W ith Gareth Southgate safely guiding England through to our 14th World Cup, our attentions are now drawn to the playoffs to see who else will have a shot at footballing glory as well as taking a look at those who have missed out.
Home Nations Disappointment
Despite Wales being ranked as the 14th best team in the world by FIFA, they have failed to make it to their first World Cup in 60 years. The absence of injury-prone star Gareth Bale through a pulled calf proved costly too, as James McClean rifled in the game’s only goal to send the Republic of Ireland through to the playoffs.
Scotland’s campaign came to a similarly disappointing end. Fans were left despondent as they watched an unimaginative Gordan Strachan side fail to beat Slovenia – a victory would have sent them into the playoffs. Malky Mackay will now be attempting to coach Scotland to their first major tournament since 1998 as they embark on the Euro 2020 campaign.
One of the biggest shocks of the qualification was seeing Copa America holders Chile fail to qualify. A 3-0 loss to Brazil in the final game saw them inched out of qualification by Argentina and Columbia, with Peru taking that single playoff place.
“DUTCH WOES CONTINUE”
Dutch woes continue after now failing to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. Relying on 33-year-old Arjen Robben to be their main goal source as both Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen fail to impress on an international level.
A lot of the pressure of a National Team is placed upon its head coach. Bruce Arena couldn’t pick up the pieces of Jurgen Klinsmann’s crumbling USA side, meaning they failed to qualify for the first time since Mexico 1990. This collapse by the United States, however, has led to one of the brighter stories of the campaign as Panama qualify for the first time in the country’s history – who face Wales in a warm-up friendly this week in a twit of irony.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating football stories is the recent emergence of Northern Ireland on the international scene. The incredible support their fans showed in France last year, and continued throughout this campaign, could push Michael O’Neil’s organised unit to their first World Cup in 32 years. To do this they will have to overcome 11th in the world Switzerland. FIFA rankings appear generous to a Swiss side that lacks both leaders and conviction. Sloppy errors cost them an automatic spot when they lost to Portugal in their final group game. Northern Ireland looks to have every chance in what should be a tight and tactical fixture.
Across the border, Republic of Ireland takes on former European Champions Denmark. Kasper Schmeichel may have to draw on some of his father’s heroics from 1992 if he wants to keep out the likes of James McClean, Robbie Brady and Shane Long, who thrive under Martin O’Neil’s counter-attacking style. The Danes however, seem to set up around one man in Tottenham’s midfield dynamo Christian Eriksen. Åge Hareide played Eriksen in every minute of their qualifying campaign, and the attacking midfielder managed to find the net on 8 occasions. Republic of Ireland have been handed a significant boost however with Denmark captain Simon Kjaer having picked up an injury against Barcelona this Saturday. Real problems exist in the Danish backline, Kjaer’s injury has been compounded with concerns about whether both Nicolai Jorgensen and Henrik Dalsgaard will return to full fitness before the match.
THE ONE TO WATCH
Arguably the biggest tie sees 4-time World Champions Italy paired up with Sweden. Although Sweden failed to qualify for the last two World Cups they have shown a lot of promise managing to nab a playoff spot in a difficult group containing France and the Netherlands. The teams seem evenly matched, even if Italy’s long search for a top striker appears to be over with Group G top scorer Ciro Immobile scoring 6 goals in 10 games and Torino’s talisman Andrea Belotti bagging 4 in 7 appearances. As for Sweden, Marcus Berg has stepped up with 8 in 9, proving to be an effective replacement for mercurial talent Zlatan Ibrahimović after the charismatic forward announced his retirement following Euro 2016 last summer.
“CROATIA FACE A TRICKY TASK AGAINST GREECE”
The final playoff in the European section sees a talented Croatia side take on the resilient Euro 2004 winners Greece. Greece has proven themselves feisty opponents, picking up 3 red cards over the course of their qualifying campaign. They will have to keep the midfield and defence tight in order to minimise the space for dangerous midfield pairing of Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić and Real Madrid ace Luka Modrić to play into. It is hard to predict how Croatia will play given new boss Zlatko Dalić has only been in charge for one game, a 2-0 win over Ukraine to secure their spot in this playoff. It will be difficult for him to organise the team quickly and this could play into Greece’s favour; their physically imposing nature could capitalise on defensive frailties through attacking set pieces.
ACROSS THE GLOBE
As for the rest of the rest of the world, the OFC/CONMEBOL play-off seems a total mismatch as 10th in the world Peru take on New Zealand who at 122nd in the world, and would be the lowest ranked team to qualify. With Captain Winston Reid fit again and the ever-dangerous Burnley target man Chris Wood leading the line, New Zealand are ever optimistic they can make it to their 3rd World Cup finals having gone unbeaten throughout the entire tournament in 2010. Peru are a very strong side but with pacey wingers in the form of Watford’s André Carrillo and Lokomotiv Moscow’s Jefferson Farfán they are more set up for a counter attack, and Peru may find it difficult to break down New Zealand’s compact 5-4-1 shape.
In the AFC/CONCACAF playoff, Honduras face Australia in what should be an exciting affair. Both teams have qualified for the previous two World Cups, but Honduras has yet to record a win in 9 games at the finals. Australia has proved much more successful in their attempts, being very unlucky to go out in the last 16 to a contentious, stoppage-time penalty to eventual champions Italy in 2006. Tim Cahill is the only player to remain in the squad from that team, and the all-time Australian all-time top scorer fired the two second-leg goals past a determined Syrian side to confirm Australia’s place in the playoff. Cahill and Australia will look to capitalise on the Hondurans shaky defence, shipping 25 goals in just 16 qualification games. Don’t write off Honduras however with Houston Dynamo’s forward duo of Romello Quioto and Alberth Elis hitting form with 10 of their 19 goals in qualification.
“PROLIFIC AUBAMEYANG WILL BE WATCHING FROM HOME”
The African section is also poised to hot up, with the final qualifying group games taking place over the course of the next two weeks. Egypt and Nigeria have already booked their place in Russia with Senegal and Tunisia looking set to join them, bar major collapses. This has meant that some big names have failed to qualify, Cameroon, Ghana and 2010 holders South Africa have all been eliminated. Prolific Borussia Dortmund Striker Pierre Emerick Aubameyang will also be watching the World Cup at home as Gabon failed to qualify. Ivory Coast could be set to follow in their footsteps as well as they need a win against Group C leaders Morocco to put themselves on that plane this summer.
There’s the full round-up of the final qualifying stages for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Whatever happens in these next few days, it’s set to be a phenomenal World Cup of goals, drama and English fans moaning.