Top European nations face crucial games as 2022 qualifying reaches climax

Published November 11, 2021
England’s John Stones (second R) scores during the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Hungary at Wembley in October 2021.—Reuters
England’s John Stones (second R) scores during the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Hungary at Wembley in October 2021.—Reuters

LONDON: European nations play their last group games in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup over the next week, with some of the continent’s biggest teams still not assured of going to the tournament in Qatar.

Only Germany and Denmark have claimed places in Europe’s 13-team quota in the 32-nation World Cup lineup before the qualifiers resume on Thursday with Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands among the nations facing crucial games.

The 10 group winners will secure qualification for football’s global showpiece which kicks off on November 21, 2022. The 10 runners-up will get another chance to qualify in play-offs next March.

Sunday’s match list is a rebuttal to those who say qualification has too little drama or jeopardy.

Three groups are set to be decided when the top two teams meet in a last-game showdown. Winners will go to Qatar and losers head for the playoffs in March, needing to get past two more opponents to qualify.

The action on Sunday starts with a rematch from the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals: Croatia host Russia in Split.

Russia have a two-point lead in Group ‘H’ going into Thursday’s games when they host Cyprus and Croatia visit Malta.

Then, 2010 World Cup winners Spain and 2016 European champion Portugal are in action.

Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo trying to qualify for his fifth World Cup and extend his men’s national-team world record goals tally, host current Group ‘A’ leaders Serbia. Portugal trail by one point but first play at Ireland on Thursday.

Portugal have the edge on goal difference, so two draws will be enough to advance. Serbia have one game left and will certainly go through by winning in Lisbon.

Spain host Sweden, now with 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic back, in the Sevilla stadium where the teams drew 0-0 in June at Euro 2020.

Ahead of the showdown, Sweden have a two-point lead in Group ‘B’ before playing at Georgia on Thursday, when Spain are at Greece, who held them to a 1-1 draw at home in March.

Exactly four years ago, Sweden ousted Italy in the playoffs to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

European champions Italy, who failed to qualify in 2018, have their own showdown game Friday against Switzerland in Rome.

With two games left in Group ‘C’ they are locked on 14 points with Switzerland, and the sides clash on Friday in Rome, five months after Italy won 3-0 there when the teams met in Euro 2020’s opening game.

Whoever wins will be left requiring just a point in their final qualifier, with the Azzurri going to Northern Ireland on Monday while the Swiss host Bulgaria.

“We mustn’t think that we have everything to lose,” said coach Roberto Mancini. We know what we are capable of, and if we play our game I think we will perform well. And we will have fun.”

The Netherlands are tantalisingly close to returning to the World Cup after also missing out in 2018. Louis van Gaal’s side are two points clear of Norway atop Group ‘G’ with a superior goal difference to that of the Norwegians or third-placed Turkey.

That effectively means a draw in Montenegro on Saturday should not damage them, as long as they then avoid defeat against Norway — who are without injured forward Erling Haaland — in Rotterdam.

ENGLAND, FRANCE ALMOST THERE

Reigning world champions France, top-ranked Belgium and Euro 2020 runners-up England will likely avoid any last-round drama.

France can clinch qualification by beating Kazakhstan in Paris on Saturday. Even a draw would be enough provided Finland fail to win earlier, but otherwise Les Bleus — without the injured Paul Pogba — can wrap up their spot in Qatar when they travel to Helsinki on Tuesday.

For England, beating Albania at Wembley Stadium on Friday will virtually guarantee a place at the World Cup. The English are three points clear of Poland in Group ‘I’, with a superior goal difference, and finish their group-stage campaign at San Marino, who are last in the 210-team FIFA world rankings.

Belgium will win Group ‘E’ by defeating Estonia in Brussels on Saturday, while an unlikely loss could set up a group decider in Wales.

Germany and Denmark have qualified with two games to spare and might use their last group matches to experiment with new players or systems.

The Danes still have plenty of motivation they have won eight straight without conceding a goal in Group ‘F’ and can qualify with a perfect record by beating the Faroe Islands at home Friday and Scotland away on Monday. Scotland need three more points from games in Moldova and at home to Denmark to take the play-off place.

Four-time world champions Germany have won seven of eight in Group ‘J’ and conclude at home to Liechtenstein on Thursday and away to Armenia on Sunday. Five members of their squad were forced into quarantine on Tuesday after one player tested positive for Covid-19.

Behind them, Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Iceland can all still take the play-off place.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2021

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