2018 World Cup qualifying

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Peru asks FIFA to move Argentina qualifier from Boca stadium

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LIMA, Peru (AP) Peruvian football officials have asked FIFA to shift the World Cup qualifier against Argentina next month from Boca Junior’s Bombonera stadium.

In a letter to FIFA general secretary Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, the Peruvian Football Association says it “will be difficult to ensure” the safety of “the Peruvian association as well as the thousands of fans who will travel from Peru for the historic match.”

A match in 2015 between Boca Juniors and archrival River Plate was suspended when River players were sprayed by fans with an irritant similar to tear gas.

Peru and Argentina meet on Oct. 5. With two games remaining, they are tied on qualifying points and are trying to land one of four automatic berths from South America to play in next year’s finals in Russia.

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 10 months B.W.C.

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Can Germany become the first nation since Brazil (1958 and 1962) to repeat as World Cup winners? Can the Brazilians exorcise their demons of 7-1? Has the next wave of Spanish brilliance/impending dominance arrived?

Will Italy contend again after failing to advance from the group stage two tournaments in a row? Can one of the up-and-comers — Belgium, Colombia, Portugal or England — make good on years (decades, in England’s case) of promise and potential? What are the U.S. national team’s chances, assuming they manage to qualify?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

These are just a handful of the questions at the forefront of so many folks’ minds, as we now sit just over 10 months from the start of the 2018 World Cup. Beginning today (10 months B.W.C.), and following every international break leading up to next summer’s tournament in Russia, the PST staff will be keeping tabs on these stories, and more, in our World Cup Power Rankings.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — there are five or six sides with a genuine shot at being crowned world champions in July. As always, if you disagree with the final results, feel free to shout at all of the above, except me, on Twitter (links above).

Team Points Best Worst
Germany 116 1 3
Brazil 115 1 2
France 106 2 4
Spain 105 1 5
Belgium 91 4 10
Colombia 84 6 9
Italy 75 5 16
Portugal 72 5 16
Uruguay 71 7 11
Switzerland 61 9 13
Mexico 54 10 16
England 52 9 15
Nigeria 33 12 NR
Chile 33 7 NR
Costa Rica 23 14 NR
Japan 20 9 NR
Ivory Coast 16 14 NR
Peru 16 13 NR
Poland 12 12 NR
South Korea 9 16 NR

As you’ve probably already noticed, the USMNT didn’t make the final top-20 list. Here’s everyone’s thoughts on the USMNT, and where they slot in among 2018 hopefuls:

JPW: USA rank — 30th. The last international break summed up just how much work needs to be done between now and next summer if the USMNT qualifies for the World Cup. Getting out of the group stage would seem like a big achievement as things stand.

NM: USA rank — 25th. The U.S. entered September ranked 30th in ELO, and 26th by FIFA, though not every team in front of them will be going to Russia, either. If I project a 32-team field, placing the U.S. with a seeded team, a European team, and probably an African side or South American side (The U.S. has been in a pot with Asian sides the last two draws). In most scenarios, barring hosts Russia being in the U.S. group, I’d expect this current bunch to fail to reach the group stage. Of the teams who may make the field, I’d put U.S. hopes ahead of most of the Asian sides, one or two European sides, and another couple of African qualifiers.

KB: The United States is currently ranked 26th in FIFA, and that’s with a Gold Cup win that included a number of B squads. I would not put this current US team anywhere near the Top 20 until it shows it can win consistently against even mid-level sides like Honduras or Panama.

AE: USA rank — 22nd. Once you move past the top five or so sides — you know, the ones that actually have a chance of winning the World Cup — everyone is fatally flawed in any number of ways. The USMNT is no different than the rest of these, but with one favorable exception: 14 of the 23 players on the most recent roster have World Cup experience, with the majority of those having been to multiple finals tournaments. If/when they qualify, they’ll leapfrog a half-dozen other sides without that experience, making them a fringe Round of 16 side, if they get there.

MR: USA rank — 25th. Let’s face it. It’s been a difficult week for the USMNT, and while the squad is still very much in the running for a trip to Russia next summer Bruce Arena and Co. are crawling into the World Cup at this point. Solely judging this team off of what I believe they can be versus what they are right now, I’d say the U.S. can and should be a top 20 team heading into 2018, however, watching these last two matches have reiterated several of my previous concerns, especially in the central midfield. I’d put the U.S. somewhere around 25 in the field of 32 World Cup teams, assuming a bid to Russia is in the cards.

DK: USA rank — 19th. I had the USA in No. 19 because I actually am taking a more positive look at the draw in Honduras. The USA lost this game in the last World Cup cycle under Klinsmann and coming back on the road in the Honduran heat in a World Cup qualifier with everything on the line takes guts and determination. Just as the fortunes turned with the famed “snow game” in Denver against Costa Rica, perhaps this could be a moment like that for this USMNT team that basically needs to win out to ensure safe passage to the World Cup

New Zealand moves closer to World Cup, wins OFC qualifying

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New Zealand captured Oceania World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, drawing one step closer to the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: USMNT faces a must-win situation on Tuesday against Honduras ]

The All Whites drew 2-2 against the Solomon Islands in the second leg of their OFC final, after having secured a 6-1 victory in the first meeting.

Manager Anthony Hudson and his side will now be involved in a playoff against the fifth-place nation from CONMEBOL, currently Argentina, in a two-legged affair this November.

With South American qualifying too close to call from positions two through eight, New Zealand will likely have to wait until the final matchday to determine their playoff opponent.

The All Whites are looking to reach their third World Cup in its history, and their first since 2010 in South Africa — where the team drew all three of its group stage matches.

Amid war, Syria hopes to reach World Cup for 1st time

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) In the midst of a long-running and ruinous war, millions of Syrians may finally have something to be joyful about.

Syria’s national soccer team has a chance to qualify for next year’s World Cup – what would be the Arab nation’s first ever appearance in the sport’s most prestigious event. The team, referred to by many Syrians as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking the capital Damascus, has been on an impressive run despite being forced to play all its games in other countries.

The Syrians beat Qatar 3-1 on Thursday in Malaysia, moving into third place in Group A of Asian qualifying. The top two finishers in the six-team group will automatically qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, while the third-place team will enter a playoff.

If the Syrians beat Iran in Tehran in their final group match on Tuesday, they will be guaranteed to finish at least third. But Syria could finish second and qualify directly depending on the result of the match between South Korea and Uzbekistan.

“Our team is ready to achieve victory and qualify Syria for the first time to the World Cup,” Muwaffaq Fathallah, the chief administrator of the Syrian team, said by telephone from the Iranian capital. “We want the Syrian people to be happy.”

The qualification would come as a welcome surprise for millions across the war-torn country, which has been devastated by the conflict. More than 400,000 people have been killed and half the country’s prewar population displaced since the conflict erupted in March 2011. It will also be a boost for President Bashar Assad, who is eager to project strength and normalcy on the world stage while his forces continue to recapture territory on the ground.

The war has negatively impacted the country’s soccer industry, the country’s most popular sport. As the nation descended into conflict, sports stadiums were trashed and many of the national team’s players moved to Arab or Asian countries to play.

The national team is made up of government-approved supporters, although at least one player was an opposition activist. Striker Firas al-Khatib, who was often seen attending fundraising events for the opposition during his years in exile, returned to Damascus last month for the first time in five years, receiving a VIP welcome at the airport.

“There is no better feeling than returning home,” al-Khatib, who once said he would never again play for the government team until it stops its bombardment of opposition-held areas, said upon his arrival.

Another player who has been outside Syria for years but never expressed support for the opposition is Omar al-Soma, who joined the national team before the match against Qatar last week.

The team’s captain, Ahmad al-Saleh, plays for Chinese club Henan Jianye, while Omar Khribin, who scored a goal in each half against Qatar, plays for Saudi Arabian team Al-Hilal. Al-Soma, who recently joined the national team, plays for Saudi club Al-Ahli.

Al-Khatib, who played for Kuwaiti team Qadsia and later Al-Arabi, will be returning to his mother club of Al-Karamah in the central city of Homs.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the national team began its training in Tehran on Saturday in preparation for Tuesday’s match against Iran.

In the Syrian capital on Monday, workers were setting up giant screens in at least three squares for public viewing, while businessmen will be offering food and drinks for those planning to watch. State-run television, which is planning to broadcast the game live, has lined up special programs for the event.

The politics of Syria’s run has not been lost on anyone.

For Syria to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, its chief international ally, it must defeat Iran, its regional political ally. Both countries have provided crucial political and military support to shore up Assad’s forces in the war.

On social media, some predicted that Iran, which has already qualified for the tournament, may let Syria win the match based on the political closeness of the two countries.

The coach of Iran’s national soccer team, Carlos Queiroz, rejected any match-fixing plans and the state-owned IRAN daily reported Monday that Iran midfielder Ashkan Dejagah said his team is determined to win Tuesday’s match.

Mowaffak Joumaa, the head of Syria’s Olympic committee and sports federation, told The Associated Press in Damascus that “every citizen has become a soldier in his own profession” and the soccer players are doing their best for the country.

“We are hopeful,” Joumaa said, “that they will achieve a good result in the match against Iran and would bring happiness to all Syrians on Tuesday.”

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Terhran, Iran, contributed to this report.

UEFA Qualifying Wrap: France held by Luxembourg as Group A gets interesting

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Croatia 1-0 Kosovo

After the match on Saturday was called off just 22 minutes in thanks to an unplayable pitch following torrential rain, the game was resumed on Sunday. Real Madrid star Luka Modric fed a free-kick into the box in the 74th minute, and Dynamo Kiev defender Domagoj Vida was there to head it home and give Croatia a narrow victory under dubious circumstances.

Netherlands 3-1 Bulgaria

The Netherlands bounced back from their brutal defeat to France as Davy Propper poached a pair of goals against Bulgaria, with Arjen Robben adding one more. Propper touched home Daley Blind‘s low rifled cross just seven minutes in, and while that was it for a while, Blind fed Robben in the 67th minute from almost exactly the same spot at the left edge of the box. Bulgaria responded just two minutes later through Georgi Kostadinov, but Propper bagged his second to put the game away with 10 minutes to go, heading to the far post off a cross by Spartak Moscow winger Quincy Promes.

The three points is critical for the Netherlands, especially considering the other results around Group A that keep them alive. Robben’s goal was his 34th for country, moving him ahead of Johan Cruyff on the Netherlands scoring charts.

France 0-0 Luxembourg

Easily the most stunning result of the day, a full-strength France squad was held at home by Group A basement-dwellers Luxembourg in a result that not only keeps the Netherlands alive, but also releases France’s chokehold on Group A, leaving them just one point in front of Sweden and four ahead of the Netherlands.

France held 74% possession and mustered 34 shots, nine of them on target, but they couldn’t find a way through goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert. Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann all started the game for France, and Alexandre Lacazette played a half-hour off the bench, but none of them had any answers.

Greece 1-2 Belgium

Romelu Lukaku celebrates with Belgium teammate Thorgan Hazard (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images).

A wild finish at Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens saw three total goals pour in across a four-minute span, the decider scored by Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku as Belgium became the first European country to confirm qualification to the 2018 World Cup. Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen scored a fabulous strike from distance in the 70th minute, but the Spurs man lost Portuguese-born midfielder Zeca who flicked home a cross just two minutes after the opener, just the third goal Belgium has conceded all qualifying. With it all kicking off, Lukaku took a cross from Thomas Meunier and deposited a glancing header inside the far post.

Belarus 0-4 Sweden

Sweden took care of business as they went on the road and torched Belarus 4-0. Emil Forsberg scored the opener in the 18th minute and assisted the second, to Christoffer Nyman. Marcus Berg added a third just before halftime and Andreas Granqvist finished off the scoresheet with a late penalty.

Gibraltar 0-4 Bosnia and Herzegovina

With Belgium clinching Group H, that leaves four other countries to fight for the playoff spot, and Bosnia & Herzegovina took control with a comprehensive victory over point-less Gibraltar. Edin Dzeko scored a pair while Kenan Kodro and Senad Lulic each added one of their own. Bosnia & Herzegovina jumped Greece with the win into the playoff spot, with 14 points to Greece’s 13 and Cyprus’s 10. Estonia remains mathematically alive with eight points.

 

Hungary 0-1 Portugal

Andre Silva celebrates with Cristiano Ronaldo and other Portugal teammates (Tamas Kovacs//MTI via AP).

A red card to Hungary’s Tamas Priskin for elbowing Pepe in the face a half-hour in saw Portugal grab a man advantage, and Andre Silva provided the breakthrough heading in Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross minutes after the halftime break. The win allows Portugal to keep pace with perfect Switzerland, just three points back with the two teams set to meet in the final match of the group stage.

Latvia 0-3 Switzerland

Switzerland remained perfect in the group stage, picking up their eighth win in as many tries with a comprehensive victory over Latvia. An own-goal put Switzerland ahead nine minutes in, and while Blerim Dzemaili missed a penalty past the half-hour mark, he made amends just after halftime for a 2-0 lead, and Ricardo Rodriguez wrapped things up from the spot before an hour had gone by.

 

Faroe Islands 1-0 Andorra

These two sides have already been eliminated, but the Faroe Islands picked up their second win of qualification thanks to a goal by Norwegian top-flight winger Gilli Sorensen in the 31st minute.

Estonia 1-0 Cyprus

Estonia kept its hopes barely alive and dented those of Cyprus in dramatic fashion, with a stoppage-time half-volley from Fulham youth product Mattias Kait two minutes past the 90.