World Cup Russia 2018: The race to Russia heats up

George Matthew Roar Rookie

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    Another memorable season of club football has come to an end with plenty of talking points.

    #WengerOut, the polarising opinions on Mourinho and Antonio Conte’s touchline celebrations have all appeared frequently on newspapers and social media throughout the club season.

    And who could forget the phenomenal effort of Graham Arnold and Sydney FC, breaking records on our shores? However, despite the eye-watering sums of money clubs are rumoured to be offering some players, the talk of club football must come to an end as the international break looms.

    On the eve of the one-year countdown to Russia 2018, qualifying spots are well and truly heating up.

    AFC
    Asian world cup qualifying has been fairly predictable to date with the stronger sides at the higher end of the table and the weaker nations struggling to pick up victories.

    Perhaps the biggest shock is that with three games remaining, Saudi Arabia are in second place in Group B, three points above Australia and occupying a position which would give them direct qualification into the 2018 Finals.

    Australia has a golden chance to change that against the Saudis in Adelaide in which a win would give the Socceroos a huge shot in the arm.

    Meanwhile Japan, who are equal first with Saudi Arabia, travel to Tehran to play Iraq at their make-shift home on Tuesday.

    A win for Japan would leave them in good stead but it would still be far from over as they play the group’s best two teams in their remaining fixtures; they host the Socceroos in late August while they travel to Riyadh to play Saudi Arabia only a few days later.

    The UAE are in fourth place and while they have looked solid at times, they will find it difficult to close the gap to Australia.

    Meanwhile, group A presents itself in a similar situation to group B with Iran and South Korea in the driving seats to Russia.

    Iran has a chance to become the second team after Brazil to qualify for the 2018 finals if they can overcome Uzbekistan at home and South Korea can put themselves on the brink of qualification with a win in Doha against a struggling Qatar.

    Uzbekistan are favourites to finish third as despite only being one point off South Korea, they face arguably the toughest run home which includes both the group heavyweights of Iran and South Korea as well as a tricky away match against China.

    Tomas Rogic congratulated by team

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    UEFA
    Europe again provides the footballing world with drama-packed qualifying as we enter the second half of UEFA qualifying.

    Group A sees France lead the group with Sweden three points adrift. Perhaps the biggest shock is that 2010 World Cup finalists Netherlands languish in fourth place, two points behind third placed Bulgaria and are in serious danger of missing out on qualification.

    France will be hoping for a repeat of the 2-1 win against Sweden back in November while outsiders Bulgaria could lift themselves above Sweden into second place if they can get a result away to second-last Belarus, while relying on Sweden losing to France.

    If France and Sweden continue their good form, the Dutch – who achieved third place at the 2014 Finals – will suffer a huge blow and will miss out on consecutive major tournaments.

    Group B sees Euro 2016 champions Portugal currently in second place and in a playoffs position while the reliable Switzerland occupy first place.

    Portugal are away to Latvia on Saturday morning (AEST) and will be hoping Cristiano Ronaldo can continue his rich vein of form.

    The Swiss also enter their match as strong favourites against the Faroe Islands and will be hoping for an emphatic victory to maintain first place.

    Hungary are in third place and are five points behind Portugal, leaving them with only a remote chance at the playoff round.

    Group C sees defending World Champions Germany assert their dominance in their group with five wins from five games.

    Despite Germany picking a young squad with the Confederations Cup in mind, they face European minnows San Marino and Joachim Low will be hoping to see some of his youngsters on the score sheet.

    Behind Germany, the battle heats up between Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and even Azerbaijan for the playoff round.

    The picture will become a lot clearer after this round where Azerbaijan host Northern Ireland while the Czech Republic face a tough away test against Norway.

    Group D was among one of the most open groups of UEFA qualifying and at the half-way mark, it certainly lives up to its name. Perhaps Wales could feel the most disappointed, with the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists currently out of World Cup qualification.

    Serbia and the Rep. of Ireland have both had impressive runs so far and sit equal first with 11 points apiece, Serbia edging Ireland on goal difference.

    Serbia host a determined Wales outfit in Belgrade on Monday morning AEST which will be a major test if Serbia are serious contenders for World Cup qualification while Ireland also face a stern test in Austria

    Poland has taken a stranglehold over group E and boost their chances of qualifying for their first World Cup since 2006. With a six-point lead over second placed Montenegro, Poland, led by prolific marksman Robert Lewandowski, have a great opportunity to strengthen their grip on the group when they host Romania on Sunday morning AEST.

    Robert Lewandowski Poland Football 2016

    (AP Photo/Scott Heppell, File)

    Their biggest test will most likely come in the next round of qualifying when they visit Denmark, a side vying for the playoff round. The battle for second place between Denmark and Montenegro will likely go down to the wire.

    Group F sees England make a typically strong start to a qualifying campaign with four wins and a draw to leave them four points ahead of second placed Slovakia.

    England are notorious for their very strong qualification campaigns and then seriously under performing at the major tournament but manager Gareth Southgate will only be focusing on the job at hand.

    England travel north to take on Scotland in the oldest international fixture in the history of football, the first match dating back 145 years ago to 1872.

    England confidently defeated the Scots 3-0 last November and will be hoping for more of the same from Premier League stars including Spurs duo Harry Kane and Dele Alli as well as Jermain Defoe. Slovakia on nine points, Slovenia on eight points and Scotland on seven points look as if they will challenge for a spot in the playoff round

    Group G sees Spain and Italy pitted against each other in a mammoth battle for automatic qualification.

    On 13 points apiece, not much separates the sides and the defining moment of qualification will likely occur next round when Spain host Italy at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Both sides have straightforward immediate fixtures with Italy taking on minnows Liechtenstein at home while Spain travel to Skopje to play second last FYROM.

    Group H presents arguably the most intriguing group with Belgium taking a narrow two point lead into the second half of the campaign.

    It could’ve been very different had Belgium not scored a last-minute equaliser against Greece in March. A huge game on Saturday morning (AEST) sees Bosnia in third place take on second-place Greece in a game which could have huge ramifications for the playoff positions. Belgium also must travel to Greece in September while they host Bosnia in October meaning the group will go down to the wire.

    Most however, predict that Belgium will still top the group while Greece’s slender lead and slightly easier run home means they are favourites for the playoffs.

    Group I, the final group of UEFA qualifying sees Croatia hold a crucial three-point lead going into the second half of qualifiers.

    In another close group, Iceland trail Croatia by three points while Ukraine and Turkey are on eight points apiece, two points behind Iceland.

    Iceland football captain Aron Gunnarsson

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • Roar Rookie

      June 8th 2017 @ 10:49am
      At work said | June 8th 2017 @ 10:49am | ! Report

      My hope for the AFC reps at the World Cup are:
      – Australia,
      – Japan,
      – South Korea, and
      – Iran

      I’d rather the Saudi’s are defeated by the South American team, would make for a more enter raining finals.

      • June 8th 2017 @ 11:24am
        pauly said | June 8th 2017 @ 11:24am | ! Report

        Except Asia plays off against North America.

        As much as I’d prefer our Roos to qualify automatically, I would derive a great deal of satisfaction beating the Yanks in a playoff (the US is currently the 4th placed CONCACAF side).

        • June 8th 2017 @ 3:41pm
          George Matthew said | June 8th 2017 @ 3:41pm | ! Report

          Beating the USMNT would be a huge feat for Australian football. However, I expect the US to kick on and finish 3rd meaning either Panama and Honduras could finish 4th-both very winnable games for the Socceroos over two legs.

          • June 8th 2017 @ 5:16pm
            Brian said | June 8th 2017 @ 5:16pm | ! Report

            The way we are playing I’m not sure we would get past Uzbekistan or Honduras

    • June 8th 2017 @ 11:43am
      me too said | June 8th 2017 @ 11:43am | ! Report

      Never understood how the glaring inequality for CONMEBOL or EUFA teams continue to force other confederations into playoffs. The winner of the two third placed teams in the AFC groups should qualify directly. The CONMEBOL should have just four teams (that’s still 40% of their confederation). If the qualifiers remain as they are then surely the AFC should play against the OFC. Whilst the CONMEBOL plays the CONCACAF qualifiers. That would make more regional sense.
      We will see 13 teams from Europe (out of 55), 4 or 5 from South America (10), 4 or 5 from Asia (46), 0 or 1 from Oceania (11), 5 from Africa (54), and 3 or 4 from Central & North America (35). And the host team (almost always from Europe or SAmerica). Two glaring anomalies there.

      • Roar Rookie

        June 8th 2017 @ 1:11pm
        At work said | June 8th 2017 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

        I think South America deserve their current allocation, yes they’re the smallest confederation but they have plenty of quality.

        • June 8th 2017 @ 6:40pm
          Lionheart said | June 8th 2017 @ 6:40pm | ! Report

          yep, for comparison I’d like to see the world rankings of each confederation’s team first, although those rankings are a bit rubbery I know

      • June 8th 2017 @ 7:09pm
        Tigranes said | June 8th 2017 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

        When the AFC nations have won as many world cups as CONMEBOL nations, then they should have equal representation…with the expansion to 48 teams, I reckon AFC will end up with more spots anyway…FIFA wants China and India to start making world cup finals.

    • June 8th 2017 @ 6:18pm
      Eurosob said | June 8th 2017 @ 6:18pm | ! Report

      Saudi Arabia has the better coach, Australia has home advantage. It will be tight.

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