As we edge ever closer to the 2018 FIFA World Cup (less than 200 days to go!), let’s take a look at the full quota of the 32 qualified teams, and their groups for the World Cup

Spoiler alert: Italy will not be playing in the World Cup.

DIRECT QUALIFIERS

By the time the first part of this series was written, 23 teams had qualified for the World Cup directly. Three spots from the African Football Confederation qualification round were still up for grabs. In Group A, Tunisia edged out the Democratic Republic of Congo by one point to make it to Russia.

The second article in a series on the road to the World Cup looks at how the groups square off and how the teams match up

In Group C, Morocco beat pre-qualification favourites Ivory Coast in the last round of matches to secure qualification to the World Cup for the first time since 1998.

In Group D, Senegal beat the 2010 hosts South Africa in the last round of matches to qualify for their first World Cup since 2002, when they reached the quarter-finals.

CONTINENTAL PLAYOFFS

The best eight runners-up from the nine groups of the UEFA qualification round entered the second round, where they were drawn against each other. For qualification to the second round, only the matches between the top five teams in the group are counted, therefore only the results of eight matches are scrutinised. Slovakia ended Group F as a runner-up with 12 points but lost out on a place in the second round due to its inferior number of points as compared to the other teams. For the draw, the teams are divided into two pots based on their FIFA rankings.

The draw pitted Switzerland against Northern Ireland, Italy against Sweden, Denmark against the Republic of Ireland, and Croatia against Greece. All fixtures were to be played over two legs on a home-and-away basis.

Switzerland beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in the first leg thanks to a penalty by Ricardo Rodriguez. The second leg ended 0-0, thus confirming Switzerland will make its fourth consecutive appearance at the finals.

Croatia swept aside Greece in the first leg 4-1, with star players Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic both scoring. The second leg failed to produce a Greek fight back, sending Croatia through to the group stages of the 2018 World Cup.

The first leg between Denmark and the Republic of Ireland ended goalless. In the second leg, despite being away from home, Christian Eriksen continued the trend of star players stepping up for their nations in crunch matches as he scored a hat trick to help Denmark win 5-1 and qualify for the World Cup after an eight-year absence.

If you thought the Netherlands failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was the biggest shock of the qualification process, boy were you wrong. The conquerors of the Netherlands, Sweden edged Italy 1-0 in the first leg of their playoff, midfielder Jakob Johansson scoring the winner.

In the second leg, played at the iconic San Siro Stadium in Milan, in front of a nearly packed crowd, Italy failed to break down the Swedish defence. The Swedish manager said after the game, “We couldn’t do anything but sit back and defend. They were so skillful.”

The match marked the end of the glittering careers of three Italian legends: Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi and their captain Gianluigi Buffon. De Rossi in fact ended his career on a sour note, refusing to warm up after a touchline spat with the manager, protesting over why Lorenzo Insigne was not being brought on. Insigne, one of the best attacking players in the world, watched both legs against Sweden from the bench. Buffon left his last-ever national press conference in tears after apologising to the entire Italian nation. This will be the first time since 1958 that Italy will not be featuring at a World Cup. On the other hand, the qualification of Sweden for the first time since 2006 has football fans all over the world excited, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic might come out of retirement to represent his country.

In the fourth round of the Asian Football Confederation qualification process, the third placed teams of both groups of the third round, Australia and Syria squared off against each other. Both the legs ended 1-1, and the match went into extra time. Veteran Tim Cahill stepped up and scored in the second half of extra time to send Australia through to the intercontinental playoff against a Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) region team.

INTER-CONTINENTAL PLAYOFFS

In the first intercontinental playoff, the fourth placed team in the CONCACAF qualification round, Honduras, faced the winner of the AFC playoff, Australia. The first leg ended goalless. In the second leg played before a packed Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australian captain Mile Jedinak scored a hat trick as Australia beat Honduras 3-1 to qualify for their fourth consecutive appearance at the World Cup.

In the second intercontinental playoff, the fifth placed team in the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) qualification round, Peru, faced the winner of the OFC qualification round, New Zealand. The first leg of this fixture also ended goalless. In the second leg played in Lima, the hosts Peru beat New Zealand 2-0, with goals from Jefferson Farfan and defender Christian Ramos. Peru has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1982, meaning they are the longest absentees to feature in the 2018 World Cup.

GROUPS FOR THE 2018 WORLD CUP

The draw for the groups of the 2018 FIFA World Cup was held on Dec 1, 2017. The 32 qualified nations were divided into four pots according to the FIFA rankings. Being the hosts, Russia joined defending champions Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France, Belgium, Portugal and Poland in Pot 1. Spain was joined in Pot 2 by England, Mexico, Colombia and Uruguay.

GROUP A

As per tradition, the hosts were drawn in Group A. They were joined by Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The first match of the tournament will be Russia vs Saudi Arabia, to be played immediately after the opening ceremony on June 14.

Uruguay, led upfront by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, might produce one of the early thumpings in the tournament against minnows Saudi Arabia and Russia. However, do not rule out the chance of a major upset — Egypt has Mohamed Salah, Mohammed El Neny and Ramadan Sobhi in their ranks while Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Sahwali scored 16 goals in qualifying.

GROUP B

Group B pits both the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal, against each other for arguably the most mouth-watering clash of the group stages. The other two nations in the group are Morocco and Iran.

This will be the first time since 1958 that Italy will not be featuring at a World Cup. On the other hand, Sweden qualifying has fans all over the world excited, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic might come out of retirement to represent his country.

Spain vs Portugal might steal all of the limelight, but the clash between the two Arab countries will be feisty too. However, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and the star-studded Spanish side will be expected to make it through to the knockouts.

GROUP C

One of the pre-tournament favourites, France stands out as the most dominant team in Group C. The three remaining teams in the group, Australia, Denmark and Peru, will all be hopeful of making it out of the group stages.

Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne, one of the best attacking players in the world, will not be featuring at the World Cup
Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne, one of the best attacking players in the world, will not be featuring at the World Cup

France is probably the strongest team in world football at the moment. The emergence of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele just strengthens their incredible depth of squad. Another player to watch out for will be Christian Eriksen; the Dane is one of the best midfielders in the world. Whether his team can match up to his genius is another matter. Don’t write off Australia either, they’re the current Asian champions.

GROUP D

One of the most competitive groups in the tournament, Group D includes Argentina, Nigeria, Croatia and first timers Iceland. Argentina reached the finals of the last World Cup and the last two Copa Americas. Nigeria are the defending African champions, while Iceland have carved out a reputation of beating the big boys.

This might just be Lionel Messi’s last chance to lift the World Cup, the only trophy missing in his cabinet. Overall, this group might be the highest scoring, as all the teams play attacking, exciting football. It’s also highly difficult to call the teams who’ll make it through to the knockouts, so it’ll make for good viewing.

GROUP E

Arguably the dreaded “Group of Death” for this World Cup, this group sees Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica facing off. Brazil is always one of the pre-tournament favourites, Switzerland are capable of beating anyone on their day, Serbia have progressed rapidly recently, and Costa Rica knocked out England and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup.

While Messi will be playing in Group D, the Alpine Messi will be lighting up Group E. Xherdan Shaqiri has a habit of scoring wonder goals in big tournaments. Add the Samba of the Brazilians, the grit of the Costa Ricans and the tactical strength of the Serbians, this group will provide some fire and fury.

GROUP F

Defending champions Germany have been drawn in Group F, along with CONCACAF champions Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. Germany vs Mexico is another highly anticipated match in the group stages.

Thomas Muller will be looking to pick up where he left off in pursuit of Klose’s all-time record of most goals at the finals. Mexico will again look to make it tough for the big boys, while South Korea’s exciting new forwards will also be looking to impress. And if Ibrahimovic does come out of retirement, there will be only one showstopper in Russia.

GROUP G

Group G consists of Belgium, England, Panama and Tunisia. The golden generation of Belgium will be looking to propel their country to success. And given the talent in their squad, Belgium will feel the presuure of proving themselves.

On the other hand, England will be without a member of its own golden generation, Wayne Rooney, who retired from international football earlier this year. England’s new talisman is Harry Kane. He will be key to England rewriting their status as chokers in big tournaments. England vs Belgium is arguably the most tantalising match of the group stages.

GROUP H

The last group pits Poland against 2014 quarter-finalists Colombia, Senegal and Japan. The top scorer in the qualifying stages with 16 goals, Robert Lewandowski, will be looking to help his team progress, while both Japan and Colombia will be hopeful of making it to the knockout stage too.

Despite not featuring a ‘big’ team, Group H promises to be one of the most exciting. All four teams are in with a chance of progressing. And with Lewandowski, James Rodriguez, Shinji Okazaki and Sadio Mane taking the field, there will be no shortage of quality either.

The groups are well-balanced, competitive and promise a lot of goals. The matches of the group stages in the last World Cup produced an average of 2.83 goals per match, the highest figure since the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico. With four players breaking the record for the most goals scored in a single qualifying round for this World Cup, entertainment and high-scoring games will hopefully be served just as frequently as in Brazil, if not more.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017

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