A review of the current state of World Cup qualification for the 2018 tournament in Russia, including Belgium becoming the sixth nation to book their space.
Only three weekends into the new English Premier League (EPL) season, a cavernous crack appears in the fixture list to make way for the 2018 World Cup qualification process.
We know that Russia has already qualified as hosts, but who else has booked a spot in the greatest sporting event in the calendar?
Let’s take a look, shall we?
209 international teams contest the 2018 World Cup divided into six geographically sound regions.
Only 32 will make it through to the finals, and as host, Russia was the first team to book a spot without kicking a ball.
Let’s take a look at the regional qualification process.
53 teams take part in the African qualification process.
At the time of writing, two of three rounds have finished, and 20 teams are remaining in contention for five qualification spots.
Round 3 consists of five groups of four teams, who will play each other home and away in a typical league format. The five group winners will qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Tunisia currently lead Group A with three wins out of three, Nigeria has a stranglehold on Group B with three wins and a draw. Group C and D are the most difficult groups to call, but it seems either the Ivory Coast or Morocco will qualify from Group C, and you can perm any one of Burkino Faso, Senegal, South Africa, and Cape Verde in a very tight Group D. Uganda and Egypt will scrap it out for the Group E places.
It’s worth noting that no African side has ever won a World Cup. Cameroon, Ghana, and Senegal have all made the quarter-finals.
The largest contingent of teams comes from Europe.
54 teams will compete, one more than Africa, and they are currently sitting in nine groups, with the group winners guaranteed a place in the finals, and the best eight runners-up competing in a two-legged playoff to find the final four teams, making a total of 13 European teams.
As previously explained, Russia has already qualified as hosts, and the first European side to join them are the Belgians. Roberto Martinez’s side, ranked #9 in the world, qualified with two games to spare after beating Greece 2-1, Romelu Lukaku scoring the winner in the 74th minute to continue his excellent start to the season.
Belgium qualify from Group H. Bosnia and Herzegovina will fight it out with Greece for a playoff spot.
France still tops Group A, but their lead over Sweden is only one point after a humiliating goalless draw against Luxembourg. The Netherlands, who were thumped 4-0 by the French on Thursday, bounced back well with a 3-1 win over Bulgaria, and are only three points behind Sweden, and four behind France.
The only thing we don’t know about Group B is who will top the group: Switzerland or Portugal?
The Swiss, who is ranked #4 in the world, got through this weekend’s matches with their 100% record intact. That’s eight wins from eight for the Swiss, with the only blot on Portugal’s copybook being a 2-0 defeat to Switzerland in Basel a year ago.
World Cup favourites Germany retained their 100% record with victories over the Czech Republic and Norway, and Northern Ireland is hanging onto their coat tails thanks to their fifth win on the trot with wins over San Marino and the Czech Republic over the weekend. Germany will qualify as group leaders, and Northern Ireland will pick up a playoff spot.
Group D is an interesting group.
Three sides have yet to taste defeat in their first seven games. Serbia sits on top with 15 points, The Republic of Ireland are second with 13 points, and the surprise package of the European Championships, Wales lie in third with 11 points.
Ben Woodburn’s 74th-minute strike for the Welsh at home to Austria on Saturday put an end to a run of five straight draws for Chris Coleman’s side.
Three teams are in contention for qualification in Group E. The Poles remain on top with 19 points despite suffering a crushing 4-0 defeat to fellow qualifying hopefuls Denmark. The Danes sit in third on 16 points, Montenegro holds second spot, also on 16 points.
In Group F, England retained their unbeaten group form, with victories over Malta and Slovakia. They hold a five point gap over Slovakia, with Slovenia and Scotland one point behind in a three horse race for playoff qualification.
Spain is also unbeaten.
The Group G leaders have a three point lead over the Italians, and surely both of these teams will advance by hook or by crook. Albania is four points off the pace, and not in the same league as these two mighty nations.
Finally, four teams are vying for the two top spots in Group I. Croatia leads with 16 points, Ukraine has 14, Iceland 13, and Turkey has 13. I expect Croatia to finish as group leaders with Iceland going through to the playoffs.
I love the way the South Americans do things.
No messing about.
Ten teams, one league, and the top four teams qualify, with the fifth placed team qualifying for the Intercontinental Play-Off.
Brazil became the first side to qualify back in March, losing just once to Chile in the opening game of the group, 14 matches ago. The race for the other three spots is as tight as Kate Moss’s arse with Colombia (25), Uruguay (24), Chile (23), Argentina (23), Peru (21), Paraguay (21), and Ecuador (20) all still in contention for a trip to a much colder climate.
45 Asian teams began the hunt, and at the time of writing only 12 teams remain, split into two groups of six, with the group winners and runners-up going through, and the third place finishers falling into the Intercontinental Play-Off.
Iran is through after winning Group A. Carlos Queiroz’s side has failed to concede a goal in over 18 hours of football, and remain unbeaten after nine matches. Japan qualified as Group B winners.
The Korea Republic, Syria, and Uzbekistan will compete for the runner-up spot in Group A, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, and Australia will do likewise in Group B.
North, Central America, and the Caribbean
35 teams began this weaker side of the draw.
Currently, only six remain, locked in a league format with the top three teams heading to Russia. Mexico has already qualified, Costa Rica will almost certainly follow, leaving USA, Honduras, and Panama to fight it out for the third spot. The fourth place finisher gets another chance in the Intercontinental Play-Off.
Poor little Oceania, 11 teams participated in this region, and none of them get the luxury of a comfortable ride to Russia. Currently, only two teams remain: New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, and the winner of that two-legged playoff wins a spot in the Intercontinental Play-Offs where only one side will emerge with a place in Russia.
The Betting Odds (Oddsshark)
Europe – Russia, and Belgium
Asia – Iran, and Japan
South America – Brazil
North, Central America, and the Caribbean – Mexico