Over the course of the next week, we’ll have plenty of exciting matches to which we can look forward, but not all of the major confederations are going to move the needle that far. Which countries are in most danger of falling off the bus to Brazil, and which are about to book their tickets? Let’s start with the groups getting their houses in order the most far in advance of the final draw on December 6:
AFC (4.5 Spots)
Already booked – Japan, Iran, South Korea and Australia
Still fighting it out – Jordan and Uzbekistan will face each other September 6 and again September 10 to determine which team goes to the Intercontinental Play-Off match against the rejected team from CONMEBOL, which will promptly make the winner of this series irrelevant.
Matches to Watch: Technically two, but really, it’s a bit of a non-issue soooooo zero
CAF (5 Spots)
Already booked – No one
Still fighting it out – Of the 40 teams technically still playing September 6-10, only 10 will survive to the next round of qualifiers. On that basis, more than half the teams going into this round of matches have zero chance of going through. Based solely on points acquired, 21 of the teams are done.
- Groups C (Cote d’Ivoice), G (Egypt) and H (Algeria) may as well take the week off for all the good it will do them, as their leaders are going on to the next round of qualifiers.
- In Group A, Ethiopia’s the likely candidate to advance as they’re facing bottom-of-group Central African Republic.
- Group B will see the winner of Tunisia-Cape Verde Islands through (MATCH TO WATCH – September 7). Their previous face-off resulted in a 2-1 win for Tunisia featuring four Yellow Cards and no scoring after about a minute into the second half.
- Group D will see the winner of Ghana-Zhambia go through as they race to the next stage on September 6 in another MATCH TO WATCH. Zambia edged Ghana 1-0 in their last match, but overall Zambia’s been marginally more likely to hold for the tie than the win (Ghana 4-1-0 in group vs Zambia’s 3-0-2), and a tie will not get them through to the next round.
- Group E will see Congo play bottom-of-group Niger, which should give it the edge to stay ahead of the result of the Burkina-Faso – Gabon match. While Burkina Faso and Gabon could feasibly catch up to Congo should they fail against Niger, it seems unproductive to spend much time speculating about it.
- In Group F, we have another MATCH TO WATCH on September 7 with Nigeria taking on Malawi to determine which team advances. Their last face-off in June resulted in a 1-1 draw, so it should be a tight game.
- Skipping ahead to Group I, the MATCH TO WATCH is Cameroon vs Libya on September 8. Libya won the last head-to-head in June by a score of 2-1, but Cameroon takes the group in the event of a tie.
- Finally, in Group J, Senegal faces off against Uganda for top of group on September 7 in the final CAF MATCH TO WATCH for the coming week. As with Group F, the last time these two teams faced off resulted in a 1-1 draw, A repeat affair would put Senegal through, so Uganda must win to advance.
Matches to Watch: September 6 – Ghana-Zambia; September 7 – Tunisia-Cape Verde Islands; September 7 – Senegal-Uganda; September 8 – Cameroon-Libya
CONCACAF (3.5 Spots)
Already booked – No one
Still fighting it out – Still doing that Round of Six thing. September won’t really firm much up, but the US-Costa Rica match on September 6 is a MATCH TO WATCH as they’re both jockeying for first place of the group at the moment. With each of the six teams playing twice over the next week, Mexico and Honduras will also be fighting it out the same night to try to catch up on the leaders before Mexico goes on to face the US on September 10. Americans – or really any fan of CONCACAF – can appreciate how intense these games are, earning this match its MATCH TO WATCH status as well. Jamaica will have to pull something out against either Costa Rica or Panama, neither of which seems particularly likely and one of which may give Costa Rica to lock in valuable points in the top half of the group while the US and Mexico slug it out. I can’t imagine it will be much of a show, though. Honduras will be struggling to define itself against the teams just ahead (Mexico) and behind (Panama) to buy itself a little room to breathe in October’s matches.
Matches to Watch: September 6 – USA-Costa Rica; September 10 – USA-Mexico
CONMEBOL (5.5 Spots)
Already booked – Brazil (host), Argentina
Still fighting it out – The CONMEBOL format is usually a marathon series of 18 matches per team (16 matches this year with Brazil already qualified), so it’s very difficult to eliminate teams early, particularly given the competitiveness of the region. That said, the teams only have 3 or 4 matches remaining in their qualifying. so half of the remaining qualifiers will be played over the next week. Bolivia and Paraguay will need to secure wins to keep from being eliminated from contention. At best, they’re playing for the intercontinental play-off right now. Out of the 8 matches being played over the next week, I’d say any combination of Colombia, Ecuador and Chile is worth keeping an eye on as they battle to be next to qualify officially.
Matches to Watch – September 6 – Colombia-Ecuador
Oceania (.5 Spots)
New Zealand is still just hanging out waiting to face off against the 4th-placed CONCACAF team in November.
UEFA (13 Spots)
Already booked – Ha!
Still fighting it out – Nine groups totaling 53 teams, and only three can be said to be eliminated at this point – Faroe Islands, San Marino and Scotland.
- In Group A, Belgium and Croatia will be hoping to seal their places as first- and second-in-group respectively. While I’m looking forward to seeing the two go head-to-head in October, I don’t know that there’s much reason to tune in for Group A short of tracking standings.
- For Group B, Italy is facing off against the second- and third-in-group teams Bulgaria and Czech Republic, giving them a chance to buy themselves extra breathing room.
- Group C‘s Germans are leading the way by 5 points, but there are several teams contending for second that hope to gain some ground over the next week. Austria, Sweden and Ireland all need wins to push themselves ahead, and Ireland’s in a particularly unique position to control its own destiny with matches against both teams over the next week. Austria will have a challenge in its other match against Germany, but Sweden should have some easy points from Kazakhstan based on previous performance.
- For Group D, the Netherlands have a commanding lead of 7 points over Hungary, with Romania a point further behind. With matches against the two bottom-of-group teams, Netherlands should be among the first in Europe to book their tickets to Brazil. The Hungary-Romania match should be worth watching, as it will give one team the fuel it needs in the home stretch of qualifying. Romania has a bit of an edge in the long stretch in that its schedule does not include any more matches against Netherlands, whereas Hungary faces off against them come October.
- In Group E, Switzerland has a not-insurmountable 4-point lead over next-best Albania, but Switzerland has matches against third-in-group Iceland and fourth-in-group Norway, giving it a chance to expand the gap between the top two teams and the rest of the pack. Albania will be playing Slovenia and Iceland, neither of which are particularly important matches in the long run aside from the potential overall points that could be accrued.
- Group F still has Portugal, Russia and Israel vying for position, so any combination of the three may prove to be a match worth watching.
- As we move to Group G, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece are still feeling pretty comfortable at the top of the group. Greece will be going up against the bottom two teams in the group in this round while Bosnia faces off against #3 Slovakia … twice. Depending on how Slovakia stacks up, they could give Greece the edge going into the last round of games.
- Down in Group H, Montenegro holds the lead for points but has also played one more match than England or the Ukraine, which are in second and third place in the group respectively. While Poland may challenge Montenegro, England and the Ukraine should coast past Moldova and San Marino respectively. The biggest match of the group this time around will be as England and the Ukraine face off, giving one team a chance to edge past Montenegro as they even up on matches played.
- Finally, in Group I, Spain and France are still fighting for top of group honors. With no major anticipated hiccups, Spain should edge France out for top of group, with France going on to the next round of qualifying play-off matches.
Matches to Watch – September 6 – Italy-Bulgaria; September 6 – Ireland-Sweden; September 6 – Hungary-Romania; September 10 – Italy-Czech Republic; September 10 – Ireland-Austria; September 10 – Russia-Israel; September 10 – Ukraine-England
So there you have it – the 14 most important matches on which to keep tabs over the next week and the general lay of the land. I’ll try to post another update as we get ready for October, as the jockeying for position over the next several days should cause a pretty good shift in standings in a couple of these groups (well, except in Asia and Oceania, of course). With much of the focus on Africa and Europe (and of course the USA), I expect the Jordan-Uzbekistan series won’t get much ink outside of Jordan and Uzbekistan, particularly given their eventual CONMEBOL opponent.
Cheers to the AFC and Oceania for getting things settled sooner rather than later; jeers to UEFA and CAF for still having another entire round of play-offs to go after this group round is settled; general ambivalence toward CONMEBOL’s long, drawn-out marathon of matches making it less fun to watch their matches.