The biggest and best games of the international break weekend
By Leo Linden and Daniel Rubens
The international break is upon us. That doesn’t always mean there will be important football played, but that is the case this weekend as teams resume (or begin) their World Cup qualifying campaign. Here’s a very quick jaunt around the world as we take a look at where each football federation is in its qualification cycle and what the most interesting matchps of the break are.
Stage: Fourth Round — Three groups of four teams. Top two in each group qualify for Hexagonal (Final Round)
With just two games separating the USMNT from the Hex, the
Americans have yet to lock up their spot in the final round. Sitting in second place in Group C, the USMNT first needs to take care of business against St. Vincent and the Grenadines at noon Friday before facing off with the current group leaders, Trinidad and Tobago, on Tuesday. If the USMNT beats St. Vincent, which it should do easily (the first matchup was a 6-1 win), Jurgen Klinsmann’s side would advance if T&T can get a draw or win over third-placed Guatemala. But should the Guatemalans win, that would leave the USMNT needing a result in Jacksonville against Trinidad and Tobago on the final day. They are still in complete control of their destiny, but it's not as clear-cut as Klinsmann would like it to be going into the final two matches. Elsewhere in Group B, Panama match up with Jamaica in a huge battle that could decide who will make it through to the Hex. The Reggae Boyz trail the Panamanians by three points, and with Costa Rica having all but locked up the top spot (they could still mathematically be eliminated, but it’s a major long shot), the two are left to battle it out for the other advancing position. Advantage will be with the Central American side, who has already beat Jamaica in Kingston and will host them in Panama City. Finally, in Group A, Mexico have already advanced, leaving Honduras (4 pts), Canada (4 pts), and El Salvador (2 pts) to duke it out for the final spot. Canada have the advantage, as they are the one of the three that don’t have to play Mexico in the final two matchdays. They first go to Honduras before hosting El Salvador in Vancouver, and those games will go a very long way in deciding who will keep their World Cup dreams alive. Things are certainly still wide open heading into a crucial stretch.
Stage: Third Round — Two groups of six teams, top two in each group advance to World Cup. Third in each group enter playoff against each other, winner goes to intercontinental playoff
One game into Asia’s final main qualifying round, and the story of the opening matchday was Japan’s surprise loss to the United Arab Emirates in Tokyo. Now, the UAE will be able to show if despite being ranked 74th in the FIFA world rankings they are ready to put forth a serious challenge to make the trip to Russia in 2018. They return home to face the team most have pipped to win Group B, Australia, and if they can get another good result (a tie included), they will be set up well to put forth a run. Meanwhile, in Group A, the big tie of the round will take place between two rising squads when China hosts Iran. The
Chinese lost a tough matchup 3-2 on Thursday with South Korea, while Iran got the better of Qatar thanks to a pair of stoppage-time goals. Those four squads, along with Syria and Uzbekistan, make up the group, so while South Korea are most likely going to top the table, there is a wild chase for second on the horizon. Based on talent, Iran and China are in the best position to snag that second automatic qualifying spot, so even though this matchup comes early, it's a massive one, to say the least.
Stage: First Round (Group Stage) — nine groups of five or six teams, winner of each group advances to World Cup, top eight runners-up go to home-and-away playoff
The Euros have come and gone, and now the attention of Europe shifts back to the World Cup as qualifying gets underway this Sunday. Russia is already in, and 52 nations will battle it out over the next year and a half for the other 13 spots available for a berth in the tournament. Each team will play once between Sunday and Tuesday, and although there aren’t a whole lot of marquee matchups, there are certainly some intriguing fixtures to be played. Sunday’s slate is a bit lackluster, with England’s visit to Slovakia — a battle of the two Group F frontrunners — serving as the headliner. On Labor Day, there are a
bunch of games to get excited about, as Croatia and Turkey meet in a rematch from the Euros and some of the most successful sides from this summer’s competition debut in qualifying. Most notably, Iceland has a difficult matchup at Ukraine that will provide an immediate test following their extraordinary run in France. Wales, Italy, and Spain also all get going Monday as well. Tuesday provides the first look at Portugal after breaking their big tournament curse in a fascinating game against Switzerland, as well as debuts in the cycle for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. While none of these games have a ton of urgency since they’ll be the first in the qualification process, every side that entered will want to get off to a hot start, and there are some small teams out there that are capable of pulling of a surprise or two, so the big nations need to be dialed in from the get-go.
Stage: First Round — One group with all 10 countries, each playing a home-and-home against every other for a total of 18 games each. Top four go to the World Cup, fifth goes to intercontinental playoff.
Due to the wild nature of what is essentially a 10-team league deciding who goes to the World Cup, South America features possibly the most entertaining qualification process, and it’s already well underway. It’s already fascinating, too. Thursday was matchday seven of the CONMEBOL cycle, and it contained some huge results, most notably Argentina’s Lionel Messi-inspired win over Uruguay that pushed La Albiceleste to the top of the standings. They aren’t far ahead, however, as Argentina leads a pack of three teams — Uruguay, Ecuador, and Colombia — by just a single point, with Brazil another point back after scoring three late goals to beat Ecuador 3-0 Thursday. Paraguay are level on points with Brazil for that playoff spot, with two-time
defending Copa America champions Chile lagging two points further back following a 2-1 loss to Paraguay in which they conceded twice in the first nine minutes. Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela are all trailing significantly, but any is capable of springing a surprise. Each of the 10 teams gets back at it Tuesday, with Brazil hosting Colombia and Paraguay visiting Uruguay in the best matchups. Chile is also presented with a big opportunity to get their train on track with a home game against Bolivia. If they can win it, Chile will find themselves right back in the thick of the race. There’s still plenty of games left to play, but there will be some important matches under the microscope early next week down in the Southern hemisphere.
African Cup of Nations Qualifying
Stage: First Round - 13 groups of three or four. First in each group goes to AFCON, two best second place also qualify
With just one day left in qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations, a lot of the groups have already been decided, but there are a couple that still hang in the balance. Groups A and B are two of those undecided ones, and each features the top two teams battling it out, with Liberia travelling to Tunisia and DR Congo hosting Central African Republic. A win for any of the four sides would secure their place in the competition, leaving the other in second (or third) and potentially on the outside looking in. Draws make things quite complicated in Group A, while in B, a draw will put the Congo into the tournament. Elsewhere, there’s a mild surprise with the Ivory Coast, who lead their
three-team group, but only by a single point, and if they can’t manage to get at least a draw against the Sierra Leone, they will find themselves stunned and out of the tournament.