And we’re back! The September phase of 2018 World Cup qualifying just completed, so we’re entering the home stretch. In this edition, we’ll review the events of the past week, and then in a separate post we’ll talk about qualification scenarios entering the final matches.
First, let’s congratulate those who just punched their ticket to Russia: Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
Next, our condolences to the countries that were eliminated: Gibraltar, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Andorra, Libya, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Hungary, Belarus, Romania, Armenia, Norway, Czech Republic, Azerbaijan, Guinea, Estonia, Israel, Solomon Islands, Venezuela, Bolivia, Congo, Cameroon, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, China, and Uzbekistan.
We start, as usual, in Asia.
The AFC Third Round concluded, with four teams qualifying, six being eliminated, and another two moving on to a playoff. In Group A, Iran and South Korea topped the group, with Syria eking out Uzbekistan on goal differential. On the one hand, Uzbekistan couldn’t punch a goal at home against South Korea, but on the other this is the second qualification cycle in which the Uzbeks have come up short. (In 2014, they made the playoff round, which was tied 2-2 after both legs, necessitating penalty kicks. After nine rounds, Jordan prevailed 9-8.) China also finished only a point behind Syria and Uzbekistan, which is by far their best result since making the 2002 World Cup. 2022 hosts Qatar went out with a whimper, finishing last in the group and dropping their last two matches to Syria and China.
In Group B, the three that were expected to finish in the top three finished in the top three, but perhaps not in the order expected: Japan won the group with 20 points, but Saudi Arabia and Australia finished with 19, with the Saudis prevailing on goal differential.
Thus, Syria and Australia will play two matches in October to determine who gets to play the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF. Who will that be? Well, read on.
African qualifying resumed after a nine-month hiatus, and it was a doozy. We’ll cover each of the five groups.
In Group A, the bottom two teams were eliminated. Group leaders Tunisia and DR Congo played each other twice, with Tunisia coming out ahead with 4 points to DR Congo’s 1. They’ll each go on the road in October and then return home in November. If Tunisia can hold serve, they’ll punch their ticket to the World Cup.
Group B saw the highest-rated team in Africa at the time of the draw get eliminated, as Algeria only has 1 point through four matches. Instead, it’ll be either Nigeria or Zambia, with Nigeria currently up by 3 points. Nigeria gets Zambia at home in October, so they can clinch qualification with a win.
Group C is a bit tighter, with the Ivory Coast holding a one-point lead over Morocco and a two point lead over Gabon. This group will likely come down to the Ivory Coast’s home game against Morocco in November.
Group D is the most competitive group in Africa, with Burkina Faso and Cape Verde tied on six points, and Senegal right behind with five. However, there was even more drama introduced recently when South Africa’s 2-1 win over Senegal was annulled in a recent decision due to the referee having been banned due to “unlawful influence” of the result. The upshot of which is that the match will have be replayed in November, so if Senegal can’t clinch before then, they’ll have one last chance to do so, unless Burkina Faso or Cape Verde win both of their upcoming qualifiers. Either way, no one can clinch this group before November.
In Group E, the headline isn’t that Egypt is on nine points and topping the group, it’s that Ghana has only five points. Egypt gets a home match against last-place Congo in October, while Ghaha has to go on the road to Uganda, likely needing a win and an Egypt loss or tie to stay alive.
Sigh. Things had gone well so far this year for the US national team: a 6-0 drubbing of Honduras, points on the road at Panama and Mexico, and a Gold Cup win. Relatively speaking, we’d been rolling, the shame of the losses last November nearly erased. Then we couldn’t do anything offensive against Costa Rica in New Jersey and lost 2-0. For the first 84 minutes in San Pedro Sula, it looked like disaster was the order of the day. A loss would make it very hard for the US to qualify directly and even making a fourth place finish questionable. Then this happened:
And thus, our bacon was saved. At least for now.
Mexico qualified and is leading the table with 18 points. Costa Rica nearly qualified, but their 1-1 draw at home against Mexico prevented them from sealing the deal. Panama is in third with 10 points after beating last place Trinidad and Tobago, which enabled them to pass the US, who are now in fourth with 9 points. Honduras also has nine points, but the US is still ahead on goal differential.
Overall, the main surprising result was Costa Rica’s 2-0 win over the US. This makes for plenty of drama in the final set of qualifiers to be played next month, which we’ll discuss further as get closer.
There will be no greater casualty of World Cup expansion than the loss of the South American qualifiers. I’ve talked about this before, but there is a certain elegance in its simplicity. 10 teams play a double round-robin (so 18 matches). The top four teams qualify, while the fifth place team also will probably qualify, just they have to go to New Zealand first. You, as a wisecracking American sports fan, may note that half the teams will qualify, just like in the NHL and NBA’s diluted playoffs. And you’d be correct. Except that World Cup bids aren’t really distributed fairly, because if they were South America would probably have more bids. This article covers the intensity in better depth, but the upshot is that six of the top 20 teams in the world are in South America per FIFA’s Rankings, which is better than any of the highest ranked African or Asian teams.
While order may seem restored at first, with Brazil at the top of the table 10 points clear of the next closest team, Uruguay. And yes, that’s the case. But seven point is all that separates the second place team and the eight placed team, Ecuador. The current Copa America champions, Chile, are in sixth, which means if the qualification ended today they wouldn’t be in the World Cup. The best player in the world might have to fly to New Zealand to see his team through. Venezuela and Bolivia are eliminated, but that doesn’t mean they’re just laying down. Venezuela forced third placed Colombia into a 0-0 draw at home, and then went on the road and were actually leading 1-0 over Argentina before conceding an own goal for a 1-1 draw. Bolivia? Yeah, they lost on the road at Peru, but all they did after that was beat the continental champions Chile 1-0 at home. Like I said, these two teams have already been eliminated.
In other words, unless you’re Brazil in this cycle, nothing is easy. We’ll talk scenarios in a few weeks.
New Zealand formalized their advancement to the inter-confederation playoffs by thumping the Solomon Islands 8-3. They’ll play the fifth placed team from South America in November.
The wheat started to separate from the chaff a little bit in Europe, but no one other Belgium clinched. Let’s go over the groups real quick-like, and we’ll talk shop on what the remaining teams need to do in a couple of weeks.
- In Group A, group leaders Sweden and France faltered a bit. Sweden lost 3-2 to Bulgaria on the road, and France somehow couldn’t produce a goal at home against Luxenbourg, which has to be somewhere up there on the all-time list of international soccer upsets. Nonetheless, time is running out for the Dutch, who lost 4-0 on the road to France. Three points behind Sweden, they no longer control their own destiny going into the final two matches.
- In Group B, Switzerland leads Portugal by three points, with all other teams eliminated. Provided nothing unexpected happens, Switzerland’s trip to Portugal will be the deciding contest.
- Group C is all but decided, with Germany and Northern Ireland advancing, and the Germans five points clear of the Irish.
- In Group D, Serbia is certain to advance, but Wales and Ireland lurk four and five points behind, respectively. Most likely, Wales and Ireland will be playing off for the second place spot in Cardiff.
- What’s going on in Group E? Well, a lot. Poland, Montenegro, and Demark are on 19, 16, and 16 points. Montenegro probably controls its own destiny the most, since it will get to play both of its competitors in October. Nonetheless, the Poles still control their own destiny.
- In Group F, England is probably secure, sitting on a five point advantage over Slovakia with two matches to play. Right behind Slovakia and tied on 14 points are Slovenia and Scotland.
- Group G remains Spain, Italy, and then everyone else. Spain emphasized the point by beating Italy 3-0 in Madrid, which means that the group is almost certainly going to finish in that order.
- In Group H, Belgium qualified, so that leaves Bosnia and Herzegovina up a point over Greece and four points above Cyprus for the possible playoff spot.
- And then there’s the Group of Chaos, Group I. Croatia and Iceland are tied on 16 points, but Croatia has the goal differential tiebreaker. Turkey and Ukraine are right behind with 14 points, and for those two you need to go the goals scored tie breaker. These teams all held serve at home in the last set of matches, which means that just about anything can happen in October.
That’s it for now. The list of teams should be updated soon, most likely by the time you read this. Soon, we’ll look ahead to what will be final chance for the rest of the field. Until then, stay tuned!