Football fans were well and truly spoilt this summer with the European Championships – the 24-team tournament eventually and surprisingly won by Portugal and watched by a global TV audience of millions. Fortunately, the international football calendar sees little downtime and the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup is well underway.
In actual fact, qualifying started some time ago – although European nations only entered the action during the first week of September, around the globe the competition is in full swing. The qualifying campaign includes 209 teams incorporated in six different confederations and playing a grand total of 851 matches for the honour of becoming one of the 32 nations who will compete at the finals in 2018. Of course, hosts Russia have a guaranteed place so there are 31 spots up for grabs.
After the latest round of qualifiers and before the double-headers hit our big screens early in October, what have we learnt so far? Were the performances of Wales at Euro 2016 just a big fluke? Has Sam Allardyce made any difference as England’s new coach? Can the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil pull themselves together after recent disappointments? Here are ten big talking points after the recent international break…
Wales still have the feel good factor
Any fears that Wales might suffer a post-Euro 2016 hangover were put firmly to bed with their opening match of the campaign. A home tie against Group D opponents Moldova never threatened to rival that glorious quarter-final win over Belgium in Lille, either in terms of occasion or significance. Nevertheless, Chris Coleman’s side continued the momentum shown in the summer sweeping into a 2-0 lead by half-time. Gareth Bale scored a brace in the second half to ensure a smooth start to the campaign. Those who think this squad peaked in the European Championships might be wrong; Coleman has created something special and, in Bale, Wales have one of the world’s most effective, exciting players. Bale is now the second highest scorer in the national team’s history, just four behind Ian Rush. We’ll know more about how good this Wales side are when they travel to Austria in October – can they qualify for their first World Cup Finals tournament since 1958?
No shake up from Big Sam
There’s a different coach on the touchline, but after Game No.1 of the Sam Allardyce era
it’s tempting to suggest that very little else has changed since England shuffled lamely out of the Euros.
Of course, it’s early days, but the side which edged past Slovakia thanks to a 95th-minute Adam Lallana goal showed the same old limitations – huffing and puffing, and labouring to beat an opposition reduced to ten men for the final 30-odd minutes. Joe Hart, who suffered a miserable Euro 2016 and was ushered out of Manchester City by Pep Guardiola, remained in goal while Wayne Rooney was given carte blanche to play where he wanted, drifting around in the midfield areas to his heart’s content. A long way to go, and much work to do.
Next up for Sam and England is a sure-fire home banker against Malta, followed by a trip to Slovenia in October, but the big clash is in early November when Scotland come to Wembley. Tickets will be in huge demand – if not sold out already – so it’s the perfect excuse to gather round the TV with friends for this Friday night showdown.
No quick fix for the Netherlands
One of the most intriguing sub plots of Euro 2016 involved a nation not even present. The fact that the Netherlands failed to qualify for the finals was a major shock, particularly as the squad had reached the semi-finals of the World Cup 15 months previously. The Dutch spent the summer licking wounds and are rebuilding, but don’t expect an immediate return to form and fortune. The squad lacks established international-class players and will rely heavily on Wesley Sneijder, fit-again Kevin Strootman and Daley Blind, while hoping Arjen Robben avoids injury and that the likes of Vincent Janssen and Georginio Wijnaldum step up to make the grade. A 1-1 draw in Sweden was a respectable start but France are among future group opponents.
Is the Brazilian revival real?
It’s a little over two years since the most humbling, chastening, and embarrassing defeat in Brazil’s footballing history – that humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany in World Cup 2014, on home turf. The hurt still lingers and redemption has been gradual, eased by Olympic gold this summer. Still, Brazil have a long road ahead and only a strong qualifying campaign and respectable performance in the finals will appease supporters suffering from the shock of that night in Belo Horizonte. The signs are promising – competition to claim one of the top four automatic qualifying spots is fierce – but two successive victories, including a 2-1 win over Colombia, have nudged Brazil into second place. It’s delicately poised; Uruguay are top of the group, on 16 points, with Brazil a point below and ahead of Argentina on goal difference. Colombia are fourth, on 13 points, Ecuador in fifth on the same tally. The margin for error is small. For Brazil, it’s Bolivia next – they must keep winning.
Spain’s new era faces toughest test next
Spain’s new national team coach has large and well-respected boots to fill. Julen Lopetegui succeeds Vicente del Bosque, he of the magnificent moustache and even more illustrious record. Under Del Bosque, Spain won the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships and Lopetegui has inherited a group of players that have excelled in recent years and are certainly used to winning, but a low-key exit from the European Championships at the hands of Italy is cause for concern. Lopetegui started well, with a 2-0 friendly victory in Belgium followed by a thumping 8-0 win over Liechtenstein but the new coach will be aware that the sterner examinations are to come; next up, in October, is an away date against Italy.
Can Roberto Martinez take Belgium to the next level?
The most talented squad in Belgian football history is in danger of delivering nothing, having disappointed in the last two major international tournaments. Incoming coach Roberto Martinez – a left-field choice to replace Marc Wilmots after an underwhelming season with Everton – has the task of harnessing a gifted but disparate group into a winning one. With a squad which includes Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, Divok Origi, Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke, Belgium should not only walk qualification but challenge for the trophy itself in 2018. An opening 3-0 win in Cyprus was straightforward enough, but next up is a more challenging home fixture against Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 7.
Kosovo – World Cup debutants
After unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia back in 2008 and officially becoming a FIFA member in May, the World Cup qualifying matches represent Kosovo’s competitive bow in international football. The build-up to the team’s debut was chaotic and tense, with several players – who had previously represented other nations – being cleared to play for Kosovo only shortly before the first game, in Finland. One of them, Valon Berisha, scored the equalising penalty to earn a 1-1 draw. Other group opponents include Croatia and Iceland, conquerors of England at Euro 2016. If Kosovo manage to remain in contention in their group, it would be an amazing story.
Germany – and Muller – bounce back
While a run to the semi-finals of the European Championships might have been cause for celebration for some nations, Germany will have reflected on its performance this summer with a very different attitude. Failure. And no German player will have been more disappointed with the outcome of the tournament than Thomas Muller, who failed to score at all during the competition. However, judging by Germany’s opening result in qualifying, this is not the start of a gradual, Netherlands-style decline. Joachim Low’s side breezed past Norway in Oslo, winning 3-0 – and Muller scored twice. “It’s good for me, people will leave me alone now,” said the player here. He’s right; there’s no German crisis and Group C shows little for Low and his players to worry about.
Mexico head up the Hex
The Hexagon might sound like some kind of Gladiatorial arena used to stage brutal wrestling head-to-heads, but it’s actually the often-used nickname for Round Five of the convoluted and complicated CONCACAF – North, Central America and Caribbean – qualifying schedule. The Hex pits the six qualifying nations against each other in a home and away scenario, with the top three going straight through the finals and the fourth heading into an inter-continental play-off against a nation from the Asian (AFC) qualifying phase. USA and Honduras were the last two teams to claim a place in the Hexagon, alongside Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago. The round kicks off with two of the giants, USA and Mexico, meeting in November.
Ruiz the record breaker
He won’t be playing in the finals, and neither will his country, Guatemala, but Carlos Ruiz deserves his place in the sun and a mention here. The veteran striker – and it’s okay to call him that as he turned 37 years of age in September – became the leading goalscorer in FIFA World Cup qualifying history when he scored five times in a 9-3 win over St Vincent and the Grenadines. That means Ruiz has contributed 39 goals in qualifying matches spanning an impressive 18 year career – a round of applause for the man, please.