The 10 big talking points ahead of this week’s World Cup qualifiers

After hundreds of matches spread across umpteen international breaks, we now get down to the business end of the lengthy 2018 World Cup qualifying process. Come October 10, at least 13 more teams will have joined Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia as definites for the tournament, which kicks off in Moscow next July.

These are the 10 major talking points with qualification on a knife edge for several nations, including World Cup royalty.

1. Could Argentina really miss out?

Argentina have had a few close shaves before. They needed a recalled Diego Maradona and a fortunate deflection to separate them and Australia in their 1993 David vs Goliath inter-confederation play-off. Later on, only a late Mario Bolatti goal ensured they wouldn’t have to go through a similar route to reach the 2010 World Cup.

If a struggling Argentina lose to dark horses Peru on Friday – whose superior goal difference is currently pushing Messi and co. out of an automatic spot – then there’s a real possibility that the two-time World Cup winners may miss out on the tournament for the first time since 1970.

2. The battle of the African underdogs

World Cup 2010 hosts South Africa have had a dismal qualifying campaign, losing twice to minnows Cape Verde and having their 2-1 victory over Senegal annulled following FIFA’s banning of referee Joseph Lamptey for match manipulation.

However the real story of Africa’s Group D is the emergence of Burkina Faso. The team formerly known as Upper Volta will edge one step closer to a first ever World Cup should they add to South Africa’s misery in their penultimate qualifying match on Saturday.

The two teams couldn’t be separated in their opening encounter, and a similar result could set the visitors up for a mouth-watering winner-takes-all showdown against fellow underdogs Cape Verde in November.

3. Team USA’s hopes may go down the Panama Canal

USA have sailed through qualifying for the last three World Cups, finishing top of the table each time. Their 2018 campaign, though, got off to a disastrous start with consecutive defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica ultimately costing Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

Brilliantly named Bruce Arena has got things back on track during his second spell in charge of the US, but automatic qualification is still far from assured.

They should have little trouble dispatching rock bottom Trinidad and Tobago next week. However this weekend they’ll first need to get a result against the team directly above them, Panama, who’ll be fired up at the prospect of reaching their first ever World Cup.

4. Can Scotland finally hold their nerve?

Although they currently sit in fourth place in Group F with just two games to go, Scotland’s fate is still in their own hands. Simply, defeat both Slovakia (in Scotland on Thursday) and Slovenia (away on Sunday) and a play-off spot is guaranteed.

Sure, it sounds like a tall order – especially considering the 3-0 loss to the former 12 months ago. But encouraging results against Slovenia, England and Lithuania have left the Tartan Army with a renewed sense of optimism that they could still make their first World Cup in over a quarter of a century.

5. Will England repeat the usual pattern?

England have built a reputation for strolling their way through the qualification stages, only to come hopelessly unstuck at the tournament itself. Let’s hope a similar pattern doesn’t emerge next year, as once again the Three Lions have hardly broken a sweat in a commanding, if not exactly awe-inspiring, campaign.

A point against Slovenia at Wembley on Thursday should be enough to ensure their qualification with a game to spare, although they’ll have to do it without Dele Alli. The Tottenham midfielder is suspended for the match following his less-than-subtle middle finger gesture against Slovakia.  

6. Can the Viking chant make it to Russia?

Iceland instantly became everyone’s second favourite team after their remarkable exploits at last year’s Euros. Now only Turkey can prevent them from showcasing their talents, team spirit and imposing Viking war chant on an even bigger international stage.

With their final Group I encounter against the fledgling Kosovo a foregone conclusion, Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men can essentially book at least a play-off spot with victory in their penultimate match home against Turkey on Friday.

Of course, with the Turks, alongside Croatia and Ukraine, also chasing automatic qualification in the tightest UEFA group, this won’t be a straightforward task. Expect permutations galore.

7. Wales vs Republic of Ireland: winner takes all

Automatic qualification isn’t entirely out of the question for either party, but chances are Wales and Republic of Ireland will be battling it out for the play-off spot in their potentially dramatic final Group D encounter on Monday night (should they first dispatch of Georgia and Moldova respectively, of course).

The smart money would be on Chris Coleman’s men, whose unbeaten run suggests that their 60-year wait for a World Cup appearance may soon be over. But if their opponents can rediscover the away form which saw them hold Serbia to a draw and beat Austria, then the Welsh may have to face at least another four years of hurt.

8. Dutch woes continue

Argentina aren’t the only recent World Cup finalists who may be notable by their absence next year. The 2010 runners-up Holland, who also missed out on Euro 2016, are in real danger of finishing outside a play-off spot following an inconsistent campaign which ultimately led to the sacking of Danny Blind and the third-time appointment of Dick Advocaat.

Even if the Dutch make light work of Belarus on Saturday as expected, they’ll still have to pray that Luxembourg can produce another miracle against the Swedes (currently three points ahead of them in second place with a superior goal difference). That, or the Dutch will need to give Janne Andersson’s men an almighty walloping in the final Holland vs Sweden match next week.

9. Winning a tournament appears to be a curse

Incredibly, there’s a possibility that next year’s World Cup will be without a single reigning champion of a major international tournament – barring world champions Germany, of course.

Cameroon (Africa Cup of Nations) are already eliminated; USA (Gold Cup), Chile (Copa America) and Portugal (European Championship) all currently sit outside an automatic qualifying spot; while New Zealand (OFC Nations Cup) and Australia (Asian Cup) will both have to go through an inter-confederation play-off before they can start booking their flights to Russia. Talk about a hangover.

10. Can Syria complete the fairytale?

As you’d expect, war-torn Syria have had a turbulent World Cup campaign. They were almost thrown out of the qualifiers over security concerns before Malaysia stepped in with the offer to host their home games, while several players boycotted the early stages in protest of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

However against all the odds, Syria finished ahead of Uzbekistan, China and 2022 hosts Qatar in third place to secure an unlikely play-off tie against Australia.

The Socceroos will undoubtedly be favourites to qualify for their fourth straight World Cup, but draws against South Korea and Iran have proved that Syria are capable of holding their own against tournament regulars.

New features you'd love at


Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1