After the thrills of duel 1-0 derby victories for Arsenal and Liverpool, and the mayhem of transfer deadline day, a crucial international break awaits. With World Cup qualifying winding down, countries can punch their tickets to the World Cup, or fall out of the running as we move closer to Brazil 2014. Here’s what’s at stake in Friday and Tuesday’s World Cup qualifiers.
EUROPE – UEFA
Group A: Belgium and Croatia are flying, with the second-placed Croats nine points clear of third-placed Serbia, with Scotland and Wales further back. Belgium have won all their games apart from a 1-1 home draw with Croatia, and are already assured of at least a playoff spot. Despite that, Belgium are only three points ahead of Croatia, and the two play a massive qualifier in Zagreb on Tuesday. The winner should take the group, the loser should be in the playoffs. A draw works for Belgium.
Group B: Italy are large and in charge, four points clear at the top of the group. They play second-placed Bulgaria on Friday in a big game, Italy make direct qualification a formality with two wins, while Bulgaria need points to stay ahead of third-placed Czech Republic, who are a single point out of the playoff place. The Czech’s play Italy on Tuesday, whoever can take a point off Italy could gain the upper-hand in the battle for second. Meanwhile, Armenia and Denmark are in serious peril, three points off second place. Denmark need to beat Malta, and beat Armenia on Tuesday to give themselves hope and take revenge for a 4-0 drubbing at home in the reverse fixture against the Armenians. If they don’t take six points, Denmark will be headed for the biggest disappointment of Morten Olsen’s 14 years in charge.
Group C: Germany are steamrolling their way towards Brazil, as Jogi Lowe’s side looks to build on a comfortable five point lead atop Group C. The battle for second is a quagmire, with three nations on 11 points. Sweden, Austria, and Ireland all missed out on South Africa, and all come into these qualifiers with intense pressure. Surprisingly, Austria have looked the most impressive of the three sides, with a far superior goal difference to Sweden and Ireland. But it’s Austria who get Germany in this round, while Sweden get Kazakhstan. All the other games involving these sides are against each other, and Ireland face a make or break week, with games against both Austria and Sweden. The Austrians have the easiest path to the playoffs, but it’s six to five and pick ’em when predicating who will have a chance to go back to the World Cup.
Group D: The Netherlands are all but in, and can clinch qualification if things go their way in this round of fixtures. Second-place seems to be a battle between Hungary and Romania, who are on 11 and 10 points respectively. The two nations play in Bucharest on Tuesday, and the winner is in pole position for the playoffs – still, don’t count out Turkey just yet. Frequent manager Fatih Terim, the current Galatasatary manager, has just been reappointed to revive the Turks sagging campaign. The man who guided Turkey to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 takes over a team three points out of the playoff position. They have more talent than either Hungary or Romania, Terim can pull it all together.
Group E: In by far the weakest qualifying group, perennial good-luck side Switzerland have the inside track to automatic qualification, four points clear atop the group. The Swiss are surprisingly trailed by Albania, who are bidding to make their first major tournament ever. The region’s Cinderella has Iceland on their tails, along with Norway. Slovenia, who acquitted themselves well in 2010, are just about out of the running. Switzerland are feeling good, but things could move in the coming days in the race for second. Whoever makes the playoffs, they won’t be favorite to win the playoff.
Group F: There is intrigue at the top of this group, a three-way drag-race between Portugal, Russia, and outsiders Israel. Portugal, who haven’t missed a World Cup since 1998, but had to go through the playoffs in 2010, are leading the group with 14 points, but they have a game in hand on their two rivals. Russia, managed by Fabio Capello, sank to a disappointing defeat at Northern Ireland in their last qualifier, but they still control their own destiny with a window to an automatic berth. Israel also control their own destiny, heady times for a side that has never played in a World Cup. The three only face off in one match in the coming break, Israel and Russia on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Of the three nations, only two can move on. Portugal and Russia have the talent, but it would be unwise to count out the feisty Israelis.
Group G: There are two clear favorites in a settled Group G: Bosnia and Herzegovina for automatic qualification, and Greece, right in the mix again, for the playoff spot. Bosnia are on 16 points, with an impressive 5-0-1 record, while Greece are four points clear on third-placed Slovakia, three points off the pace at the top. If both teams take care of business, they’ll finish first and second. Bosnia have talent, they could be a force in Brazil, and as countless teams will attest, Greece know how to navigate a major tournament.
Group H: England expects – to qualify, at least. The Three Lions are two points out of first place in Group H, trailing the recently-severed-from-Serbia Montenegro. England does have a game in hand on the leaders, but they’ll most likely have to play it without Wayne Rooney. Also in the mix is Ukraine, one point behind England, three behind Montenegro. Ukraine and England play a huge game in Kiev on Tuesday, while Poland, who are disappointingly sagging in fourth, can revitalize their campaign by beating Montenegro on Friday. It’s a competitive group, one that England will do well to win, even with their obvious edge in talent and prestige.
Group I: The one group in Europe with only five teams has two good ones out in front of qualifying. Spain lead on 11 points, while France sit on 10. The pressure is on Spain to win all their remaining games and relegate the French back into the playoffs, and with games against Finland, Belarus and Georgia remaining, the defending champions of the world are a good bet to take nine points and book their trip. France have to win out and hope Spain slip, otherwise, they’ll have to go through the playoffs.
ASIA – AFC
Asian qualifying is over – Japan, Australia, Iran, and South Korea have already punched their tickets to Brazil. All that remains is the Asian fifth-place playoff, the winner of which plays the fifth place team from South America in a playoff to go to the World Cup.
The Asian playoff will be contested by two countries with no World Cup history, Jordan and Uzbekistan. The first leg is in Jordan on Tuesday, and the tie finishes in Uzbekistan on Friday. Uzbekistan is favorite to get through, they only missed out on automatic qualification to South Korea on goal differential, while Jordan finished far behind Japan and Australia. Whoever moves on will be major underdogs in the final playoff against the fifth-place South American team, which could very well be Uruguay.
Just a summer on from a major inquisition, Jurgen Klinsmann has the USA flying into the World Cup. The Americans need four points from their next two games to punch their ticket, and their aim will be to win the famed Hexagonal for the third consecutive cycle. It won’t be easy in the coming days though, as the US plays the second and third placed sides in the Hex, Costa Rica and Mexico.
The Ticos are having a nice campaign, sitting comfortably in second place. If they get a point off the USA and three from the game against last-place Jamaica, they’re almost to Brazil themselves.
The path for Mexico is a little less cozy. El Tri has been a continuing state of disarray, and shockingly, Chepo de la Torre still has his job. With only two points separating Mexico from Honduras and Panama, and a total of zero goals scored at Estadio Azteco so far in qualficiation, Mexico faces must-win games against Panama and in Columbus against the US in one of the most fantastic derbies in world football. Columbus has been a hellish spot for Mexico recently, and the US will most likely have a chance to qualify in the game that Tuesday. It will be a huge occasion.
In back of the three pace-setters are Honduras and Panama competing for the last automatic qualification spot and fourth place. Fourth plays New Zealand in a playoff for the chance to go to Brazil. Honduras have an uninspiring but competent side, while Panama are looking to break down barriers and make their first World Cup. Jamaica, who start three Portland Timbers in Alvas Powell, Ryan Johnson and captain Donovan Ricketts, are all but out.
SOUTH AMERICA – CONMEBOL
South America’s foremost team, Brazil, have qualfied automatically as World Cup host. They play a friendly against Australia during the international break, while CONMEBOL qualifying rages on.
Unlike in 2010, when Argentina’s hot mess in World Cup qualifying took after their manager Diego Maradona, the Argentines are sitting atop South America’s single, 10-team group. Argentina can qualify with a win over massively disappointing, bottom-placed Paraguay.
Second-placed Columbia look a good bet to make their first World Cup since 1998 with a star-studded roster, while Ecuador and Chile, both on 21 points, are in a great spot, five points clear of the automatic qualification cut-off line.
The real tussle appears to be for fifth place. Both Uruguay and Venezuela are on 16 points, with Peru lurking two behind. Uruguay made a tremendously slow start to qualifying, but they’ve picked it up as of late. They don’t want to be the first defending World Cup semi-finalist of the 21st century to not qualify for the next World Cup. Venezuela are trying to make their first World Cup, while Peru are aiming for their first spot in the world’s biggest sporting event since 1982. Whoever gets the playoff spot will be favorite to advance to the tournament over the winner of Uzbekistan vs. Jordan.
AFRICA – CAF
Africa’s new World Cup qualifying campaign is drool-inducing for neutrals, heart-attack inducing for people with a stake. 10 qualifying groups, the winners of which play each other in a two-legged playoff for the region’s five World Cup spots.
Group A: Ethiopia would have been through, but they had to forfeit their victory over Botswana for fielding ineligible players. Ethiopia thought they had clinched a week later with a 2-1 win over South Africa, but now the South Africans have been granted a reprieve. Two points behind the leaders, the 2010 hosts need beat Botswana and hope for a miracle victory for the Central African Republic over Ethiopia, or their World Cup dream is over.
Group B: Tunisia a draw or win against second-placed Cape Verde.
Group C: Ivory Coast is already through, convincingly taking the group.
Group D: It all comes down to fairytale side Zambia, the 2012 African Cup of Nations champion, against one of Africa’s leading sides, the only African side in the 21st century to advance from the group stage in two different World Cups, Ghana. A draw or win will see Ghana advance, Zambia need to take all three points. Ghana, playing at home, have been given a boost by the fact that new Schalke signing Kevin Prince Boateng has made himself available for international selection again after a two year hiatus from the Black Stars.
Group E: Things are congested here, as Congo, Burkina Faso, and Gabon all have a chance to advance. Burkina Faso are a point behind Congo, with Gabon three points behind. Burkina Faso had to forfeit their first game against Congo for fielding an inelegible player, a 3-0 result that could be the difference in the group. Gabon need to beat Burkina Faso and hope Niger upset Congo, who could put all the intrigue to bed with a win over the last-placed team. Burkina Faso need to beat Gabon, and hope Niger can hold Congo.
Group F: Current African Cup of Nations champ Nigeria have left things late – if they lose to Malawi, they’re out. Nigeria only need a point from the game to advance.
Group G: Bob Bradley’s Egypt, in a simply sensational story, are already through with a 100% record. It’s impossible to root against Bradley, who has come into a seemingly impossible situation and is on the doorstep of qualifying a war-torn country without an operating professional league for a possibly nation-uniting World Cup.
Group H: Algeria, looking to make a second-consecutive World Cup, are through.
Group I: Cameroon v. Libya for all the marbles. Cameroon only need a point, Libya, also in a potentially amazing story, need three.
Group J: Senegal and Uganda play in Morocco in the group deciding game – Senegal only need a draw, Uganda need to win as the country tries to qualify for the first time.
OCEANIA – OFC
New Zealand are through with ease, awaiting the fourth-place team in CONCACAF. It’s a favorable playoff matchup for the All Whites, who finished the 2010 World Cup undefeated. Tahiti, Confederations Cup darling, only have three points to the leader’s 18.