So we’ve hit an international break, one of the terrific ones which include World Cup qualifiers, and it’s an excellent time to evaluate what’s cooking in the next week in terms of nations looking to book spots for Russia 2018.
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Group A will be about who slips up, with the top three nations each playing a pair of matches against the bottom three nations. Iran leads the group with 11 points, while South Korea is a point behind and Uzbekistan two back. Any logical chance for Syria, Qatar, or China to make a move toward the third place playoff spot must include a big upset over the next week.
It’s a bit different in Group B, where the top four sides are separated by a single point. Thursday sees a huge tilt between Japan and United Arab Emirates in Al Ain, with the hosts leaving for Australia after the match. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the biggest weeks in UAE soccer history.
No World Cup qualifiers during this break.
You know the drill here: the United States has started 0-2 and badly needs wins, or at least four of six points, from Honduras at home and a trip to Panama.
Costa Rica is the only 2-0 team in the confederation and faces a pretty tough pair of matches with a visits to Mexico and Honduras, leaving El Tri with a chance to summit the group by toppling CRC and winning and Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking of T&T, it can forget about harboring any World Cup hopes if it fails to beat Panama at home.
Brazil can qualify for Russia with a win at Uruguay on Thursday, while a win by the hosts makes it possible that both will advance before the end of the break.
After that, mayhem.
Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia open the break within two points of each other, and only two of the four can qualify automatically (The fifth place side advances to the interconfederation playoffs). Paraguay and Peru need to win, not draw, matches to get back in the hunt for a spot.
New Zealand can clinch a spot in the Oceania final by beating Fiji twice, while a win and a draw will have them in very good shape before Fiji’s pair of Group A matches against New Caledonia. In Group B, Tahiti is ahead of Solomon Islands on goal differential, and will look to keep pressure on the latter by sweeping Papua New Guinea.
With only nine (more) automatic spots available for Russia, it’s remarkable that only one group has a gap of more than one win between the first- and second-placed teams (Germany has 12 points to Northern Ireland’s seven).
So it’s a bit foolish to label anything in UEFA qualifying “must-win” considering most of the matches are “don’t lose”; Of the nine sides to get automatic spots in 2014 qualifying, seven had a zero in the loss column. Bosnia & Herzegovina had one loss, but advanced over Greece who also went 8-1-1. Two-loss Russia was the exception, playing in a weak group and winning seven, drawing one.
Instead we’ll give you the highlights of this break:
Republic of Ireland vs. Wales, Friday
Croatia vs. Ukraine, Friday
Belgium vs. Greece, Saturday
Scotland vs. Slovenia, Sunday
Azerbaijan vs. Germany, Sunday