November 11th 2017
The top two teams in Group C, Morocco and Ivory Coast, met in Abidjan in what was a winner takes all cup final, the victor progressing to the World Cup finals. Morocco squeezed past Equatorial Guinea in the Second Round, 2-1, and ended up in a tricky group which featured the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. Morocco didn’t lose a game, but they did only win three matches out of six, beating every side once and drawing against every side once. Impressively, they did not concede a goal in this qualifying round, winning 6-0, 3-0 and 2-0, drawing their games 0-0. The only goal they conceded was to Equatorial Guinea in November 2015. They qualified on the final day of qualifiers, in an away game to the Ivory Coast. Morocco struck twice in five minutes to condemn the Ivoirians to watching the finals from home, missing their first tournament since their debut World Cup in 2006. Nabil Dirar and Mehdi Benatia scored on minutes 25 and 30 to seal the victory for the Moroccans. This will be Morocco’s first World Cup appearance since France ’98 and if Herve Renard can continue to keep his side well drilled defensively then they could go far.
November 11th 2017
Tunisia went into their final game knowing that a draw would be enough to see them reach their first World Cup since 2006, and a draw is exactly what they managed. In the Second Round, Morocco were handed an easy tie against Mauritania, which they won 4-2 over two legs. They were then placed in Group A of the third round, where they faced off against the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Guinea. They won four of the six matches, drawing 2-2 away to the DR Congo, and 0-0 at home to Libya. Nabil Maâloul had his side well drilled, putting his side out not to dazzle the home fans with “sexy football“, but to ensure that those fans had a team to cheer in Russia next summer. This mentality is concerning for a neutral, World Cup 2010 was full of teams who were more concerned with not losing rather than winning and this appears to be the hallmark of this Tunisian team – result before performance. They were involved in some exciting games in their last World Cup appearance, so one can only hope that they ramp up the excitement levels in Russia next summer.
November 12th 2017
Switzerland qualified for their fourth consecutive World Cup, via the playoffs this time around, although they can count themselves unlucky, missing out on top spot on goal difference. In a group which featured Portugal, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra, Switzerland cruised to a nine wins on the bounce, picking up six clean sheets throughout. Their only loss occurred in their final match against Portugal. All they had to do to qualify automatically was to draw, but they set up a little to defensively, and could not fight back effectively when Johan Djourou scored an own goal, and they were condemned to a playoff spot when Andre Silva scored Portugal’s second. The playoffs pitted the Swiss in a match up against Northern Island, where Switzerland were awarded a controversial penalty after the referee deemed Corry Evans had handled the ball in the area. Ricardo Rodriguez stepped up and fired his penalty into the right side of the goal. The return leg in Basel finished 0-0, meaning the Swiss qualified 1-0 on aggregate. Switzerland are traditionally a great qualification team who lose out on account of playing in an overly cautious manner at the big finals. They have some excellent players in their ranks, maybe 2018 will be the year that the Swiss carry their qualifying form into the tournament.
November 12th 2017
Croatia had to qualify the hard way, circumnavigating the playoffs against Greece, after finishing behind Iceland in Group I. Croatia were heavy favourites in the group which featured Iceland, Turkey, Ukraine, Finland and Kosovo, and yet the team which boasted Luka Modrić, Ivan Ratitić and Ivan Perišić dropped too many points along the way. It wasn’t a bad campaign exactly, but they simply dropped more points than Iceland did. They lost to Iceland and Turkey, dropping points against Finland and Turkey along the way. The playoffs saw Croatia drawn against Greece, who finished a long way behind Greece in their own group. They won 4-1 in Zagreb, goals coming from Modrić, Kalinić, Perišić and Kramarić. They drew 0-0 in Athens, but this was more than enough for the Croatians, who advanced on to Russia. They may have finished behind Iceland in qualifying, but they will be expected to advance much further than their group rivals in Russia next summer.
November 13th 2017
Sweden caused a lot of upset ahead of next summer’s World Cup, having the audacity to tear up the script that would see Gianluigi Buffon retire after the finals in Russia. They finished second in Group A, four points behind France and level on points with the Netherlands, finishing ahead of them on goal difference. The other three teams making up Group A were Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg. Sweden won six of ten games, drawing one and losing to the Netherlands, France and Bulgaria. They were drawn as a lower seed against Italy, who themselves were unlucky to be paired in a group with Spain, which saw them finish second in group G. AEK Athens midfielder Jakob Johansson scored the winner in the first leg in Sweden, with some controversial refereeing decisions infuriating the Italians. The second leg in Italy was a drab 0-0, with Italian manager seemingly losing the respect of his team when defensive midfielder Danielle De Rossi blowing his top when Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura wanted to bring him on instead of on-form striker Lorenzo Insigne. The Swedes prevailed the Italian onslaught to qualify for their first World Cup since 2006. They have shown up to a couple of European Championships since then, leaving neutrals marvelling at their fans and yawning at their on-field performances.
November 14th 2017
Christian Eriksen and friends saw off the Republic of Ireland in emphatic fashion to ensure that they were the third
Scandinavian side to book their place in Russia next summer, along with Iceland and Sweden. The Danes finished second in their group, behind Poland and ahead of Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan. They managed to win six games, whilst drawing twice and losing twice, defeats coming against Poland and Montenegro. The playoffs saw Denmark play the Republic of Ireland. After a tight 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, ROI went into the second leg as slight favourites, being the home team. This looked to be telling, as Shane Duffy scored after only six minutes. A Christian Eriksen hat trick, sandwiched by an Andreas Christiensen goal and Nicklas Bendtner penalty saw an astonishing 5-1 victory for the Danes, confirming their place in Russia next summer. Denmark were relatively unimpressive in their last World Cup outing in 2010, although they did not have the sublimely talented Christian Eriksen in their ranks back then. With the Spurs playmaker pulling the strings, there is every chance that Denmark could progress through the tournaments at a canter.
November 15th 2017
Australia took one of the longest routes to the World Cup finals, culminating in a playoff win over Honduras. Australia entered qualification in the Second Round, drawn in Group B along with Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bangladesh. They won seven games, their only dropped points coming in a 2-0 loss to Jordan. They progressed to the Third Round in a group with Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand. Australia had a poor campaign by their standards. They lost the least amount of games in their group, a defeat that sent Japan to the finals next year. What cost Australia was draws. They drew four matches out of ten, condemning them to a playoff match against one of the stories of the World Cup campaign, Syria, who finished third in their own group. Australia drew 1-1 in Malaysia (FIFA banned Syria from playing matches at home due to political reasons), and in the return leg in Sydney, it took until extra time for Australia to see off their Middle-Eastern rivals., with Tim Cahill scoring the decisive goal. They then progressed to play the fourth placed CONCACAF side, Honduras, in a winner progresses to Russia 2018 two legged playoff. After a drab 0-0 in Honduras, a Mile Jedinak hat trick saw the Socceroos qualify for their fourth consecutive World Cup. After their heroics in 2006, where they made it to the last 16, narrowly losing due to a controversial last minute penalty to eventual Champions Italy, Australia have suffered two underwhelming World Cups. They may have had a substandard qualifying campaign, but a favourable draw may
see them with the opportunity to progress.
November 15th 2017
Peru were the 32nd and final team to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Russia next year. They beat New Zealand over a two legged affair to reach the finals. They finished fifth in South American qualifying, winning seven of eighteen games, drawing five and losing six, with Colombia, and Uruguay defeating them, and Chile and Brazil completing doubles over them. The key to their qualification was actually a 2-0 defeat away to Bolivia. This was overturned by FIFA, who punished Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player and awarded Peru a 3-0 win. This proved pivotal for two reasons: firstly, it was points on the board, giving the Peruvians a bit of confidence. Secondly, and crucially, it boosted their goal difference by three, instead of being down by two. After eighteen games played, Peru were level on points with Chile. Peru qualified for the playoffs with a superior goal difference, two more than Chile. Now tell me that automatic 3-0 victory wasn’t pivotal… They progressed to a playoff tie versus New Zealand. After a 0-0 game in Auckland, the return leg in Lima finished 2-0 to the home side. Goals from Jefferson Farfán and Christian Ramos proved enough for the home side. Not just were Peru dominant on the field, but their fans were breathtaking off it. Pre-game, some fans even tried to put curses on the New Zealand team, though it is hard to say the extent that this worked… 2018 will be only the fifth World Cup that Peru have reached, and the first one since Spain ’82. Their footballing ability can be neither here nor there, but the passion of their fans alone should be enough to endear Peru to the football world.
So the scene is set, all 32 teams have qualified, and their story has been told. The World Cup draw takes place today in Moscow, with every team desiring a slightly different outcome. Some teams will want a nice simple path to the last eight, teams like Panama, who know they won’t make it out of the groups, would no doubt rather have the enjoyment of playing a team such as Brazil or Germany at a World Cup. Russia 2018 will be a World Cup like no other. Of course it will be odd without Italy and without the Netherlands. Yes, from a selfish point of view, it would have been nice to see more of the home nations in Moscow next summer. It will be unusual not seeing the USA, Ivory Coast and Ghana fighting it out for a last sixteen spot. But these teams did not qualify, and it is a shame to talk about these sides when 32 other teams put in the blood, sweat, tears and toil to qualify in their own right. Thank you for reading this “How They Qualified” series, and whoever you are rooting for in the World Cup draw later today, I hope it is favourable. Stay tuned, as next week I will be analysing the World Cup draw, assessing who I think will do well, who will underachieve, the cliché group of death and such like!