European 2022 World Cup Qualifiers - The March Window Round-Up
Matchdays 1-3 of the European Qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have drawn to a close. Over the course of a week, 55 European teams battled it out on pitches across the continent to stake their initial claims in the competition standings. The results have been varied, with predictable outcomes for a host of matches, unexpected twists and turns in others, and several that can only be termed as downright shocking.
The 55 squads, split into ten groups (A - J) - whose team's play all of the opposing teams within their group in a round-robin format of home and away matches - have so far played two or three games each. During the next international window, in September, the teams will complete the first round-robin of matches and begin the second, which will continue into the October and November windows. The top ten squads in the group standings will automatically qualify for the World Cup; the ten runners-up will head to the playoffs for a chance to win one of the final three slots available to European teams.
Though the March window's initial results can change drastically throughout 2021, some teams have already positioned themselves way out in front in terms of wins and goal difference. Others, meanwhile, whose tournament got off to a poor start, now have an almost insurmountable climb to be in the running for 2022.
So, let's take a look at who is sitting pretty in the standings and who will need a miracle to qualify or even to reach the Second Round playoffs:
Group A - Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg, Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan
Portugal is at the top of Group A's standings with 7 points, which is hardly surprising considering they are ranked 5th in the world. What is surprising is the team's limping performance to date. Up against Azerbaijan, ranked 108th, the Portuguese squad were held off from scoring numerous times by a very capable Shahruddin Mahammadaliyev. The win for the Portuguese only came after an own goal from the Azerbaijanis. Against Serbia, Portugal was the better team in the game’s first half, scoring the opening two goals. However, the Serbs surged forward in the second half and made an impressive comeback. The Portuguese seemed to lose focus and failed to contain their opponents enough to stop them from equalising. A disallowed goal from Ronaldo in stoppage time added insult to injury for the Portuguese. Even Luxembourg, ranked 98th in the world, managed to stump Portugal, with The Red Lions’ Gerson Rodrigues scoring a magnificent diving header in the first half of their contest. However, the shocked Portuguese came round quickly to score three times and take the eventual win.
Serbia, ranked 30th, is second in the standings on 7 points. The Serbs have had an impressive tournament to date. The team gave strong performances against the Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan, with striker Aleksandar Mitrovic ending the competition as the qualifiers' top scorer and assist-provider.
Luxembourg sits third in the table on 3 points, with the Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan in fourth and fifth place respectively, each with 0 points.
Group B - Spain, Sweden, Greece, Georgia and Kosovo
Ranked 6th in the world, Spain also ended its tournament in the top spot. However, like the Portuguese team, they seemed to have a slow start managing to rack up only 7 points. With a one-point draw against Greece (ranked 53rd) and a narrow win from behind against Georgia (ranked 89th) in injury time, the Spanish, who dominated possession in both games, seem to be lacking first-rate striking capacity. A 3-1 win over Kosovo (ranked 117th) gave the team a much-needed boost, but it will be interesting to see how the Spanish squad performs against Sweden (ranked 20th) in September. Sweden is currently second in the group standings on 6 points with a game in hand. The Swedes won both their first and second games against Georgia 1-0 and Kosovo 3-0.
Greece is third in the table on 3 points, and Georgia and Kosovo sit in fourth and fifth place respectively on 0 points each.
Group C - Italy, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania
With 9 points, Italy is top of their group, with only Switzerland near contention on 6 points. The Italians confidently and clinically took on Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania during the tournament, winning each match 2-0. The three wins took the teams current unbeaten winning streak to 25 games. The Swiss similarly had comfortable wins against Bulgaria 1-3 (all three winning goals scored within the first 15 minutes of the match) and Lithuania 0-1. Switzerland has a game in hand, so they will be looking to gain a six-pointer against Italy when they meet in September to pull ahead of their rivals to the top spot.
Northern Ireland and Bulgaria are in third and fourth place respectively on 1 point each, and Lithuania is at the bottom on 0 points.
Group D - France, Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kazakhstan
In a surprise turn of events, France's campaign started with a 1-1 draw against Ukraine (ranked 24th). The second-best team in the world were unconvincing in their opening match of the tournament. Their lacklustre performance saw just one goal from Antoine Griezmann. They also gave the Ukrainians a helping hand to score their single goal of the match - Sergiy Sydorchuk's shot inside the penalty area was deflected into his own net by France's Kimpembe. Didier Deschamps' much-rotated line-up was improved against Kazakhstan, recording their first win of the competition with a 2-0 score. Against Bosnia & Herzegovina they managed a narrow 0-1 win.
The French are at the top of their group standings with 7 points. Ukraine sits second in the table with 3 points, Finland third with 2 points, and Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kazakhstan are in fourth and fifth place respectively on 1 point each.
Group E - Belgium, Wales, Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia
2018 World Cup winners Belgium top their group standings with 7 points and a goal difference of 10. The Belgians' clash with Wales on the tournament's opening matchday yielded a 3-1 result. The win was followed by a 1-1 draw against the Czech Republic in a very tight match. But, it was the final match of the March window that gave Belgium its impressive goal difference so early in the competition. Against Belarus, the Belgians scored a spectacular eight goals to zero. The win was even more impressive considering that four of the eight goals were first-time international goals delivered by Dennis Praet, Hans Vanaken and Leandro Trossard.
The Czech Republic holds the second spot in the standings. The Czechs trounced Estonia 4-2 on the first matchday and held Belgium to account on day two. However, they lost out to Wales 0-1 on Matchday 3, resulting in only 4 points across the tournament. The Welsh team sit in third place on 3 points and, with a game in hand, still have a chance to move up the board in September if they manage a high scoring game against Belarus.
Belarus is in fourth place on 3 points, and Estonia is in last place with 0 points.
Group F - Denmark, Austria, Scotland, Israel, Faroe Islands and Moldova
Denmark, ranked 12th in the world, has had a remarkable tournament to date. With three wins under their belt - all won without conceding a goal - the squad are at the top of their group standings on 9 points. Unusually, Denmark's manager Kasper Hjulmand rotated his ten outfielders for every match played. A strategy that seemed to work; the squad scored 2-0 against Israel, 8-0 against Moldova and 4-0 against Austria.
Scotland has also had a good start to their tournament with two draws, 2-2 against Austria and 1-1 against Israel, and one win, 4-0 against the Faroe Islands. The team sits in second place on the table on 5 points just ahead of Israel and Austria on 4 points each.
The Faroe Islands are in fifth place, and Moldova is in sixth place, both on point each.
Group G - Netherlands, Turkey, Norway, Montenegro, Latvia and Gibraltar
Group G’s qualifying tournament turned pre-match predictions on their heads when Turkey, ranked 32nd, took on, favourites to win, the Netherlands and beat them 4-2. The Turks took on Norway next in a 3-0 sting and looked likely, going into their third match against minnows Latvia, to top of the standings with a complete set of points. However, Latvia robbed the Turkish squad of their 100% record when they drew level, coming from two goals down, to end the match 3-3.
The Netherlands ranked 14th, and three-time runners-up at the World Cup, redeemed themselves with a 2-0 win over Latvia and a 7-0 win over Gibraltar. The Dutch squad now sit second in the standings with 6 points.
Montenegro and Norway accumulated 6 points each and sit in third and fourth place, respectively. Latvia is in fifth place on 1 point, and Gibraltar is at the bottom of the table with 0 points.
Group H - Croatia, Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta
2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia had a poor start to the tournament. The team, ranked 11th, lost 1-0 to Slovenia (ranked 62nd) during their first match. An early goal by the Slovenians and a solid defence kept the Croatians at bay. The Croatian squad fared better against Cyprus, winning 1-0, and against Malta, beating the Maltese 3-0. The team now sits at the top of their group table on 6 points.
Russia meanwhile sits in second place on 6 points. The Russians were kept from the top spot by Slovakia, who beat them 2-1 in the March window's final match. Slovakia has 5 points in third place.
Cyprus ended the tournament openers in fourth place on 4 points, Slovenia in fifth place on 3 points, and Malta in sixth on 1 point.
Group I - England, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino
England is top of their group's standings on 9 points after unconceded wins against San Marino and Albania and a 2-1 win against Poland. England, ranked 4th in the world, was never in doubt to win against 210th ranked San Marino or 66th ranked Albania. However, Poland, ranked 19th, was always going to be a more challenging opponent. The Poles already boasted a tournament score sheet of 3-3 against Hungary and 3-0 against Andorra. The match between The Three Lions and The White and Reds was relatively tight. England was the better team during the first half scoring the opening goal. Into the second half, they lost the focus and control displayed in the first 45 minutes, which Poland, minus star-striker Lewandowski, exploited to equalise. Only a late strike from Harry Maguire gave the Lions a 2-1 win. England faces Hungary (ranked 40th) in September and should, relatively easily, maintain its leading position.
Hungary is currently in second place with 7 points. The Hungarians have had a good tournament so far, winning 3-0 against San Marino and 4-1 against Andorra, and drawing 3-3 with Poland.
Albania is in third place with 6 points, Poland in fourth with 4 points and Andorra and San Marino in fifth and sixth place respectively with 0 points each.
Group J - Germany, Romania, Iceland, North Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein
Group J's standings at the end of the third matchday were probably the most unforeseen of the tournament. Ranked 99th, Armenia sits at the top of the group standings on 9 points, followed by North Macedonia, ranked 65th, in second place. Four-time World Cup champions Germany, ranked 13th, are in third place.
Germany's campaign started with two lukewarm wins against Iceland and Romania, compounded by a humiliating 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia. A young team, poor defending and a shocking missed open goal by Timo Werner have been blamed for the loss. Whatever the reason, Germany will undoubtedly be mortified - the German national team has not lost a single World Cup qualifier since 2001.
Behind Germany, Romania and Iceland are both on 3 points in fourth and fifth place respectively, and Liechtenstein is bottom of the table on 0 points.
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