Late March in soccer means one thing, the international break. And while many players have been enjoying a “spring break” of sorts, many have been dealing with the pressure of getting their respective nations to the arguably the biggest stage in sport, the World Cup.
While the traditional powerhouses tend to come from Europe and South America, the popularity and quality of the sport is on the rise in Asia. Australia, Japan and South Korea have been regular competitors in the World Cup, but it is Iran who have taken command of their group, Group A, and look set to advance to the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Australia’s spot in the tournament could be under threat as they currently sit third in Group B behind Japan and Saudi Arabia. If the Socceroos fail to make up the points in the final three fixtures they will face a two leg aggregate playoff against the other third place side from Group A, which is likely to be Uzbekistan or South Korea.
Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan would bring new flavor to the tournament as Saudi Arabia missed out on the last two tournaments and Uzbekistan has never qualified.
Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan have put themselves in prime position to qualify.
South Korea possesses talent such as Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, and their players’ European experience should get them through.
Finally, Australia know how to get it done and 37 year old striker Tim Cahill will propel them to a playoff victory in what is likely to be his final World Cup campaign.
Africa is also in its final stage of qualification. Since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, the talent of African nations has risen significantly. Ghana’s run to the quarterfinals in 2010 and the rise of many African players at big European clubs is a perfect example of this.
The final stage of qualifying involves five groups A-E of four teams with the winner of each group advancing to Russia next summer. With two out of the six fixtures played, it is still relatively early.
Group A has broken out into a two horse race between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Tunisia. Both sides have proven European players with Everton winger Yannick Bolasie and Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu featuring for DR Congo while Tunisia fields dynamic Sunderland playmaker Wahbi Khazri and veteran defender Aymen Abdennour of Valencia.
Group B features three “blue bloods” of African soccer in Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria. The Nigerians lead the group by four points after former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel and current Blues wing back Victor Moses combined for three goals in a win over Riyad Mahrez led Algeria. If results in the group hold, Nigeria will bring a talented side to Russia featuring young attacking talent in 20 year olds Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi of Manchester City and Arsenal respectively, in addition to the aforementioned Mikel and Moses. Cameroon’s post-Samuel Eto’o hangover may keep them out of the World Cup for just the second time since 1990.
Group C sees Borussia Dortmund superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang try and guide his native Gabon to its first World Cup. However, Gabon sit two points behind group favorites Ivory Coast, who possess a large talent pool that includes Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, and Paris Saint Germain defender Serge Aurier among others.
Group D contains a tight race between co-leaders Burkina Faso and South Africa, while Sadio Mane-led Senegal sits one point behind. Meanwhile, Egypt has broken ahead in Group E with six points while African giants Ghana have stumbled out of the gate to the tune of one point from their first two matches.
Who Will Be in Russia Next Summer?
Group A may be the toughest to call, but the attacking prowess of DR Congo should see them through.
Nigeria’s balance in every area of the pitch should help them guard their lead in Group B.
Despite the brilliance of Aubameyang, Gabon don’t have the other talent to match up against a much more well rounded Ivory Coast side in Group C.
Expect Liverpool’s Mane to guide Senegal to Russia in a group that features few other big European players.
Finally, Ghana has the talent to challenge Egypt but the hole may to big to climb out of. Expect to see Mohammed Salah and Co. next summer.
Still To Come
Part 2: North America & South America
Part 3: Europe
“From Our Haus to Yours”