Appropriately, they're also the only team to have played in every World Cup. That's right, it's Brazil! Last time around it was Japan during the June qualifiers. I'd say that's a job well done, especially considering the dogfight in the places below them.

Let's do a quick survey, as per usual. As noted, I'll do a preview before the June qualifiers, so no scenarios here.

This is going to sound kind of boring, but well, everything went pretty much according to plan. In Group A, everyone held serve at home except for Qatar, where a 1-0 loss to Iran helped hasten their elimination. China did score an upset of South Korea for their first win in this round of qualifying, but game was on the road. Things like that happen sometimes. (Also, China is improving. South Korea only won 3-2 at home thanks to an own goal.)

In Group B, Japan continued to take care of business. Australia slipped a little bit with a 1-1 draw to Iraq in Tehran (Iraq still plays their home games outside of the country) which still leaves the Socceroos 3 points behind... Saudi Arabia? Yep, the Saudis got to play Thailand (a 3-0 win in Bangkok) and got Iraq at home, getting themselves 6 points in the process.

On March 24th, I ventured down to San Jose with some buddies wherein we watched the US pound a suddenly hapless Honduras 6-0. Or maybe they weren't so hapless, because they managed to salvage a 1-1 draw four days in San Pedro Sula? 6 goals is still a lot of goals, though... and it did wonders for the US's goal differential, which has been awful after that 4-0 Costa Rica loss.

Panama managed to lose on the road at Trinidad and Tobago, and unfortunately their resolve was stiffened once they got back home to play the US, where they were able to hang on to a 1-1 draw. Mexico took care of business with a 2-0 win at the Azetca over Costra Rica and they managed to get a goal in Port of Spain to snag the 3 points.

The picture is a little more clear for the US now, as the four points allows us to get into fourth place. Panama is in third with, then seven for Costa Rica, and ten for Mexico.

As noted above, Brazil clinched qualification by continuing their run of wonderful form with a 4-1 win over Uruguay and a 3-0 win over Paraguay. Nice.

Not so nice are Argentina's continuing struggles. They were able to hold onto a 15th minute penalty conversion by Messi at home over Chile, but they absolutely fell on their faces five days later with a 2-0 loss to Bolivia. The result is that the Albicelestes are sitting in fifth, which is probably still good enough, but not where to you expect them to be. However, they might be able to take advantage of Uruguay's struggles. In addition to the loss to Brazil, they also lost 2-1 on the road to Peru.

Only four matchdays remain in South America, and they'll take the summer (well, their winter) off and result qualification at the end of August. The teams that haven't already qualified (Brazil) or been eliminated (Bolivia and Venezuela) are all within six points of each other in the table. My prediction? Drama a-plenty.

New Zealand beat Fiji twice to clinch advancement to the finals of the OFC process. Tahiti split their series with Papua New Guinea, which leaves them in a precarious spot that I'll talk in the preview post.

So there's nine groups of six teams each to try and cover here, so I'll try to hit the high notes. (Fortunately, each team only played one game.)
  • Group A: France and Sweden are the current group leaders, and maintained their form by beating Luxembourg and Belarus, respectively. The Dutch continue to struggle, losing 2-0 to Bulgaria and in serious danger of missing their first World Cup since 2002.
  • Group B: Switzerland is currently topping the group, and held serve at home by beating Latvia 1-0. Portugal is just 3 points behind, waiting to pounce.
  • Group C: Germany is running away with the group, 5 points ahead of Northern Ireland. The question is who is going to get second, and the answer is probably going to be either Northern Ireland or the Czech Republic.
  • Group D: This group is extremely tight. Serbia is currently ahead of Ireland on goal differential, and then four points behind them are Wales and Austria. It'll be interesting to see how this shakes out in June.
  • Group E: Poland has six points on the rest of the group and are thus far undefeated. I don't think that will change anytime soon.
  • Group F: England is four points ahead of Slovakia and five points ahead of Slovenia. That's a good lead for the Brits and they won't have to face either of those two on the road over the course of their remaining matches.
  • Group G: This group continues to be all about Spain and Italy. Both hae 13 points, but the Spanish have a commanding +17 goal differential to Italy's +9.
  • Group H: The Belgians hae a +20 goal differential, but unfortunately for them it's the points that matter, and they're only two ahead of Greece and three ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Really not helping was in their March home game against Greece, they wound up drawing 1-1.
  • Group I: Iceland is seeking to continue the feel good story of Euro 2016, and picked up a crucial 2-1 road win over Kosovo (in Albania). The team they're chasing is currently undefeated Croatia.
Having set the scene, let's proceed directly to our June preview.
Group A

  • Iran will qualify for the 2018 World Cup if they defeat Uzbekistan.
  • Qatar will be eliminated if they lose to or draw South Korea.
  • China will be eliminated if they lose to Syria.
  • China will be eliminated if they draw Syria and Uzbekistan draws or defeats Iran.
Group B
  • Iraq will be eliminated if they lose to or draw Japan.
  • United Arab Emirates will be eliminated if they lose to Thailand and Australia defeats Saudi Arabia.
  • Elsewhere, Australia and will play a crucial match with Saudi Arabia at home to try to get into a tie for one of the top two qualifying spots.
No one can get eliminated or qualify yet, but there's still plenty of pressure. On June 8th, the US absolutely has to pick up three critical points against Trinidad and Tobago. Costa Rica will try to hold serve against Panama, and Mexico gets Honduras at home. Due to Mexico's trip to Russia for the Confederations Cup, they will play the US on June 11th, where the US will attempt to do something they've only done a couple of times: get a point. Two days later, Panama gets a chance to pick up some points at home against Honduras, while Costa Rica should definitely get some points against T&T.

Group A: New Zealand has already clinched advancement to the final round.
Group B:
  • Tahiti will clinch advancement if Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands draw both their matches.
  • Either Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands will advance if they win both matches, or if one match is drawn and the other is won.
  • I'm not going to get into all the goal difference scenarios, just know that Papua New Guinea is at -1 and the Solomon Islands are at -2. This will be a lot easier to figure after the first game.
I'm not going to do elimination scenarios for Europe because there are too many right now, but let's take a quick look at what to watch for in June.
  • Group A: France is up three points on Sweden and plays in Sweden next. To stay at all relevant, the Dutch really need to pound Luxembourg. 
  • Group B: Group leaders Switzerland and Portugal both go on the road to play the Faroe Islands and Latvia, respectively. Expect both to win.
  • Group C: Germany will play San Marino, which will be a thing. More interestingly, Northern Ireland goes on the road to Azerbaijan, who might prove a bit frisky. Norway desperately needs a win at home, but they'll need to get it from the Czech Republic.
  • Group D: Remember the bit earlier about how the top two and then the next two teams are tied (on points) in this group? Well, conveniently the two last place teams play each other, so bring on first place Serbia hosting third place Wales and second place Ireland hosting fourth place Austria. These should be good.
  • Group E: Poland aims to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the group while Montenegro and Denmark will attempt to sort things out, but not against each toher.
  • Group F: Scotland host England and attempt to get payback for a 3-0 loss last year, but otherwise Slovenia and Slovakia should probably win.
  • Group G: Spain and Italy figure to remain tied on points after playing Macedonia and Liechtenstein, respectively.
  • Group H: Bosnia plays Greece at home, while Belgium figures to reap the benefits if they draw, as they have a plum road trip to go get some points at Estonia.
  • Group I: Iceland will attempt to draw even with Croatia at home and revenge an earlier 2-0 loss.