The final two games of the World Cup qualifying campaign started Thursday, Oct. 5. This last step on the Road to Russia 2018 will bring heartbreak and hope to supporters in countries all across the world.
But this writer is always partial to the European contingent. A look at the last few group fixtures reveals that there is plenty of competition left for UEFA’s sides in mostly every table. For those neutrals at their wits end in deciding what games to watch, here are some pointers for each group, regardless of your loyalties.
Pick of the matches: Bulgaria vs France, Sat. 7 Oct., Sofia.
Manager Didier Deschamps is surely wondering what he must do to secure France’s spot in the World Cup. His side lead their group table, but only by a point following a series of inconsistent displays. They possess arguably one of the most stacked national sides competing in Europe, but failed to dispatch lowly Luxembourg at home.
When France fires on all cylinders, the likes of Mbappe and Griezman are a sight to behold. Watching Thomas Lemar caress a volley into the top corner against the Netherlands at home was special, even for neutrals. But when they don’t click, you see performances like the one in Stockholm: Hugo Lloris punting a ball to Toivonen at the half way line, and watching the winner sail over his head at the 93rd minute. That is what is frustrating in this campaign. In theory, first place ought to belong to les bleus and they could have been booking their flights ages ago. Yet doubt remains for France at this eleventh hour.
If Sweden wins against Luxembourg on Saturday, they secure their spot in the qualifiers and if results fall their way on match-day nine, they may have a bite at the cherry for the top spot. Don’t write the Swedes off.
Pick of the matches: Portugal vs Switzerland, Tues. 10 Oct., Lisbon.
It seems oddly prescient that the last fixtures between teams would be so crucial in the grand scheme of things. Fate and the luck of the draw has taken a hand as it so often does in football. Dramatic events will transpire at every turn until the final curtain falls.
No where is that more true than Group B.
Bosnian, Vladmir Petkovic, has yet to put a foot wrong with his experienced Switzerland side. Perhaps living up to the Swiss stereotype of being so efficient, they have won every game they have competed in this campaign. But even a win against Bulgaria will not totally secure their spot until the final game.
Euro winners Portugal are second, knowing a lot is in their favour leading up to their game against the Swiss. Portugal are hot on their heels with a much higher goal difference.
Cristiano Ronaldo is second highest scorer in the European qualifiers with 14 goals. Goals for Portugal have obviously never been a problem but they face the only team that has beaten then so far on Tuesday. If they can break Switzerland down and pick up the three points, they qualify as the top team in the group.
But I expect that a win will not come easy in this final, mouthwatering match at the Estádio da Luz.
Pick of the matches: Northern Ireland vs Germany. Th. 5 Oct. Germany won, 3-1.
The supporters from Belfast secured the hearts of thousands of fans as their “Will Grigg” chant became the un-official anthem of the Euros (I am sorry for those that now have the song stuck in their heads). Alongside Iceland, they were to many neutrals a much-favored “wee” team.
Expect the same next year at Russia 2018.
The group had mostly been decided by kickoff time. The two sides already well clear of the other group members. While it would have certainly been a story for the Boys in Green to edge closer to Germany and make the final match just that little bit more exciting, that was never expected. Nor did it materialize. Sebastian Rudy struck from distance in the 2nd minute to give Joachim Löw’s men a thunderous send off on their way to the finals.
Germany’s win in Belfast ensures that the final games of Group C will be a dead rubber with Northern Ireland advancing as well.
Pick of the matches: Wales vs Ireland, Mon. 9 Oct., Cardiff.
In Moscow next year, there is a guarantee that a great team will be kicking themselves as they sit at home chewing the fat.
Group D managed to cram the likes of Gareth Bale’s Wales, the Republic of Ireland and underachieving, “dark horse” Austria. But none of them are first, Serbia is. A win against Austria will secure the place for Matic, Kolorov and Co and then things get exciting.
There is obviously a bottle-neck as only one spot is left for contention at that point, and guess what the last game is going to be? You guessed it, a near-sudden death game between Wales (2nd) and Ireland (3rd). As per the usual form, Gareth Bale was allegedly gift wrapped to the Welsh national team crocked, and will therefore be helpless in assisting them. Austria aren’t mathematically out of contention, but it is very unlikely that they will pull off the results to get the best position, having a worse goal difference than Wales and are sitting with only nine points, compared to 14 and 13 points respectively to the two other sides.
Will Cardiff fans lift up their squad with another neck-tingling rendition of the national anthem, or will Ireland return to Dublin with the spoils and a ticket for Russia 2018?
Pick of the matches: Poland vs Montenegro, Sun. 8 Oct., Warsaw.
For many english speaking fans, their surnames may be a mouthful, but what is easy to swallow is that Poland will have the top spot by the time they face off against third placed Montenegro on Sunday.
The table leaders ended any doubt of a stumble by humbling the Armenians 6-1, making Robert Lewandowski the leading scorer in Poland’s history and across the European qualifiers in the progress. Now the only thing left to answer is who is going to be standing in the other position? Denmark or Montenegro?
Half of the question was answered with Thursday’s result. Denmark won against Montenegro with a neat finish by Christian Eriksen, putting them in pole position to keep second. The only hope now for Montenegro is to travel to Warsaw and hope that the home side is having an off day. Expect the fittingly named Hrabri Sokoli (“brave falcons”) to summon up the courage and bring the game to Poland on Sunday.
Pick of the matches: Slovenia vs Scotland, Sun. 8 Oct., Ljubljana.
England have walked their way into Russia, by boring their fans and opposition into submission. Near the end of their game against Slovenia, perhaps a thought of sympathy was extended to their northern neighbours, and decided to give them a hand.
Gordon Strachan and Co went into their final two matches knowing that perfection was required in order to have a sniff at a major tournament for the first time in 20 years. And it took a last minute knick from Martin Skrtel to secure the first leg of Scotland’s six pointers. The Tartan army may be ahead of 3rd and 4th, but a slip up will be capitalised and only a second win will do.
Scotland have been in fairly hot form and have seemingly figured out a system that births consistent results. Strachan’s side have finally kicked into gear, stringing an impressive undefeated run in the past four games, holding leaders England to a draw in the progress. On their day, Scotland has picked up great results against teams higher up the world ranking, but do they have the ability to knick their qualifying spot?
Pick of the matches: Israel vs Spain, Mon. Oct. 9, Jerusalem.
Breaks like these are when an otherwise fractured country groups together to push for a common goal. Spain are top of the table as expected, and a win away against Israel will finally give them their place in Russia.
They certainly have the talent to qualify, but will the fans accept the Catalan contingent post-political kerfuffle? Will Pique kiss and make up with Ramos or will they be scrapping on the pitch?
Italy aren’t out of the race yet. Il Azzurri are within three points of keeping up with Las Rojas, and may capitalise on the dysfunction – watch this space!
Pick of the matches: Bosnia and Herzegovina vs Belgium, Sat. 7 Oct., Grbavica.
Who would’ve thought it that Roberto Martinez would take to national team management like a duck to water (forgetting that first friendly against Spain)? After floundering slightly at Everton, the Spaniard was rewarded with De Bruyne, Alderweireld, Mirallas (again) and Lukaku (again) and has already secured the top spot at a canter. In theory, they also control the destiny of the second placed team in their game against the Bosnians as well.
Both Greece and Bosnia have a chance to battle it out for the top spot, and both have fairly easy games against the bottom two sides on the last game. A win away for Belgium will certainly put a slight advantage to Greece going into the last game, assuming they put up their end of the bargain. But then again, considering that Belgium are eight points ahead, maybe Martinez will want to take it easy for these relatively meaningless games.
Quoting Kanye, “No one man should have all that power.”
Pick of the matches: Turkey vs Iceland, Friday. 6 Oct., Eskisehir.
And finally, if none of the above matches take your fancy, look back a year and remember the plucky Icelanders and their run in the Euros. Or don’t, if you’re English. The tiny island has managed to pull a golden crop of players at once and have mounted strong campaigns in the past handful of years. This year is no exception and again, the men from Reykjavik are really pushing for the top spot in group I and for the last two games, it is all to play for.
Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine are all within two points of each other and there is just enough time to fit in a “six pointer” to the fixture list. Iceland travel east to Turkey to possibly fortify their place for Russia 2018. Croatia play at home against second bottom, Finland and whipping boys, Kosovo host Ukraine.
It’s so tough to call who is going to make it. While some people might not know a lot of the names competing in the teams, if you are looking for a tight finish and competitive games, keep an eye on group I.