With 83 broadcasts during six days of World Cup qualifying, soccer fans in the United States will have plenty of games to choose from.
Here’s our preview of many of the games to keep an eye out for during the next week:
Group A: It’s a cracking race in Group A, where the French – thanks to that incredible Hugo Lloris mistake in Solna in June – have lost their grip on the top spot to Sweden, with the Netherlands trailing just behind.
The game to watch will be France’s showdown with the Dutch at the Stade de France, while the Swedes will have to be sharp in trips to Bulgaria and Belarus.
Should France beat the Netherlands – under new management Dick Aadvocat – they’ll have the inside track on the automatic qualifying spot as they finish with games against the group’s bottom three teams.
Group B: It’s a two horse race in Group B, where Switzerland and Portugal are duking it out for the automatic bid.
The Swiss are on top at the moment thanks to their win over Portugal to open the campaign last September in Basel, and the two sides don’t meet again until the final day of qualifying in Lisbon.
Hungary is the only team in the group that could pose either Switzerland or Portugal problems, and they do get Fernando Santos’ side at home in this window.
Group C: Germany’s qualifying campaign has been about boring you’d expect it would be – six wins from six with a goal difference of +26 – and they could clinch qualification by the end of this window.
Northern Ireland, for one, will be hoping the Germans continue to roll. They lead the Czech Republic by four points for the group’s second spot, and the Czechs have to face Germany on September 1st before traveling to Belfast for a huge showdown at Windsor Park on the 4th.
Northern Ireland is trying to qualify for its first World Cup since 1986, and their defense is carrying them – they’ve only conceded two goals in their first six qualifiers.
Group D: The Group D race is wide open. Serbia and Ireland lead the way with twelve points, but Wales and Austria, on eight points, are very much within touching distance.
Every game in this group matters, but the big games to watch in this window fall on the second matchday – when Wales hosts Austria, and the Republic hosts Serbia. None of Wales, Ireland, or Serbia have lost yet in this campaign.
Group E: There’s a clear favorite in Group E, where Poland is rolling towards its first World Cup Finals since Germany 2006.
The Poles are out in front with 16 points, while Montenegro and Denmark – both on ten points – vie for the playoff spot. Romania could get itself into the argument with a win over Montenegro on the 4th, while Copenhagen will be alive for Poland’s visit on the 1st.
Group F: Gareth Southgate’s England leads the way in this group, two points ahead of Slovakia, three ahead of Slovenia, and – thanks only to Harry Kane’s stoppage time equalizer at Hampden Park in June – six ahead of Scotland.
The Scots face an uphill battle, but they could give themselves a chance going into the final window by taking maximum points from games against Lithuania and Malta.
England, on the other hand, can seal their qualification with wins over Slovakia and Slovenia, as both countries visit Wembley.
For those two countries, however, the trip to London will matter little. Of greater import will be the game they play against each other in Slovakia. Scotland will be praying for a draw.
Group G: Spain and Italy are running away with this group, tied on 16 points at the top with a World Cup ticket on the line in Madrid on 2nd in what is most likely the biggest qualifier happening anywhere on the planet in September.
It’s a can’t-miss game. Spain don’t often draw big crowds or atmosphere, but the Santiago Beranbeau should be bouncing for this game – with the Spanish, plsu David Villa, looking to exact a measure of revenge on the Italians for Italy’s win at Euro 2016.
Group H: Belgium – now under legitimate management in Roberto Martinez – are cruising towards Russia with a four point lead over Greece atop this group. A win over the Greeks on the third could see the Red Devils clinch qualification.
The race for second, then, between Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is where the action is. The Greeks have the inside track. Unless Bosnia can take points off Belgium, all Greece needs to do is win its remaining games against Estonia, Cyprus, and Gibraltar to take second.
Group I: It’s an excellent battle in Group I, where Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine are in the running and, in several cases, in turmoil.
Turkey has recently lost their larger-than-life coach Fatih Terim to a resignation, tendered after Terim drove the length of the country to beat up restaurant owner he was in a dispute with.
Mircea Lucescu, last with Zenit, has taken the reigns. His first act was to talk star man Arda Turan out of an international retirement induced by Turan’s refusal to apologize for grabbing the throat of a reporter on the team plane in June.
Croatia has legal problems as well. Its star player Luka Modric is under investigation for perjury after testifying at the trial of a former Dynamo Zagreb executive charged with embezzlement and tax fraud.
The Croatian public has turned against Modric, and it’s unclear if he will be called into the national team for its upcoming qualifiers.
Turkey and Croatia will meet on the second matchday of this window, as will the comparatively serene sides of Iceland and Ukraine. Each side has everything to play for.
SOUTH AMERICA (CONMEBOL)
Brazil, so pitiful in the aftermath of its landslide defeat to Germany at its World Cup three years ago, is back in a big way.
Under the direction of new manager Tite, who replaced Dunga after the 2016 Copa America in the U.S., the Brazilians have won their last eight games by a combined score of 24-2. They’re in.
That has left the likes of Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador to duke it out for the region’s final three automatic bids and single playoff spot.
It’s been a troubled campaign for Argentina, currently placed fifth and coming off of a loss at Bolivia in March. To rectify the situation, Argentina has turned to the continent’s best, Jorge Sampaoli, who led Chile to the 2015 Copa America title.
Sampaoli will have Lionel Messi available for his first two games against Uruguay and Venezuela, as Messi’s ban for verbally abusing an assistant referee was overturned by the FIFA Appeal Committee.
That Uruguay-Argentina game is the biggest in this region, while Peru and Paraguay need wins over Ecuador and Uruguay respectively to get into the conversation. The overwhelming likelihood is that the picture will still be congested going to October.
NORTH AMERICA, CENTRAL AMERICA, & THE CARABBEAN (CONCACAF)
Mexico remains top of the Hexagonal after six games, but the mood around El Tri has soured considerably during a summer in which the team was bounced from the group stage of the Confederations Cup and upset by Jamaica at the Gold Cup.
Embattled Mexcio manager Juan Carlos Osorio will serve the last of a six game ban for conduct in Russia when Panama visits the Azteca, but he’ll be back on the bench for a showdown against Costa Rica after that.
Osorio needs results badly, but he’ll be without his captain Rafa Marquez who was sanctioned by the U.S. government for his alleged ties to a drug trafficking organization.
Though they have fewer points than their southern rivals, things are much rosier in the U.S.’s camp, where the Americans won the Gold Cup in July and still haven’t lost under new manager Bruce Arena.
The U.S. is currently three points behind Costa Rica in third, but they can close that gap at Red Bull Arena on the 1st of September when the Ticos visit.
With Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica clearly the class of this region and likely to take the three automatic spots, the battle for the playoff spot seems to be down to Panama and Honduras with Trinidad and Tobago stuck on just three points.
Both teams play Trinidad in this window, but while Panama has to travel to Mexico, Honduras gets the U.S. in San Pedro Sula – where they beat the Americans in 2013.
Group A: Africa has revamped its qualifying format for the better. In the past, African teams were split into ten groups, with the winners facing off in two-legged playoffs to determine the destinations of the continents five bids.
Now, it’s simpler: five groups, the group winners go to the World Cup.
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