2016’s last international break provided the setting for the most recent stop in the long road to qualification for the 2018 World Cup. 63 matches were played across six continents, as the qualification picture for the finals in Russia became clearer after the latest round of matches.
There were plenty of movements in the standings across the globe, as the likes of Brazil, Uruguay, Iran and New Zealand took a step further in their bid to make it to Russia in 18 months’ time.
Here is a roundup of all the action from the past week of competitive international football:
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice, missed a penalty, and hit the woodwork twice as European champions Portugal cruised to a 4-1 win over Latvia. Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team-mate, Gareth Bale, also scored for Wales, but couldn’t prevent the Euro 2016 semi-finalists from losing ground to Ireland and Serbia in the race for qualification.
Germany and Belgium confirmed their reputation as Europe’s two foremost attacking teams after scoring eight goals apiece against San Marino and Estonia, respectively. Elsewhere, Italy and Spain notched up comfortable 4-0 wins to stay unbeaten in Group G.
England and France registered wins over Scotland and Sweden to maintain their unbeaten records. The biggest surprise was Austria’s home 1-0 loss to Ireland. That result left the Austrians struggling in fourth place in a tough group, which also contains Wales and Serbia.
Argentina returned to winning ways against Colombia as Lionel Messi’s goal and two assists scripted the Albiceleste’s 3-0 win in San Juan. After a sorry outing against Brazil in their previous game, Argentina put their qualification campaign back on track. They now occupy the fifth spot in CONMEBOL qualification standings which guarantees an inter-confederation playoff spot.
On top of the standings is Tite’s Brazil, who won their sixth straight game under their new head coach. It was the first time the Canarinhos have won six on the spin since the heady days of Pele and Carlos Alberto. First, they took care of fierce rivals Argentina 3-0 in Belo Horizonte, and then inflicted a 2-0 defeat on Peru in Lima.
Uruguay, too, had kept pace with Brazil at the top when they beat Ecuador in Montevideo, but they crashed back to earth against Chile in their next game. Two Alexis Sánchez goals handed the defending South American champions a 3-1 win that kept them within reach of Uruguay.
It was a fortnight of frustration for United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann as the USMNT suffered back-to-back losses in CONCACAF qualification. Following a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Mexico in Columbus, the hapless Americans were embarrassed 4-0 by Costa Rica.
Those two defeats saw USA hit rock bottom in CONCACAF qualifying. With the fourth-placed team qualifying for an intercontinental playoff against an Asian team, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the USMNT—who are currently sixth—don’t make it to the World Cup.
Costa Rica’s win over USA was their second in two games. Along with Mexico and Panama, they currently occupy the automatic qualification places. Honduras are fourth. Trinidad and Tobago and USA have collected zero points so far.
Algeria stuttered once again as they succumbed to a 3-1 loss against a clinical Nigeria side. With their win, the Super Eagles maintained their perfect record in the final qualifying stage with two wins from two games.
Another continental heavyweight who failed to pick up their first win was Ghana. The Black Stars lost 2-0 to Egypt, who, like Nigeria, continued their perfect record.
The biggest surprise of the latest round of the CAF qualifiers was South Africa’s 2-1 win over Senegal. That result saw Burkina Faso leapfrog the Lions into top spot in Group D.
Nigeria and Egypt aside, there are no overwhelming favourites in the final round of CAF World Cup qualification. Only one team from each of the five groups will progress to the 2018 finals.
West Asian heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia slipped up in their pursuit of a place in the World Cup finals. While Syria denied Iran in a 0-0 draw, Japan made the most of their home advantage to inflict a 2-1 defeat on the Saudis. South Korea, meanwhile, closed the gap on Iran to just a point after their 2-1 win over Uzbekistan.
Australia failed to beat plucky Thailand as the Socceroos’ qualification campaign hit another roadblock. Australia have drawn the most matches in the penultimate AFC qualification round. Their 2-2 draw with Thailand was their third in a row.
Only the top two teams from each group will qualify directly for the finals in Russia. The two third-placed teams in each group face off to decide who will make it to the inter-confederation playoff against the fourth-placed CONCACAF team.
New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Tahiti all have a chance to make it into the inter-confederation playoff against the fifth-ranked CONMEBOL team. All three teams have a win each, and it remains to be seen who of those three can qualify for the playoff, or whether the likes of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea can upset the established order.