2018 World Cup Qualifying enters the home stretch this week, with many teams playing their final games in South America, CONCACAF, and Europe between now and next Tuesday, ahead of any playoffs. Here is a breakdown of where we stand.
CONCACAF: UNITED STATES MUST WIN AGAINST PANAMA TONIGHT
Okay, so technically, there is a path for the United States to finish in 4th and still qualify for a playoff against an Asian qualifier, ahead of Honduras, even with a loss. But practically, there’s no way the United States wants to be in a situation where they are relying on other CONCACAF results when Mexico and Costa Rica may have nothing to play for in the final game on Tuesday.
It’s fairly simple. Beat Panama and move ahead of them into 3rd and automatic qualification, probably needing then only a draw at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday to avoid that playoff and qualify.
Anything less than that would range from disaster to near-disaster for the USMNT. A draw would leave them trailing Panama entering the final week and at the mercy of Costa Rica giving effort at Panama while having clinched their spot.
CONMEBOL: SOUTH AMERICAN QUALIFYING IS STILL WIDE OPEN, AND ARGENTINA NEEDS HELP
South America is full of so many good teams, and some are going to miss the World Cup in what has been a wild and fantastic qualifying campaign. Last night, Argentina missed their opportunities and ended in a home draw against Peru. That leaves Argentina currently sitting in 6th, behind Peru for 5th on goals scored. Only 4 teams qualify automatically and the 5th will be a heavy favorite in a playoff against the Oceania winner (likely New Zealand).
The only thing we know for sure is that Brazil is in one of those spots. Uruguay is almost assuredly in, and would make it a certainty with a home win over Bolivia (and is probably in anyway on goal difference).
Outside that, the other 2.5 spots go to some combination of Colombia, Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay.
Colombia has to go to Peru is what looks like an elimination match. Peru must win while Colombia will need at least a tie.
Chile plays at Brazil, and is only one point in front of Argentina and Peru, and two in front of Paraguay, so they really need a tough road point at Brazil.
Argentina goes to Ecuador and must get the tough road win. A draw is going to leave them in trouble on goal difference/goals scored tiebreakers.
Meanwhile, Paraguay is lurking and gets Venezuela at home. They must win that but getting to 27 points would give them a very good chance to pass a couple of the teams in front of them.
It’s going to be a wild Tuesday in the Southern Hemisphere.
EUROPE: DECISION DAY IS LOOMING FOR SEVERAL BIG NAMES
In Europe, the winners of the 9 groups automatically qualify. The top 8 2nd-place teams will advance to a playoff in November, while the lowest-ranked 2nd place team is also eliminated. That factor is going to lead lots of teams to have to go all out for wins over the next five days, because that last spot is far from settled at the moment.
GROUP A: France 17, Sweden 16, Netherlands 13, Bulgaria 12 (through 8 games)
Netherlands is on the brink and needs a miracle. Sweden visits Netherlands in the final game. Netherlands also has to make up a goal difference as well (+11 vs +5). France just needs to get 3 points out of Bulgaria and Belarus, but hasn’t clinched yet either.
GROUP B: Switzerland 24, Portugal 21 (through 8 games)
Switzerland goes to Portugal in the final game, which will likely determine the group winner. The runner-up will be in the playoff based on points.
GROUP C: Germany 27+, No. Ireland 19* (through 9 games)
This one’s settled. Germany is in. Northern Ireland could use another point to solidify the 2nd-place playoff spot but should be okay (I’m projecting 17-18 points to be the cutline for the 2nd place finisher that misses the playoffs).
GROUP D: Serbia 18, Wales 14, Ireland 13 (through 8 games)
Serbia is in the driver’s seat but hasn’t clinched the automatic spot yet. Wales hosts Ireland in the Tuesday finale. Both teams also need results before then so that game can move them into the playoff, rather than leave them on the outside with a draw in Cardiff.
GROUP E: Poland 22, Denmark 19, Montenegro 16 (through 9 games)
Poland needs a point against Montenegro at home to clinch first and the auto qualification. Denmark needs a point at home against Romania to at least clinch a playoff spot, and a win and Poland loss to automatically qualify.
GROUP F: England 23+, Scotland 17, Slovakia 15, Slovenia 14 (through 9)
England has qualified. The runner-up spot is wide open and the teams also need to play for wins to avoid elimination. Scotland plays at Slovenia. Slovakia hosts minnow Malta and should get to 18 points. Will the runner-up be the one cut?
GROUP G: Spain 22, Italy 19, Albania 13 (through 8 games)
Spain and Italy are heavy favorites in the final two games, Spain just needs 4 points to clinch first. Italy should be locked into a playoff spot.
GROUP H: Belgium 22+, Bosnia & H 14, Greece 13, Cyprus 10
Belgium has clinched qualification. Bosnia hosts Belgium while Greece plays at Cyprus before closing against Gibraltar so today’s games will likely determine who can claim the runner-up and whether they will get enough points to avoid elimination before a playoff.
GROUP I: Croatia 16, Iceland 16, Turkey 14, Ukraine 14
The most uncertain group, with plenty still to be decided. Croatia closes at Ukraine after playing Finland. Iceland, darlings of EURO 2016, play at Turkey needing at least a point, then close against Kosovo. Turkey will still have to play at Finland after playing Iceland. Anyone can advance, or get 2nd, and they all need 3 points and to get to 19 overall to avoid potential elimination.
AFRICA: WILL SOME UNKNOWNS SURPRISE?
Africa plays one round this weekend, with the final games coming in November, so it’s likely that most of these groups remain in doubt.
GROUP A: Tunisia has a 3 point lead over Congo, they are done playing each other, so Tunisia needs to get 4 points to clinch for sure out of last 2 games
GROUP B: Cameroon is eliminated. Nigeria can clinch the group today with a home win over Zambia. If Zambia wins then it will come down to the last day.
GROUP C: A very tight group. Ivory Coast has 7 points and leads by 1 over Morocco. The two meet in Nigeria in the final game in November. Gabon is lurking with 5 points but must get points at Morocco tomorrow.
GROUP D: This one has not gone according to form. South Africa has only 1 point. Senegal and South Africa have to make up a game that was cancelled, after others are done in November, and play each other twice. Senegal has to catch Burkina Faso (they are done playing each other and played to two draws) but has that extra South Africa game in hand.
GROUP E: Ghana hosts Egypt in the final November matchup but it may not matter. Egypt has 9 points and a home game against bottom-of-group Congo to get to 12 points this weekend, while Ghana (5 points) has to go to Uganda (7 points).
ASIA: AUSTRALIA AND SYRIA IN A ONE-GAME SHOWDOWN
Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia have qualified. Syria and Australia played to a 1-1 draw in the first leg, and Australia hosts the 2nd leg on Tuesday. The winner plays the 4th-place team from CONCACAF in another playoff in November.
OCEANIA: NEW ZEALAND IS THE HEAVY FAVORITE TO ADVANCE
New Zealand plays the Solomon Islands in a playoff, with the winner facing the 5th-place team from South America.