An Update on World Cup Qualifying (Part 3)
Europe’s qualification process for the World Cup involves nine groups of six teams. The winner of each group automatically qualifies for the tournament while eight out of nine second place teams advance to a separate head to head playoff. With so many prominent footballing nations in Europe, the spots are highly competitive.
Halfway through the qualifiers, France sit at the top of Group A. Sure to be one of the favorites in Russia next summer, Les Bleus are having no problems in qualifying. The Netherlands, who missed out on Euro 2016, are in danger of missing out on Russia as well. Despite talent such as Arjen Robben, the Dutch sit fourth on 7 points, six behind the French. Sweden sits in second with 10 points, despite the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the national team.
The top two in Group B seem to be clear cut at this point, with Switzerland and Portugal distancing themselves from the field. The question is, who will qualify automatically and who will have to go to the gruesome two leg playoff stage? Switzerland are well rounded with players such as Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez, and Borussia Monchengladbach keeper Yann Sommer. Portugal, of course, are Euro 2016 champions and led by the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo. Switzerland have a three point advantage over Portugal with 15. Hungary sit third with 7.
Group C was always going to be Germany’s from the get go. The reigning world champions sit comfortably atop the group with 15 points. The fight for a potential playoff spot is in progress between Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, and Azerbaijan. The Northern Irish, who sit second with ten, are looking to build on a strong performance at Euro 2016. The Czech team are without longtime goalkeeper and current Arsenal player Petr Cech.
Serbia and Ireland currently sit atop Group D with 11 points. The Serbians have many prominent Premier League players such as Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic, Man City left back Aleksandr Kolarov, and former Chelsea man Branislav Ivanovic who now plays for Zenit St. Petersburg. Ireland made it to the knockout stages of Euro 2016. Sitting four points back with 7 are dangerous customers in Wales and Austria. Led by Gareth Bale and David Alaba respectively, both teams are capable of finding themselves in Russia next summer.
Robert Lewandowski looks set to play in his first World Cup next summer as Poland have taken a six point lead in their group. The Polish team also features Monaco defender Kamil Glik and Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik among others. The battle for second is close, so close that the one second place team omitted from the playoff on points scored could very well be from this group. Christian Eriksen-led Denmark is in contention for that spot along with Romania and Montenegro.
England have put themselves in a good position to win Group F. The Three Lions have a four point lead on Slovakia and five point lead on Slovenia. The Liverpool duo of Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana have each scored twice in the campaign. Scotland is also in the group and sits in fourth. Slovakia played in Euro 2016 and enjoy the services of Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik.
Another group that has seemingly erupted into a two horse race, Group G contains two of the games’ greatest nations in Spain and Italy. Both sides have had to rebuild from the remains of golden generations in recent years. Spain now has David de Gea and Thiago while Italy boasts Marco Verratti and Leonardo Bonucci. However veteran presence still exists with Andres Iniesta and Gianluigi Buffon. The third place team fighting to stay alive is an up and coming Israel side which should see more players move to Europe soon.
After disappointing in recent tournaments, Belgium look set to get another opportunity next summer. They lead their group by two points over Greece and three points over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgium is loaded with talent such as Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Cortouis and Romelu Lukaku in the Premier League alone. Greece is a scrappy defensive side with solid players such as Roma’s Kostas Manolas. Manolas’ current teammate and former Man City striker Edin Dzeko features for Bosnia and Herzegovina along with Juventus midfielder and free-kick maestro Miralem Pjanic.
Following a heartbreaking Euro 2016 exit, Croatia and its “golden generation” currently have the upper hand on an automatic spot in Russia. Led by a superb midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and up and comer Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan, Croatia are certainly favorites to maintain their top spot. In second is Iceland, who grabbed headlines last summer with an incredible run in France culminating with a victory over England. Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson is their vocal point. Ukraine and Turkey sit two points behind the Icemen. Players such as Yovhan Konoplyanka and Arda Turan bring quality to those sides.
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