The FIFA World Cup Qualification Wrap (Penultimate Edition)

This international break is (next to the World Cup itself) the best lot of games every four years. Europe and South Americas group stages come to an end and nations from the other confederations begin to book their spots with some going in to agonising playoffs in November for the final spots. Let’s get in to it…

 

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ASIA (AFC)

Well, may we live in interesting times when it comes to the Socceroos. After blowing automatic qualification last month it was now a showdown with Syria over two legs before another playoff against an unknown opponent from North or Central America in November.

 

Ah the two legged play off. Like an old adversary, you rather miss it when it’s not there after we had to endure them over the decades. Now we had two to hopefully go through. Ange again surprised (if that’s the word) bringing back the former Perth Glory speedster Nikita Rukavystya after years in the wilderness. The 30 year old has been in Israel for quite some time and was considering becoming a citizen turning his back on Australia but here he was. In truth, his non selection at times may have been because of the fact he couldn’t enter half the countries we play in in this confederation due his place of residence but a left field choice nonetheless.

 

A majority of us would have watched both games so it does not need a report really. The first leg was played in Melaka. You could have perhaps called it Metricon with the empty multicoloured seats and humidity in a stadium out in the middle of nowhere. The 1-1 draw was deserved perhaps seeing as Syria really turned it on in the second half as the Aussies succumbed to the weather. Their #10 was also a game changer coming as a sub, the 34 year old in the footy shorts was a constant danger. The penalty? 50-50 but didn’t look good. More than enough to be used as a stick to beat the sport with by the usual flat earthers.

 

The second leg was heart stopping to say the least. Mark Milligan, our captain on the night probably the most consistent Socceroo next to Tim Cahill in the past 10 years, coughed the ball up early in the match which let Syria go up the other end to score. Down 1-0, Mooy sensationally dropped, a 38 year old Cahill starting. The sky is falling! The Socceroos prevailed though thanks to that man Cahill and two rare but nonetheless beautiful crosses from the much-maligned Robbie Kruse. A rather sturdy upright also did its job right at the death as every collectively skipped a beat when a Syrian free kick almost snuck past Matt Ryan. While we celebrated and above all else breathed at sneaking through against an emotional opponent the discussion on Ange, his tactics and the overreliance on a guy approaching 40 needs to be discussed. This campaign really has been a death by 1,000 cuts.

 

At the time of writing Postecoglou is denying reports he wants to leave after the two-legged play off next month. Does he have another job? He hates being away from a young family too much? The constant criticism in the media is too much? If it’s the latter involving the media it’s a bit meek. He has stuck by his back three tactics and some sacred cows like Kruse so the criticism is going to come. It’s not all sitting on the offsiders couch being described in big words by Gerard when it comes to the media. Interesting times indeed but it shows now more than any other time how hard it is qualify for the tournament. Read below and you’ll see bigger fish than us plucky Aussie have been in big trouble and aren’t even going in some cases.

 

IN SUMMARY – Australia scrape through again thanks to Cahill. Ange could be out the door. Robbie Kruse looks like a ventriloquist dummy. The Syrian fans were wonderful. Australia moves on to the final play off in November.

 

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NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA (CONCACAF)

 

In CONCACAF Australia will face Honduras after an extraordinary final day of qualifying.

 

In the penultimate round last week it seemed that the spluttering United States had done enough to be going to the World Cup with their 4-0 belting of Panama. Costa Rica qualified with a last minute goal in a draw with Honduras and Mexico won a dead rubber against the hapless Trinidad and Tobago 3-1.

 

For the final round of games the US would visit Couva to take on Trinidad and Tobago needing only a draw to finish third in the group and head to their eighth straight World Cup. Panama would host already qualified Costa Rica and Honduras would host Mexico. As the concurrent games progressed the US turned to water in the Caribbean with an own goal and then second near half time to have them languishing at 2-0 down at the half. In the other games it was 2-1 Mexico and 1-0 Costa Rica which meant that if things stayed the way they were the USA would qualify, Panama would play Australia and Honduras would be out.

 

In the second half the US got a goal back through the Dortmund winger Pulisic but that was the last thing to go the Yanks’ way. Panama equalised with a very controversial goal and a minute later so did Honduras in their game. It was still enough for the US to qualify though. Then on the hour the Honduras went ahead which put the US in the qualifying spot against Australia and Panama out. Minutes ticked away as the US looked for an equaliser and Panama craved a winning goal. Us Aussies were trying to find the positives and negatives of whatever eventuality.

 

With minutes left it seemed as though it would another denial of Panama by the US but on the four-year anniversary of a late goal by the US knocking Panama out of making the Brazil tournament the plucky Central Americans returned the favour. With time winding down, striker Luis Tejada headed the ball forward into the box, and Roman Torres outraced a Costa Rica defender before poking it past the keeper and score Panama’s greatest ever goal and condemn the US to elimination. Honduras survived to win 3-2 against Mexico and take fourth place behind Panama meaning a showdown with Australia next month and gunning for their third World Cup in a row.

 

It was a complete disaster for Team USA and their returning coach Bruce Arena in a campaign that much like Australia’s has never really got going. What makes it more of a failure is the fact they were in a qualification system designed so that giants of the region like them and Mexico always qualify. The FIFA bean counters would also be wincing with such a big market now not going to Russia. More Americans travel to World Cups than any other country but this is the time for Panama, an extraordinary effort.

 

IN SUMMARY-Mexico are joined by Costa Rica and first timers Panama in the World Cup. Honduras take on Australia over two legs next month.

 

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AFRICA (CAF)

With one round of games left two of the five participants from Africa are known.

 

At long long last Egypt will be going to a World Cup after not actually messing it all up for once. Their 2-1 win at home to Congo in Group E coupled with a 0-0 draw between Uganda and Ghana meant the Pharaohs could not be caught and are going to their first World Cup in 28 years. This sparked wild celebrations in Cairo for a country that has its issues in recent times.

 

In Group B the ‘super eagles’ Nigeria qualified for their sixth World Cup in the past seven after they beat Zambia 1-0 at home thanks to Arsenal’s young striker Alexander Iwobi. The result put them out of reach in first place.

 

The other three places are still up for grabs and will all go down to the final round next month.

 

Tunisia only need a point against the struggling Libya in Rades to confirm they’ll be going back to the World Cup for the first time since 2006. The Democratic Republic of Congo will need a minor miracle to overtake them in Group A hoping for a big win themselves and Tunisia blowing it.

 

In Group C it will be a massive final day with Ivory Coast hosting the leading Morocco who will only need to draw to make their first World Cup in 20 years. Whether they can handle one of Africa’s best nations and their wild fans in Abidjan is another thing. In Group D it’s wide open thanks to Senegal and South Africa having to repeat a game. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde also play each other to round out the group.

 

IN SUMMARY – Egypt and Nigeria going to the World Cup. Three other spots still up for grabs in the other three groups.

 

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SOUTH AMERICA (CONMEBOL)

There was also massive drama (as always) on the final day of qualifying in South America.

 

In the penultimate round last week Argentina again dropped valuable points drawing at home to Peru 0-0. Peru were themselves on an extraordinary run to try and make the World Cup for the first time since 1982 and were hanging in there. Chile’s win over Ecuador and an upset win by Paraguay away to Colombia meant it would be the most even finish in decades to see which three would join Brazil out of the six teams still in it.

 

In the final games Argentina would travel to Ecuador needing at least a draw. Peru would host Colombia and both Uruguay and Paraguay would have games they would expect to win.

 

Argentina’s tactic of ‘just give to Messi’ finally paid off with the little master scoring a hat trick in a 3-1 win in the thin air of Quito. It seemed that much like Australia it took going a goal down to prick the pride of the team. Despite a big scare and an underwhelming squad, the finalists from 2014 will be heading to another World Cup with captained by the best player in the world.

 

In the other games places swapped around as results changed. Chile had to answer to Brazil as the home side eased to a 3-0 win in Sao Paulo. Paraguay was coming home with a wet sail in this campaign and only had to win at home to lowly Venezuela to qualify but somehow lost 1-0. Uruguay had an early scare but then did it easy against Bolivia 4-2, the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo again rocking like it did on that horrible day involving the Socceroos in November 2001.

 

With all of this going on the most intriguing game was in Lima, Peru. In front of a massive vocal crowd the home side and the visiting Colombians played end-to-end football but no goal would come. In the second half the hero of 2014 James Rodriguez was deadly in the box to put Colombia ahead on the hour mark silencing the crowd. Peru fond their rhythm as the locals found their vocal chords again though and wouldn’t go down without fighting. They had not had a chance like this to go to the World Cup in a very long time. With 16 minutes to go a free kick was given to Peru in a dangerous position. Up stepped the veteran, star, captain and lifeblood of the team Paolo Guerro. The 33 year old former Bundesliga striker put a stunning free kick past the keeper to equalize and send the crowd in to raptures. They believed again!

 

With tension running through every orifice of the Estadio Nacional in Lima the crowd were pensive, silent at times, following what Chile was doing when they had a chance to check their phones. With word filtering through of the 3-0 loss by Chile all Peru had to do was draw as both sides were dead on their feet giving it their all. Finally, full time, and a 1-1 draw would mean Peru would finish fifth behind Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina. This meant a play off with New Zealand next month, they survived! Chile, the back-to-back reigning champions of South America, were out. A big loss to the neutrals for Russia next year such is there exciting nature.

 

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The entertaining Colombians will be back for another World Cup

IN SUMMARY-Brazil are joined by Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay in the World Cup. Plucky Peru will take on New Zealand in a two legged play off in November. Chile and Paraguay blew it with their own fate in their hands.

 

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EUROPE (UEFA)

Finally, the inevitable happened in some groups while the horrific and amazing happened in others as the group stage wrapped up.

 

In Group A France finally qualified following their scare against Luxembourg last month. A 2-1 win in Paris against Belarus saw them top the group. The big news in this group though was the elimination of Holland. It was telegraphed that the Oranje were in trouble but after Sweden’s huge win over Luxembourg they would need beat Sweden at home by eight goals to sneak in to second. While a 2-0 win over Sweden was nice with a cracking Arjen Robben goal to boot it wasn’t enough with Sweden finishing second. The issues of jobs for the boys, a lack of talent coming through and a dated football model (used by Australia might I add) are just some of the major issues currently effecting a once great footballing nation. 1974 is a long time ago and Johan Cryuff is no longer with us.

 

In Group B, Portugal hosted Switzerland on the final day with a win needed to overtake the Swiss and qualify automatically rather than go through the playoffs. The normally air tight Swiss defence wilted in Lisbon with an own goal putting Portugal ahead right on half time. Then in the second half a goal from emerging AC Milan star Andre Silva sealed the fate of the Swiss and sent the reigning European champs Portugal in to the World Cup. The Swiss will have to go through to the playoffs.

 

Germany finally qualified as expected after a 3-1 win in Belfast against the second placed Northern Ireland. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Irish who finished second and will go through the playoffs after surviving a tough group. The heroes of Euro 2016, Wales, will not be repeating their miracle after being eliminated in Group D. Coming down to the final round of games Wales only had to draw with the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff to get through to the play offs, a win may have seen them finish top and qualify automatically. Alas, Ireland under Martin O’Neill are lacking talent but have organisational skills at the back in abundance. With Wales not really offering anything a mistake by their keeper meant the ball went back to the Irish in a dangerous area letting James McClean lash home a shot in front a static Welsh defence. Wales after that offered hardly a shot as Ireland held on to win 1-0 and go in to the playoffs. Serbia finished top to qualify automatically.

 

Poland are on their way to another World Cup after topping Group E, two wins in the final two games sealing their passage. Denmark finished a close second to go into the playoffs. England topped Group F as expected following another rather forgetful qualifying campaign. The win over Slovenia at Wembley confirming their participation. Scotland came home with a host of wins to take in to the final round of games to try and sneak in to a playoff position. Against Slovenia in Ljubljana, the Scots went ahead through Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths before a double from Bezjak in the second half made it 2-1 Slovenia. A late goal to Snodgrass gave Scotland hope but a 2-2 draw wasn’t enough and they were once again out. Coach Gordon Strachan’s description of Scottish footballers being ‘genetically inferior’ has been roundly mocked in the press.

 

In Group G, Spain’s 3-0 win over Albania meant they would be heading to Russia after an impressive campaign. With the end of an era at the last World Cup the bringing through of new talent to replace some of the greats has worked a treat so far. Italy finished second and will have to go through the playoffs if they want to join their fellow former World Cup winners in Russia.

 

Coming to a World Cup near you…the Viking Clap! (The sound not the affliction downstairs)

In Group H Greece finished second to already qualified Belgium and scraped in to the play offs. While Wales failed to back up their brilliant Euro 2016 Iceland will back again after topping Group I. A massive win in Turkey last week set them up for a triumphant final game against lowly Kosovo who they dispatched 2-0. That iconic Viking support will be coming to Russia next June! Croatia finished second in the group and will be in the playoffs after defeating Ukraine 2-0 in Kiev. Many at FIFA (and the UN) will be slightly relieved that Ukraine will not be appearing in Russia next year.

 

IN SUMMARY – France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Iceland are all going to Russia.

Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Greece and the Republic of Ireland will all go in to a two-legged play off in November with all the four winners joining their fellow Eurotrash in the tournament.

The Dutch, the apparently genetically inferior Scots and Euro 2016 darlings Wales are all out.

 

THE STATS THAT MATTER (OR NOT):

-23 countries have qualified so far. (Russia, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany, England, Spain, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Poland, Egypt, Iceland, Serbia, Portugal, France, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Panama).

-20 countries can still qualify for 9 places left for the tournament.

-168 countries have been eliminated so far.

-849 qualifying games have been played so far with 23 games still to play.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM presenter and Glory Guerrillas pod co-host. Cat, Cardie, Glory Bhoy and Socceroo by pain of death. Seen too many Geelong and Socceroos disasters to mention and worships the holy trinity of Larsson, Mifka and Senna.

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