Road to Russia: The home stretch

George Matthew Roar Rookie

By , George Matthew is a Roar Rookie

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    Despite a pulsating start to the European football season, all eyes turn away from club football and onto the international scene as the race to Russia reaches its crescendo.

    So with Australia’s vital tie with Syria already highly publicised and analysed, let’s take a look at how some of the other confederations are shaping up.

    Europe
    We begin with UEFA. Belgium is the only UEFA nation to have qualified and joins hosts Russia in the 2018 finals after a gritty 2-1 win over Greece in Piraeus last time out. France is locked in a tighter battle than they imagined with Sweden, Bulgaria and the Netherlands all in the running. Sweden faces Luxembourg at home, and while that seems straightforward, an away trip to Amsterdam on the final day represents a huge hurdle for automatic qualification hopes.

    My prediction: France to qualify automatically due to kind fixtures, Sweden to qualify for the playoffs in second place.

    Euro 2016 champion Portugal trails Switzerland by three points in Group B. The two have been utterly dominant right from the opening games of the campaign and it will ultimately reach the climax on the final night of the group with Portugal hosting Switzerland in a do-or-die clash. Portugal, despite occupying second place for the majority of the campaign, will be hoping for big guns Cristiano Ronaldo and Andre Silva to fire them to Russia.

    My prediction: Portugal to qualify courtesy of a tight win over Switzerland, Switzerland to make the playoffs.

    World Cup-holdera Germany finds themselves on the brink of qualification in Group C. Their imperious five-point advantage is bound to translate into qualification, with an away game against Northern Ireland and a date with Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern all that separates them from Russia.

    My prediction: Germany to cruise through to the World Cup finals, Northern Ireland to pick up an impressive playoff spot.

    Group D is one of the most evenly contested in UEFA qualifying with Serbia and Wales, the group leaders, facing tough away tests to Georgia and Austria respectively. The Irish are also a point behind Wales, and a home win for them against Moldova will put them into a brilliant position to attack on the final day. Austria is also an outside chance of a playoff spot.

    My prediction: Too close to call. Will have to wait for the penultimate round to play out.

    (Image: AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

    Group E sees Poland lead the group by three points. A maximum six points in their final two games against Armenia and Montenegro will ensure Lewandowski’s men are in Russia next year. Montenegro hosts Denmark in the penultimate round, a vital game for both sides who are aiming for at least playoff spot.

    My prediction: Poland to qualify, too close to call between Denmark and Montenegro.

    Group E has England on the cusp of qualification. They will be heavily favoured to do so, with a home match at Wembley against Slovenia all that stands between them and qualification. The fight behind sees Slovakia, Slovenia and Scotland all fighting it out in what promises to be an enthralling end of the campaign.

    My prediction: England to qualify with ease, Slovakia to edge out both Slovenia and Scotland. However, the Scotland versus Slovakia game in the penultimate matchday will be telling.

    Group F sees Spain needing to beat Albania at home in order to progress to Russia. Despite the Catalonia issue threatening to spill over into football, it promises to be a routine win for Spain, who will hope for a better showing in Russia than four years ago. Italy should also confirm their spot in the playoffs with a win at home against FYROM.

    My prediction: Spain to qualify for the World Cup, Italy to qualify for the playoffs.

    As mentioned earlier, Belgium has qualified for the 2018 finals; however, the country still plays a huge role, travelling to second-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina. A result for Belgium would be disastrous for B&H as Greece, who face Cyprus in Cyprus would be given a prime opportunity to pounce on a potential playoff spot.

    My prediction: If Bosnia and Herzegovina manage to beat Belgium, they will be strong favourites to finish second over Greece.

    The final group of UEFA qualifying is arguably the tightest of the lot. Only two points separate first and fourth with Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine all in the running. Turkey’s home game against Iceland will have a massive bearing on the group as will Ukraine versus Croatia in the final match of the campaign.

    My prediction: Croatia to qualify for next year’s finals and the winner of Turkey versus Iceland in the penultimate round to qualify for the playoffs.

    (Image: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

    South America
    Calling CONMEBOL qualifiers ‘massive’ would be the biggest sporting understatement of the year. Both Argentina and Chile, powerhouses of the continent, have the potential to miss out on the tournament. Chile must ensure they beat Ecuador at home in the penultimate round as a final day trip to Brazil does not bode well. Similarly, Argentina’s home match against Peru has already been billed as one of the nation’s biggest qualifying matches in years.

    My prediction: Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina will join Brazil in Russia. A Chile loss to Brazil will leave them in a playoff spot, while current fourth place Peru will fall agonisingly short with tough matches against Argentina and Colombia. fifth place, however, will not be a disaster for whichever South American team finishes there, with the fifth-placed COMNEBOL side to face New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff, a tie in which South American sides would expect nothing less than routine victories.

    (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

    North America
    CONCACAF qualifying is also a tough affair and holds potentially massive ramifications for the Socceroos, with the fourth-placed nation to play the winner of the Australia versus Syria tie. At the moment USA occupy fourth spot, and Socceroos fans will be desperate for the US to win their clash against Panama. With Mexico through to their seventh straight finals campaign and Costa Rica all but there, all attention turns to Panama, USA and Honduras.

    If the US win both games and Costa Rica defeat Honduras, it becomes a much simpler affair, with Panama moving down to fourth place and playing the winner of the AFC playoff for a spot in Russia.

    Africa
    CAF qualification is also a rather gripping affair, which can be instantly seen in Group B with African football powerhouses and Brazil 2014 representatives Algeria and Cameroon both eliminated from qualifying so early on. However, Group B was arguably the group of death, with Nigeria in pole position to qualify.

    Tunisia, who last appeared at the World Cup in 2006, also look set to qualify alongside the Ivory Coast and Egypt, the latter looking as if they will eliminate fellow African heavyweights Ghana.

    Group D has the potential to see a Cinderella story with Burkina Faso and Cape Verde in good stead to earn a qualifying place, while 2002 fan-favourites Senegal also look promising.