In a week’s time, the field for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will be set. All that’s left to settle are four playoff ties in Europe, two pitting teams from across continental divides, and three groups in Africa.
Drama is guaranteed. The tournament, as we approach the new year, lies just around the corner.
Northern Ireland v. Switzerland: Switzerland had an excellent campaign – winning their first nine games – but it was undone on the final day of group play when they were beaten soundly in Portugal and lost the top spot on goal difference.
Nevertheless, the Swiss should still have enough to reach a fourth straight World Cup. Their opponents in this tie, Northern Ireland, haven’t been to a finals since 1986 and enter this game having lost two straight in October.
Switzerland has, by some distance, the better team. If Northern Ireland is to have a chance, they need to take the lead to Basel for the second leg. If they don’t, they won’t have enough offense to get through.
Croatia v. Greece: Greece, after a nightmarish Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in which they picked up just seven points from ten games and finished behind the Faroe Islands, is out for redemption.
Despite their still considerable talent, Croatia has had an uneven campaign. They only secured progress to the playoff round after replacing manager Ante Cacic awith Zlatko Dalic before a win on the final day of group play in Ukraine.
If Croatia can run up the score in the first leg in Zagreb, they should get through. If they don’t, Greece – as it’s done so many times before – is primed to take advantage.
Sweden v. Italy: The glamour tie of the four. Sweden has improved immensely in its first two years without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and, to point, it was their eight-goal explosion in Luxembourg on the penultimate day that was the difference in their progression ahead of the Dutch.
Italy, meanwhile, looks fairly insipid in the post-Antonio Conte era. The Azzurri are still short on attacking talent, and still led by the Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini triumvirate at the back.
This tie is a tossup. Sweden is playing the better soccer, but the Italians do have a wealth of big-game experience to draw upon. Manager Gian Piero Ventura said Monday that Italy is “always there when there’s something important to play for.” We’ll see.
Denmark v. Ireland: A classic Martin O’Neill smash-and-grab in Wales sent Ireland improbably through on the final day of group play, while the Danes locked up the second spot in their group more comfortably thanks in large part to the goalscoring heroics of Christian Eriksson.
Ireland’s calling card throughout qualifying has its resilience – especially on the road – and they won’t be bothered by having to travel to Copenhagen for the first leg.
Both teams, but especially Denmark are facing significant injury problems, while Ireland has ten players sitting on yellow cards. It’s likely going to be a tense, physical, unyielding affair.
Group A: While the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still mathematically alive, this group is Tunisia’s to lose. All the Carthage Eagles have to do to return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 is get a point against lowly Libya.
Congo DR has to run up the score on Guinea, and hope for a miracle.
Group B: Nigeria is qualified.
Group C: It all comes down in Group C to Morocco’s trip to Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday.
The Ivory Coast needs a win, while Morocco – under the direction of the accomplished Herve Renard – needs just a draw to make their first World Cup appearance since France ’98.
Group D: The big drama in this group came in September, when FIFA ordered that a qualifier between South Africa and Senegal in November 2016 be replayed after the match referee was found guilty of match manipulation and banned for life.
The replay, which overturned a 2-1 Bafana Bafana win, means that the two countries will meet twice in this window while Burkina Faso and the Cape Verde Islands – who both currently trail Senegal by two points – will play in Ouagadougou.
Whatever happens in that latter game, one point should be enough for Senegal to qualify.
Group E: The Pharaohs of Egypt clinched their World Cup return – at the expense of Ghana, among others – in dramatic fashion a month ago.
CONMEBOL/OFC (SOUTH AMERICA/OCEANIA)
New Zealand v. Peru: A wild final day of South American qualifying saw Chile bite the dust and Peru reach the playoff stage, their dream of reaching the finals for the first time since 1982 nearly realized.
Peru is the prohibitive favorite to finish the job in this tie. The gap in talent between the two teams is huge, and while the Kiwis did survive a playoff to make the World Cup in South Africa, they were trounced at this hurdle by Mexico 9-3 four years ago.
That said, the buildup to these games has not been smooth for the South Americans. Their captain and talisman Paolo Guerrero will play no part after failing a drug test.
CONCACAF/AFC (NORTH AMERICA, CENTRAL AMERICA, AND CARRIBIAN/ASIA)
Honduras v. Australia: Neither Honduras and Australia are boasting vintage teams, but both will feel they have gotten a fairly favorable playoff task.
There, however, myriad uncertainty in the Australia camp. Manager Ange Postecoglou is set to quit after this tie regardless of its result, while the ageless Tim Cahill is a fitness doubt for the first leg at least.
The first leg, which is set for Friday, is where Jorge Luis Pinto’s team will look to do its damage. San Pedro Sula is a horrible place to play for visiting teams, and Australia’s trip there will take nearly an entire day.
Here’s the TV/streaming schedule for all of the World Cup qualifiers for soccer fans in the United States (kickoffs are listed as Eastern Time):
Thursday, November 9
Croatia vs. Greece (1st leg), 2:45pm, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3 and Sling Latino (7-day free trial)
Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland (1st leg), 2:45pm, ESPN2, ESPN3 and Sling Latino (7-day free trial)
Friday, November 10
Saturday, November 11
Zambia vs. Cameroon, 8am, beIN SPORTS Connect and fubo Premier (free trial)
Gabon vs. Mali, 9:30am, beIN SPORTS Connect and fubo Premier (free trial)
Congo DR vs. Guinea, 12:30pm, beIN SPORTS Connect and fubo Premier (free trial)
Tunisia vs. Libya, 12:30pm, beIN SPORTS Connect and fubo Premier (free trial)
Sunday, November 12
Congo vs. Uganda, 9:30am, beIN SPORTS Connect and fubo Premier (free trial)
Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland (2nd leg), Noon, ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3 and Sling Latino (7-day free trial)
Greece vs. Croatia (2nd leg), 2:45pm, ESPN Deportes, ESPNEWS, ESPN3 and Sling Latino (7-day free trial)
Monday, November 13
Tuesday, November 14
Burkina Faso vs. Cape Verde Islands, 2:30pm, TV/streaming TBD
Wednesday, November 15