The March World Cup Qualifiers produced a number of intriguing storylines which have added another layer of interest as the qualifying campaign inches closer to the finish line.
The latest round gave us the first team to claim one of the 31 tickets to Russia, a resurgence from the United States, and a number of storylines in South America which is likely headed for a photo finish.
Today, I’ll talk, or rather write about the biggest winners and loser from the latest round of qualifying and give you a peek of what to look for when the next round of qualifying comes this summer.
It’s official, Brazil has become the first country other than the host Russia to book their place in the world cup. So it is now totally appropriate to stand in the middle of Red Square with a bell and a megaphone and yell “The Brazilians are coming! The Brazilians are coming!” to spread panic along the streets of Moscow.
This Brazilian team looks really good. They came in with a five-point lead in the South American qualifiers and came up with impressive performances and results. The Canarinha after finding themselves down 1-0 to Uruguay in the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo came back from behind to win 4-1 and five days later in Sao Paulo cruised to a 3-0 win against Paraguay which now has them 11 points ahead of the fifth-placed Argentina, who at the moment would be the team playing the Oceania champion in an intercontinental play-off.
Another big advantage of qualifying so early for Brazil is that airfare and hotel prices are much cheaper when you get them so far ahead of time.
Four years ago, Mexico was able to advance to the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand after a fourth-placed finish in the Hex with only 11 points and only two wins in 10 matches.
This time around things are much different, last November Mexico began its road in the Hex by exorcising the Dos a Cero demons in Columbus thanks to a 2-1 win against the U.S.
During the latest round of qualifying Mexico secured two crucial wins, the first and most impressive of them was a 2-0 victory against Costa Rica who came as the leader of the Hex after the first two games.
Javier Hernandez opened the score in the opening 10 minutes to score his 46th international goal tying the all-time record for Mexico which was held by Jared Borgetti. Four days later the Mexican team dealing with several key injuries managed to go on the road and defeat Trinidad & Tobago 1-0 to put themselves three points clear atop the standings.
Colombia and Peru
Squeaking into the biggest winners column is Colombia, despite a lackluster performance at home against Bolivia, the team showed a much better display against Ecuador on the road who they beat 2-0. With the two wins, Colombia sneaks into second place in South America with 24 points and inch closer to securing their second consecutive World Cup appearance.
Peru who came in eighth with 14 points and six points behind the fifth place got to a rough start in Venezuela and trailed 2-0 at halftime and seemed they were about to being scratched off the list of potential participants, however with second-half goals from Andre Carrillo and Paolo Guerrero allowed Peru to rescue a point and a few days later at home once again came from and adverse result and defeated Uruguay 2-1 in Lima which rekindled their World Cup dreams as they closed the gap with the fifth place to four points. With only 12 points up for grabs, Peru will have to get at least eight or nine to challenge at least for a playoff spot.
Robert Lewandowski and company came to this game with a three-point lead at the top of their group and had to face their closest rival Montenegro on the road and thanks to a late goal from Lukasz Piszczek, Poland secured a huge 2-1 win over Montenegro to go six points clear at the top midway through qualifying. Romania and Denmark with a win would have overtaken Montenegro in second place but a 0-0 draw between them was a missed opportunity for both.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia
With wins against Qatar on the road and China at home, Iran has gotten within three points of ensuring their place for a second consecutive World Cup. Iran now has a four point lead on the Korea Republic and five ahead of Uzbekistan with only three games to play.
In the other group, Japan and Saudi Arabia obtained all six points up for grabs, while Australia tied Iraq and then defeated the team chasing them the United Arab Emirates. Japan and Saudi Arabia have now secured a top-three finish meaning at worse they will advance to a play-off against the third-placed team from Group A (currently Uzbekistan), and Australia has increased its lead over the UAE to four points with only nine left to play for and remain in the hunt for one of the top two spots that will send them automatically to Russia.
Not their week
Argentina, Uruguay, and Ecuador
After defeating Chile at home 1-0 on March 23, Argentina was on my winner’s column. However, due to a verbal altercation involving Lionel Messi allegedly insulting one of the assistant referees, the Barcelona star received a heavy four-game suspension. Without Messi, on hand, Argentina traveled to La Paz, Bolivia where they were upset 2-0. The loss sends Argentina back to fifth place in South American qualifiers and now have to play three of their last four qualifying games without Messi. Even if the suspension gets reduced it’s still very likely that he will still miss the next game when Argentina visits Uruguay.
Not everything is bad for Argentina even if they suffer a loss in Montevideo, if they are capable of winning its two remaining home games against Peru and Venezuela it would take Argentina to 28 points which historically have been enough to earn an automatic berth, the only team that may be capable of surpassing Argentina and get them eliminated is Ecuador who’s just two points behind. If Argentina has not secured its place in the World Cup before the final game, the final match between Ecuador and Argentina in Quito could have huge repercussions for both.
Speaking of Ecuador, remember that after the first four games the Ecuadorians had surprised the world by winning their first four qualifying games including a 2-0 road win against Argentina. Well, since then Ecuador has only managed to get 8 points out of 30 in its last 10 games, including two losses this round against Paraguay and Colombia.
On a similar note the Charruas, also couldn’t manage to get a single point this round of qualifying. Uruguay lead Brazil 1-0 in Montevideo inside of 10 minutes but ended getting crushed by the Brazilians 4-1, five days later Uruguay once again got on the board first against Peru in Lima, but ended up losing 2-1. Uruguay remains third in qualifying but it’s only one point above fifth-placed Argentina. Uruguay has earned a spot in the intercontinental playoff in each of the last four world cup cycles. It seems to be their preferred method of qualification.
Netherlands and Wales
Looks like Orange and ineptitude now go hand-in-hand. Netherlands appeared to have overcome the ghosts of their disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, but then Bulgaria happened.
A 2-0 loss on the road to Bulgaria has put the Dutch in a tough spot moving forward. France the group favorites have now a six-point lead over them, and the team occupying the playoff spot Sweden who also won now leads them by three.
Despite the loss, the Dutch should at least win their next match in June when they host Luxembourg but the September round will be crucial for their aspirations as they’ll host Bulgaria and face France on the road. Anything less than four wins in their final five games will put the Dutch in a tough position.
Wales was able to get a 0-0 draw on the road against Ireland while playing with 10-men for more than 20 minutes. How come Wales made the black list then, you ask? Simple, by looking ahead.
At the midway point of qualifying Wales is four points short of group leaders Serbia and Ireland and are currently tied with Austria in points. Wales next game will be on the road against Serbia on June 11.
In their previous matchup, Wales missed an opportunity to defeat the Eastern European side at home after giving up a late goal in the 86th minute to Aleksandr Mitrovic.
The bigger problem for Wales is that they will have to figure out a way to come up with a positive result without Neil Taylor who was sent off in the last match after his attempted murder of Everton’s right-back Seamus Coleman, and will also be without their superstar and Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale due to yellow card accumulation.
If Ireland and Serbia win their June home games against Austria and Wales respectively, they will increase their lead to seven points with only 12 to play for. Bale’s World Cup dream could come to an end without being able to be on the field.
Uzbekistan and Qatar
Even as I try to be economical with my words, it was impossible for me to end without mentioning these two. Uzbekistan had a great opportunity to move up to second place in their group over the Korea Republic but miserably failed to take advantage of Korea’s loss to China as they fell on the road to Syria (although the game was played in Malaysia because you know, ISIS.) Uzbekistan at least managed to remain in prime position to at least finish third in the group by defeating Qatar 1-0, if they managed to finish third that allow them to play the other group’s third placed team in a playoff.
The problem for Uzbekistan is that they had been here before in their 2006 qualifying campaign Uzbekistan advanced to the playoff round only to fall to Bahrain, which later went fell to Trinidad & Tobago in the intercontinental playoff. Four years ago, once again in the playoff round they were eliminated by Jordan which went on to lose to Uruguay and by the look of things, this time around could be even tougher as they’ll most likely have to face Japan or Australia in a potential playoff.
If Uzbekistan keeps themselves within striking distance of Korea Republic a win over them at home in the final game of the round on Sept. 5, could go a long way in helping then secure a top two finish in its group and qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
Not many expected Qatar to reach Russia 2018, but yet their losses to Iran and Uzbekistan have eliminated the middle eastern country from World Cup contention which holds some significance as Qatar will now be the first country in the history of the sport to host a World Cup without having qualified for it before. The only other case is Uruguay in 1930 but that was only because they hosted the very first World Cup.
The month of June will be a relatively quiet round in qualifying, Iran is the only team that can book their place for Russia, but the September and October rounds will definitely give us a lot more excitement.