On The Way to Russia - or Not!
By Glenn Cowan
Things are certainly heating up in the race for 2018 World Cup qualification, which this time around will be held on Russian soil.Despite the furore surrounding placement of this and the 2022 World Cup Finals, qualification for the most prestigious of national tournaments is on the final furlong.
There were calls from some quarters that the finals were “bought” by the Russian football federation. Whether this was conjecture or not, it wasn’t helped when the Russians implied that their files had all been deleted back at soccer HQ in Moscow! Anyway, this article isn’t about whether the tournament should go ahead, it’s happening. Let’s focus on who is going to be there and who isn’t.
No surprise that England are “tearing up trees” in their series of qualifying matches, but of course they always do. Are we going to see a different competitive England this time? Or will “Pep” Southgate go the same was a “Woy” Hodgson, Capello, McLaren Et.Al. Currently England are sitting pretty in UEFA Group F pole position, with a comfortable margin over both Slovakia and Slovenia.
Perhaps more worrying signs are that even with their top billing they have struggled to really despatch lower quality opposition properly. A 2-1 win at Wembley after going behind wasn’t the most inspiring of performances. Likewise the 4-0 away win at part time Malta was on paper a decent result; however, when you factor in that there was 3 goals after the 86th minute then it was little wonder the press suggested the performance was off-par.
A single point for England in one of their last two matches against Slovenia and Lithuania will surely be enough for Southgate to start thinking about accommodation in Russia.
Also featuring in England’s group are our north of the border cousins. Scotland have had a late rally, and didn’t they need it !
Currently sitting level on points with Slovenia, Scotland really do need to carry on their decent form. Thankfully for the wannabe Europeans it is still in their hands to reach the 2nd place come the final curtain. Diminutive Gordon Strachan was certainly under pressure to produce qualification this time around. Failing to hit the target and we will likely witness a change in direction by the Scottish FA.
Scotland's final games are as follows:
After their unbelievable exploits in France 2016, Wales have found progress in the UEFA Group D a little hard to come by. Some have suggested that Chris Coleman should have gone on to other things after the European Championships. Not because he failed, but actually because he was never likely to accomplish anything like it again with the Welsh lads.
Anyway, that's (ancient) history now as he stuck with Wales and at present they are just keeping the Republic of Ireland out of possible qualification.
It should be noted that only 1 team will make automatic qualification from the European groups; however, there is potential glory still available for the teams that finish 2nd. It’s a simple one this time, the eight best runners up advancing to a 2 legged knockout against one of the other teams, with the winner going through to Russia.
Wales upcoming games:
Michael O’Neil has being doing great things with the Northern Irish team for some time now. Keeping a relatively low-profile since accepting the role back in 2011, O’Neil has already guaranteed his team to finish at least 2nd in UEFA Group C.To be fair it is unlikely that they will grab top spot, so will have to face a play-off to make it to Russia, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. They face a crunch tie at home to Germany, which if anything they will want to draw or at least keep the scoreline acceptable. This will enhance their chances of finishing as one of the best 8 2nd placed teams (as above).
Other Notable Nations
Sadly Thailand have performed much as expected in Group B of the AFC Third Round qualifiers. Expectations probably weren't that high when they realised they would be pitted against the likes of Japan and Australia for qualification. However, they have picked up a couple of draws against the UAE and Australia, with their other games coming as losses.
Australia’s 2-2 draw against Thailand may well have cost the socceroos dear, as they finished outside of the 2 automatic places and now face a 4th round match-off against Syria.
Japan won the group by a point from Saudi Arabia who finished above Australia on goal-difference. The Saudi’s in the process cementing their place for the 4th time at a World Cup Final tournament.
Something very strange has being going on in Holland, with the wheels nearly falling off their World Cup hopes.The dutch currently sit in 3rd position, requiring positive results in their final two matches against Belarus and Sweden if they are to have any hope of booking the flight to Moscow.
If I was a gambling man (which of course is illegal over here) I’d be backing France and Sweden to finish in that order in UEFA Group A qualification.
Watching the Games
Of course, European qualification means that games will be played circa 2-3am (Thai time), so either you will have a decent TV package or be wanting to head over the the likes of the Robin Hood or one of the other Retox Bars, I-Rovers or other quality sports bar in Pattaya.
Onwards and upwards - See you in Russia…..