Count Down Begins As European Qualifiers Pass The Halfway Mark
Fifty-five European football teams are vying for just thirteen places at the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar. During the recent international window, the first round of the qualifying competition passed the halfway mark. To the watching world, the action across the September window highlighted some clear contenders for qualification, as well as those teams not destined to make the grade. Nonetheless, for many, the race is still on.
The European Tournament
Only ten teams will advance directly from Round One to the 2022 tournament; the final three will be decided via a playoff competition in March 2022. The fifty-five teams in contention have been drawn into ten groups, each playing a round-robin of home and away matches to determine a top team and a runner-up. The top team from each group will advance directly to the World Cup tournament; the ten runners-up will head to the second round playoff competition.
Four matchdays remain in Round One and will be played out during the upcoming October and November 2021 international windows.
The recent September window saw Matchdays 4, 5 and 6 completed in just over a week. During that time, some crucial wins were made, whilst for others, much-needed gains were lost. Denmark continued their 100% record with six wins from six matches. Belgium, England, France, Italy, and Portugal remained top of their groups and unbeaten in the competition. However, England dropped points following their first draw of the tournament. Germany finally took the top spot in their group after a poor start, and the Netherlands leapfrogged to the top past Turkey - who suffered their worst defeat since 1984 in the process. Meanwhile, Scotland, Spain and Sweden suffered their first losses, a draw with minnows Estonia left Wales mortified, and Bosnia and Herzegovina held France to a 1-1 draw.
The competition also witnessed plenty of added drama. Christiano Ronaldo picked up the title 'all-time top scorer in men's international football' in Portugal's 2-1 defeat over Ireland. Ronaldo's two goals took him to 111 international goals, two more than Iran's Ali Daei, who held the record for fifteen years. Romelu Lakaku, Belgium's all-time top scorer, Group Standings, September Action and Expectations
The results and standings from the September window and the outlook for October/November are as follows:netted his 50th goal in his last fifty international games. And, Italy broke the record as the first national team to play 37 unbeaten games in a row. Unfortunately, a shock loss for Spain against Sweden cost them a twenty-eight-year record of unbeaten qualification matches. Elsewhere, hostilities between Hungarian and Polish football fans and the England squad cast a shadow over the proceedings. During their game against Hungary at home, The Three Lions were subject to racist abuse. Before the match, the team was booed for taking the knee in a stand against racism. They had debris pelted at them during the game and were exposed to racist gestures and noises following their goals. Fortunately, the England team chose to rise above the fans' behaviour and took the game 4-0. Against Poland, the home crowd booed during the British national anthem and when the English players took to the knee. However, in a show of solidarity, Polish players Robert Lewandowski and Wojciech Tomasz Szczęsny gestured for silence, which calmed the crowd significantly. FIFA has opened an investigation into the disturbances in Hungary, who have already been handed a three-match door closed punishment from UEFA for fans discriminatory behaviour.
Regardless of the various ups and downs, a clear path for many has been established for the final four matchdays. For others, their position in the standings is as yet undefined. And, as we all know, in football, anything can happen!
Group Standings, September Action and Expectations
The results and standings from the September window and the outlook for October/November are as follows:
Portugal and the Republic of Ireland kicked off Group A's September window, with the Portuguese taking the win 2-1. The Irish squad opened the scoring just before half-time and looked like they might take their first three tournament points. However, Ronaldo's record-breaking two goals in the 89th minute and stoppage time disappointed the Irish contingent. Portugal also won their match against Azerbaijan. The 3-0 win gave the Portuguese six points overall, allowing them to maintain first-place on the table. Serbia, who defeated Luxembourg 4-0, failed to overtake Portugal on the leaderboard when they drew with Ireland 1-1. They now sit in second place on eleven points, two behind Portugal. Luxembourg remained in third on six points after a win against Azerbaijan and a loss to Serbia. However, the team has a game in hand. Ireland and Azerbaijan sit in fourth and fifth place respectively on two points and one point.
Going into the final matchdays, Serbia would need to win all three of their upcoming matches, including against Portugal, to take first place. To stay ahead of Luxembourg in second, the Serbian squad would need to extend their five-point lead by a comfortable margin. Luxembourg is unlikely to win all four of their matches, but they are more than capable of picking up points to close the gap between the two. Portugal also needs to make the most of the following two windows to keep Serbia at bay.
Spain's September window got off to a rocky start when they were beaten 2-1 by Sweden. While the Spanish confidently opened the scoring in the first five minutes, Sweden quickly equalised, then took the match with a second goal in the second half. The Spaniard's loss was their first in sixty-six qualifying games. Sweden's win saw them leapfrog Spain to the top of the standings. However, the victory didn't last long. Against Greece, Sweden lost two goals to one forfeiting three points in the process. With Spain's 4-0 win against Georgia and 2-0 victory over Kosovo, the Swede's were quickly displaced from the top spot into second on nine points. Spain finished the window on thirteen points. Greece's win against Sweden and 1-1 draw with Kosovo saw them move up from fifth place to third on six points.
Sweden and Greece both have two games in hand going into the next phase of the competition. To maintain first-place and their ticket to the World Cup, Spain will have to win both their upcoming games against Greece and Sweden. Similarly, Sweden needs a repeat performance against Spain and at least two wins and a draw to oust Spain from their winning spot. The Greek team needs to pull out all the stops and bag more wins than draws to stand a chance of winning a playoff spot.
|TeamNorthern Ireland||Points5||Goal Difference1|
Italy's unexpected 1-1 draw with Bulgaria saw the team's 100% record broken, though their unbeaten run in the qualifiers remains. Their second match of the window also ended in a draw, a goalless draw against Switzerland. The Italians earned only two points out of six, disappointing results considering their nearest rival Switzerland has two games in hand. However, Italy's final September match saw them thump Lithuania 5-0. Alongside Switzerland's 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland, the Italians have extended their lead to a healthy six points. While second-placed Switzerland, on eight points, will be disappointed with their two draws, Northern Ireland's 4-1 win and Bulgaria's 1-0 win against Lithuania, and their respective draws, netted both teams four points from six. Each team now has five points each and have drawn substantially closer to the Swiss team.
To maintain the top spot, Italy will need to go out with a bang. With only two matches left, they need to beat both Switzerland and Northern Ireland to secure their 2022 tournament ticket. Switzerland, with two games in hand, could dislodge the Italians if they rout them in November and earn an additional six or seven points. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland also has two games in hand and is just three points behind the Swiss. Depending on their luck against Switzerland in October and the Swiss team's results against Italy, there is an outside chance the Irish could make the playoffs.
|TeamBosnia and Herzegovina||Points3||Goal Difference-3|
First-placed France had an unsettling start to the last three matchdays; they drew 1-1 for the second time this tournament against Ukraine and were held to a draw by Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nonetheless, alongside a 2-0 win against Finland, the team collected an additional five points. Ukraine missed an opportunity to gain on France with a disappointing 2-2 draw against Kazakhstan. The Ukrainians only managed to earn two points this window and sit seven points behind France in second place. Third-placed Finland added three points to their tally with a win over 1-0 Kazakhstan, matching Ukraine on five points. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kazakhstan both earned two points as they held their rivals to draws.
During the final matchdays, France will need to beat Finland to stay on top. Finland has two games in hand, but they can't topple the French unless they win all four of their matches, including the contest against France. However, the Finish team has an opportunity to win the race to the playoffs if they can bank more points than Ukraine - with just one game in hand.
|TeamCzech Republic||Points7||Goal Difference1|
Belgium added another nine points to their total in September with wins over Estonia (5-0), Czech Republic (3-0) and Belarus (1-0). They sit in first place on sixteen points, nine clear of nearest rivals, the Czech Republic and Wales. Both Czech Republic and Wales were victors over Belarus, taking three points each. Though Wales missed a chance to overtake the Czech Republic on the leaderboard after their shock 0-0 draw with Estonia - the Welsh forwards were denied on multiple occasions by Estonia's teenage goalkeeper Karl Hein. They now sit on seven points in second and third place, separated by a single goal difference.
Belgium needs one more win to secure their ticket to the World Cup. The race is now on for second place, and a chance at the playoffs - the Czechs and the Welsh are the most likely contenders. Wales have a game in hand, which may give them the advantage, but they are up against Belgium, which won't be an easy ride.
|TeamFaroe Islands||Points4||Goal Difference-10|
Denmark powered through the recent window maintaining their perfect record. The Danes trampled on Scotland's unbeaten run, beating them 2-0. They took a 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands and thumped Israel 5-0. Scotland picked themselves up after their defeat and added six points to their tally with victories over Moldova (1-0) and Austria (1-0). They still sit in second position, but Israel is hot on their tails, only one point behind, gaining two wins over the Faroe Islands (4-0) and Austria (5-2). Austria lags three points behind Israel on seven.
Denmark is seven points clear of Scotland and, with four matches left each, need only two wins to pick up their ticket for the 2022 tournament. On the other hand, Scotland will need to fight tooth and nail to maintain second place ahead of Israel. If they can defeat Israel, the Faroe Islands and Moldova, the Scots will take their place at the playoffs.
Group G's standings were the most mobile of all the groups in the tournament during the September window. Turkey fell from first place to third, Montenegro from third to fourth, and the Netherlands and Norway moved up to first and second positions, respectively.
Turkey began the competition in March with a shocking 4-2 defeat over the Netherlands. They continued to dominate the table with a win over Norway and a draw with Latvia. However, this tournament phase started with a disappointing 2-2 draw with Montenegro and a 6-1 thrashing by the Netherlands. Despite picking up three points against Gibraltar, the Turkish squad tumbled down the standings. The Netherlands and Norway, meanwhile, picked up seven points each. The Dutch team drew with Norway and thumped Montenegro 4-0 and Turkey, with Memphis Depay helping boot the team to victory. He scored a brace against Montenegro and a hattrick against Turkey. Norway beat rivals Latvia (2-0) and Gibraltar (5-1), with Erling Haaland kicking home five of the eight goals scored.
Going forward, the Netherlands will have to be on their guard. Though the Dutch have a substantial goal difference, with Norway sitting on the same points in second, they can't afford to lose any matches. Norway has a tough job facing both the Netherlands and Turkey, but they are still in the running for the World Cup. Turkey may also have a chance at qualifying but will need to earn a full set of points from high scoring games and hope that the Netherlands and Norway can only manage a draw against one another.
2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia are on track to make the 2022 World Cup. With just four matches to play, the Croatian team is top of the table on thirteen points, winning two of their three games during the September window. However, the opportunity to pull away from Russia during their head-to-head was lost after a goalless draw. Russia is dangerously close to Croatia, having also won two matches during the window. Only a goal difference separates the two teams. In third place, having drawn 1-1 with Solvenia, lost to Croatia, and won 2-0 over Cyprus, Slovakia has maintained their position but slipped four points away from Russia - they started the window just one point behind their rivals. Slovenia, on the other hand, moved up the standings from fifth to fourth. They won 1-0 over Malta and drew with Slovakia. Malta moved up to fifth position from the bottom of the table after beating Cyprus 3-0, their first qualifying win for eight years.
The final four matches for Group H will be a race for first and second place. Croatia, currently in first, will need to excel in every match, including their next face off against Russia, to stay ahead. Russia, likewise, needs to match Croatia and hope that high scoring matches or a slip by the Vatreni give them an opening to the top spot. Close behind Russia and Croatia on nine points, Slovakia will also be gunning for a place at the World Cup or the playoffs. However, to get ahead, the Slovakian squad will need to beat both Russia and Croatia. The Sokoli were victors over Russia earlier in the year, taking their match to a 2-1 win, but their last meeting with Croatia ended in a 1-0 loss.
|TeamSan Marino||Points0||Goal Difference-23|
England's September window kicked off with two high scoring matches - 4-0 over Hungary and 4-0 against Andorra. However, The Three Lions were left frustrated after a 1-1 draw to Poland, taking only seven out of a possible nine points. Nevertheless, the English squad are still top of the table in Group I on sixteen points, four ahead of their nearest rival, Albania. Albania jumped up the table into second place on twelve points after a 1-0 win over Hungary and a 5-0 thrashing of San Marino. However, they lost 4-1 to Poland, allowing the Poles, who also thumped San Marino 7-1 and drew with England, to jump up the standings from fourth to third one point behind them. Hungary had a disappointing few days taking only three points from a 2-1 win over Andorra.
England needs to widen the gap between themselves and Albania and Poland during the following two windows. Previously in the competition, they beat Andorra, Hungary, Albania and San Marino - they need to collect at least eight points against the same four to stay ahead of Albania top possible score of twenty-four. Albania's next four games include some tough opponents - Poland and England. Poland has arguably an easier task facing San Marino, Andorra and Hungary, as well as Albania. The Albanians will need to work hard to keep Poland from pipping them to the post and into second place.
|TeamNorth Macedonia||Points9||Goal Difference5|
Germany's start to the competition was relatively poor. Nonetheless, the German team shot up the standings from third to first after three wins this window. Starting with the most favourable opposition in their group Liechtenstein, Germany earned three points with a 2-0 win. Next, they thumped first-placed Armenia 6-0, leapfrogging the Armenians and second-placed Romania into the top spot. The German's 4-0 victory over Iceland sealed the deal. Armenia was left frustrated in second-position on eleven points, four behind Germany, after two draws and a loss. Romania won their matches over Iceland (2-0) and Liechtenstein (2-0), but a goalless draw with North Macedonia stopped them from taking advantage of Armenia's below-par performances. The Romanians sit in third place, one point behind Armenia.
Armenia has an uphill battle to regain its top spot from Germany. Germany needs only three wins from four to take their place at the World Cup. Armenia would need to beat the German's in their upcoming head-to-head and hope that Romania or North Macedonia can hold the German team to a draw if they stand any chance of making the 2022 tournament. However, with Romania only one point behind them, the Armenians need to be careful what they wish for.
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