2018 World Cup Update: I Ran (So Far Away)

Okay folks, it’s time to run down the results and implications from the June international window. The September window is fast approaching, so we’ll break down things there while we’re at it.

First, let’s welcome Iran to the stage for their second straight appearance. Next, let’s say adios to the following countries: Iraq, Vanuatu, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Luxenbourg, San Marino, Malta, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Finland, and Kosovo.

As usual, let’s go in alphabetical order. Asia, you’re up!

The Asian Football Confederation is currently contesting its third round of qualification. There’s two groups of six teams. In Group A, Iran qualified directly for the World Cup finals with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan. Elsewhere, China drew Syria and South Korea suffered an upset with a loss to Qatar in Doha. Nonetheless, with two matches to go, the group seems to be setting up for a do-or-die match in Tashkent for Uzbekistan and South Korea on September 5th. Right now, the Koreans are a point ahead in the standings, but a lot can change. For the penultimate match, Korea plays Iran at home, a game that could go any way. The Koreans should well in at home, and some of it will depend on who Iran brings on the road, since they’ve already qualified. Uzbekistan has to go on the road, but they get to play China, a decidedly easier opponent. Again, I expect the scenarios going into the at Tashkent to be very interesting, and I may update if the situation warrants. The outcomes there are either direct qualification to the World Cup or a play-off against the third-place team in Group B.

So speaking of Group B, things are still tight. Japan leads the group with 17 points, but Saudi Arabia and Australia are just behind with 16. (The UAE is 6 points behind the Socceroos.) Australia won a crucial home game 3-2 against the Saudis, but Japan wound up drawing Iraq 1-1 on the road. Japan and Australia will play in Japan on August 31st, with Saudia Arabia going on the road to the UAE. Australia gets Thailand at home to close things out, while Saudi Arabia will play Japan. So… pretty much anything can happen.

The Confederation of African Football will finally resume qualification after being on hold since November 2016. There’s five groups of four, with the group winner advancing directly to the World Cup. With only two matches played so far and four to go, it’s hard to really make any predictions at this point, but there’ll be a lot more to say after the next week of qualifying.

The (clears throat) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football is contesting its fifth and final round of World Cup qualification. The top three teams of six qualify directly to the World Cup, while the fourth place team will have face a team from the AFC in a two-legged playoff in November. Let’s go in order.

Suffice it say, Mexico (in qualification, at least) has shrugged off whatever demons haunted them from the qualifying disaster of four years ago. Mexico is undefeated so far and faces only one difficult road game, at Costa Rica on September 5th. On the 1st, they get Panama at home, which could be challenging, but they should win. Currently three points ahead of Costa Rica at 14, they should wind up topping the group.

Costa Rica has 11 points, three behind Mexico and three ahead of the US. That could change in a hurry, though. The Costa Ricans go on the road to Harrison, New Jersey on September 1st and then get Mexico at home four days later. A result from either game would be absolutely fantastic for Los Ticos. Back in June, they drew Panama at home, but did get 3 points from a 2-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago.

The US did exactly what they needed to do back in June. Christian “The Prince” Pulisic did his thing:

Then just three short days later, Micheal Bradley did his best Carli Lloyd impersonation:

Look, your voice would crack too if you saw an American chip the keeper from 40 yards out at the Azteca.

Anyway, the Americans have a pair of tough but winnable games in September. First off, they face a bunch of Costa Ricans who probably haven’t forgotten about the SnowClassico from four years ago. Of course, the Americans hopefully haven’t forgotten about the 4-0 beatdown last November that was the final straw for Jurgen Klinsmann. The US should be favorites at home, though. They will then go on the road to face Honduras, which is always tough but the Hondurans have continued the slide they’ve been on since the 2014 World Cup.

Next up is Panama, who at seven points are a point behind the US. Panama figures to split the upcoming games, with a visit to the Azteca and a home game against Trinidad and Tobago. Their most crucial qualifiers appear to be in October, but for now they look pretty good to finish fourth and advance to the playoff.

Minding the bottom are Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, with 5 and 3 points, respectively. Both are in trouble. If Honduras can’t win at Trinidad and Tobago, then they will badly need a result against the US, though that game is at home. For T&T, things look pretty bleak. They’re not out, but they still have to play Costa Rica and Mexico on the road. The rest of the field figures to leave these two behind entering October.

Next up is the Confederation of South American Football. The format is as elegant as it is simple: nine teams play home-and-home matches. The top four at the end go to the World Cup, while the fifth place team goes to an international playoff against a team from Oceania in November.

Qualification resumes August 31st with four matchdays remaining. Brazil ran away in the competition and has already qualified. Meanwhile, the second through eight placed teams are all within six points of each other. In order, they are Colombia (24), Uruguay and Chile (23), Argentina (22), Ecuador (20), and then Peru and Paraguay (18). With so many teams and four matchdays remaining, it’s hard to say anything definitive at this point. Let’s check back in a about a month or so.

The Oceania Football Confederation recently whittled down its teams to just two: New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. They’ll play home-and-home on September 1st and 5th, with the winner moving on to the international playoff against a South American team. The Kiwis would have to be, and are, heavy favorites.

The Union of European Football Associations divides its 54 members into nine groups of six each, whereupon they play a double-round robin. The group winners advance automatically to the World Cup and the eight best runners-up are drawn into pairs and play-off for the last four spots. They’ve got four matches left in each group, so we’ll do a quick overview of each because there’s still a lot of wiggle room, as it were.

Group A
Sweden is tied with France with on 13 points, with the Swedes currently ahead on goal differential. Also helpful was a 2-1 victory over France at home back in June. In third and fourth are the Netherlands and Bulgaria, with the Orange in serious danger of not even making the playoff. But hey, they got their groove a little bit by pasting Luxembourg 5-0, but, still, they really need to get a result in France at the end of this month.

Group B
Switzerland currently sit 3 points ahead of Portugal, both of whom have pretty much pulled away from the rest of the pack. Go ahead and check back in on this group for the last day of the first round, when Portugal and Switzerland play each other in Lisbon.

Group C
This could get weird. So Germany, as you might expect, are leading the group with 18 points. Northern Ireland are in second, with 13 points. The problem for the Northern Irish is, well, the first tiebreaker: Germany has an insane +26 goal differential, while Northern Ireland’s is “only” +9. Germany has had the benefit of playing San Marino twice already (so a combined +15 margin right there), but also the Germans’ narrowest result so far was a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the Irish only beat San Marino 4-0, so… I don’t know if they’re going to go out and try to win 17-0 or not, but if they don’t, they’ll be in real trouble: if Germany gets 4 points out of its next matches against the Czech Republic and Norway, which it should, they’ll clinch the group. The Northern Irish are four points ahead of the Czechs, though, so they’re at least in good shape for the playoff.

Group D
Who wants to win Group D? Serbia and Ireland are tied at 12 points, followed by Wales and Austria on 8 points each. The results from June made this pretty much clear as mud, as every team in the group drew the other. Looking at the September matches, it doesn’t look like it’ll get any better, so let’s punt this one to the new edition of this column.

Group E
Poland isn’t, well, running away with this group, but they have a six point lead over Montenegro and Denmark. Fortunately for the Danes, they’ll get a shot at home against Poland on September 1st. Meanwhile, Montenegro will have a chance to make up some ground. They have to go on the road to Kazakhstan, but they should still win, and then they get Romania at home. So still plenty of play here.

Group F
England are topping the group currently, but not by much: with 14 points, they’re two ahead of Slovakia, three ahead of Slovenia, and six ahead of Scotland. You might look at this and think “they should be ahead more, I mean, they just drew at Scotland?” Yeah, well, it could have been worse:

Again, though, we don’t stand to gain a lot of clarity here in September. The group is still tightly packed, and England’s road game is at Malta, which despite their best efforts they’ll probably win. Slovakia and Slovenia are each probably expecting to get somewhere between two and four points, and Scotland may walk away with six. It’s still anyone’s group.

Group G
Not so much anyone’s group: Group G. Spain and Italy both have 16 points, with Spain ahead on goal differential. Both are 7 points ahead of Israel and Albania. The fun part is that Spain and Italy will desperately not want to finish in second, and they’ll play in Madrid on September 2nd.

Group H
Group H features a Belgian side coming into its own and on 16 points, followed by Greece with 12 and Bosnia and Herzgovina with 11. A match between Greece and Bosnia that would’ve provided some much needed clarity ended with a 0-0 draw back in June, so we’ll have to see how the remaining matches shake out. Belgium will have a chance to clinch by pounding Gibraltar into the dirt and then getting a crack at the Greeks on the road. Bosnia, meanwhile, will play Cyprus and Gibraltar, so the Greeks might get left behind going into October.

Group I
Iceland beat Croatia back in June, but they’re still behind due to goal differential, and they probably won’t have a chance to make up for it in September. They’re going on the road to eliminated, but game, Finland and then they have a home match against Ukraine. Turkey and Ukraine sit just two points behind the group leaders, so it’s still anyone’s game, and I think it’ll still be tight going into October.

And that’s finally it! I think things are setting up well for an extremely fun last round of qualifying in most confederations. It’s a shame we’ll lose all this in a bloated 48-team World Cup, but at least that isn’t until 2026. Until then, this column will return in a month in change. Meanwhile, I know there’s at least one person out there waiting for the college football preview. Fret not! I have the ratings in hand, I just need to find time to write the darn thing before Week 0.