Part two of this mini season entitled How They Qualified involves the second batch of teams to qualify for Russia 2018. There are five European teams in this section, including a World Cup debutant and three past winners. Furthermore, two African teams and a CONCACAF side also feature.
October 5th 2017
Germany booked their spot in Russia next summer with a 3-1 win in Belfast. Northern Ireland were the second place team chasing the Germans, but nobody in that group were a match for Die Manschaft as they won all ten games, scoring 43 goals and conceding only four – the best record in Europe. Their group contained Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino (who suffered an aggregate 15-0 defeat over two legs). In the N.I game, Germany scored after only two minutes to put the nerves to bed. Sandro Wagner added to Sebastian Rudy’s goal, and Joshua Kimmich added a third late on. Josh Magennis scored in added time but it was too little too late. The expectation on Germany is monumental, they are reigning champions, only Italy and Brazil have ever won consecutive World Cups, both of these occurring over 50 years ago. After an underwhelming Euro 2016 Joachim Löw will want to build on their perfect qualification campaign.
October 5th 2017
England certainly made hard work of what was a relatively simple qualification campaign. It took until match day nine for the Three Lions to guarantee qualification, although it was assumed they would from early on. England had UK rivals Scotland in their group, along with Slovenia and Slovakia, Lithuania, and Malta. They won eight of ten, drawing 0-0 with Slovenia in 2016 and 2-2 with Scotland in a thrilling match at Hampden in June this year. They started the campaign with Sam Allardyce in charge, but after a scandal, he was relieved of his duties just one competitive game into his tenure. Gareth Southgate came in and got the points needed, but hardly looks like the man to lead England to the World Cup final. A 94th minute Harry Kane winner gave England the necessary points to book their ticket to next summer’s finals, and while England hardly look like world beaters, they have one of the world’s best strikers in Harry Kane. England fans will not tolerate anything less than a last eight appearance next summer.
October 6th 2017
Spain will be desperate for Russia 2018 to kick off, if only so that they can get the bitter taste of World Cup 2018 out of their mouths, in particular that logic-defying 5-1 Dutch dismantling. They took until the penultimate set of fixtures to qualify, due to a tough group which featured Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein. Spain won nine of ten matches, their only draw coming away from home to Italy – the toughest fixture they could have asked for. They comfortably beat Albania in October 2017, with goals from Rodrigo, Isco and Thiago Alcântara winning the day for the Spanish. This, coupled with Italy’s draw with Macedonia was enough for Julen Lopetegui’s side. The remit is simple for Spain next summer: win the World Cup.
October 7th 2017
Nigeria became the first African side to lock down a place next summer, beating Zambia to do so. They entered the
competition in the Second Round, beating Swaziland 2-0 on aggregate and progressing them to the final round, a group stage with three other sides: Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria – a tough group indeed. They avoided defeat in qualification, drawing against Cameroon and Algeria, both away from home, the latter being after qualification was sealed. They sewed up the group with a game to go, Arsenal winger Alex Iwobi scoring the winner in a cagey 1-0 win over Zambia at home, sending the fans into a frenzy of celebrations. Nigeria were not a pretty side to watch in 2014, playing out a memorably horrible 0-0 draw with Iran. However, they progressed to the last 16, a realistic aim for the Super Eagles in 2018, although a draw as favourably as that which they received in World Cup 2014 would probably be necessary for that to happen again.
Costa Rica/Costa Rica
October 7th 2017
Costa Rica perhaps enjoyed the most exciting qualification to the World Cup, scoring a 95th minute goal to book their place in Russia. Their journey started in the Fourth Round, where they won a group comprised of Panama, Haiti and Jamaica, with Jamaica, the bottom side, the only one to take a point off the Costa Ricans. They progressed to the final round of qualifying, facing Mexico, Honduras, Panama, the United States of America and Trinidad & Tobago. They were a long way behind Mexico, but by the end of qualifying only four points separated Costa Rica in 2nd and USA in 5th. They won four matches, drew four and lost twice, away to Mexico and Panama. Their penultimate game saw them do battle with Honduras. The Hondurans scored first, but Kendall Watson leapt high in the air to steer home a powerful header to convert a Bryan Ruiz cross. He tore his shirt off and fell to the ground in disbelief. They went on to lose their last match to Panama, but they secured their place in Russia with this strike. Few will tip them to reach the quarter finals, as they did in 2014, but they possess a hard working squad and an astute manager in Óscar Ramirez.
October 8th 2017
The Poles left it late to seal the group, beating Montenegro 4-2 in Warsaw. They had competition for top spot with Denmark in their group, while Romania, Montenegro, Armenia and Kazakhstan filled the rest of the places. Poland, after a bad start drawing against Kazakhstan, went on to take the game by the scruff of the neck. They stumbled slightly after a 4-0 defeat in Copenhagen to Denmark this September, but Danes dropped more sloppy points along the way to ensure Poland topped the group. What undoubtedly helped Poland the most was the goal scoring of their striker, Robert Lewandowski. He managed a total of 16 goals in qualifying, the most in Europe, double that of the second top scorer in this group, while three of the six teams in this group didn’t even amass 16 goals! Poland were 2-0 up against Montenegro in their final goal, but with Denmark 1-0 in their game, Montenegro scored a quick double to change the shape of the group. Luckily for the Poles, Lewandowski scored even later to reinstate the Polish lead, and an own goal from Montenegro sealed the win. Elsewhere Denmark conceded late on to allow five points between the two teams. Poland’s last World Cup appearance was in Germany in 2006 and they will be desperate to build on that flat performance.
October 8th 2017
Egypt benefit hugely from a restructure of the African qualification process, with the playoff system being scrapped in favour of more teams being eliminated early on and 20 teams playing group matches in the final qualifying round. Egypt defeated Chad 4-1 over two legs in the Second Round of the competition, before advancing to play Ghana, Uganda and Congo in Group E. Qualification was straightforward for Egypt, who won four games, drawing one and losing one, to Uganda away. They benefited hugely from a disappointing Ghanaian side, who will miss the World Cup for the first time since 2002. Egypt booked their place in next summer’s finals with a 2-1 win at home to Congo. After a Mohamed Salah goal, Congo scored in the 88th minute to infuriate the home fans. But deep into stoppage time, Egypt won a penalty. Up stepped Salah, the hopes and dreams of a nation dependant on his decision making skills here. He slotted it home with the calmness which could have made it a kick about at the park, sending all those in the stadium in Alexandria into raptures! It is their first qualification since Italia ’90, and truly deserved after so many playoff heartaches.
October 9th 2017
Iceland sealed qualification with a 2-0 home victory over Kosovo, but really, they qualified a couple days before, with an emphatic 3-0 victory in Turkey. The heartthrobs of Euro 2016 overcame a tricky group consisting of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo to earn a place in the biggest show in sport next summer. It was a tough group, with Iceland losing two of ten games, against Croatia and Finland, both away, and drawing one, winning the other seven. After a big win in Turkey, the Icelanders had the task of beating the bottom side Kosovo at home. This was straightforward, but manager Heimir Hallgrímsonn ensured his troops were focused. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson scored either side of the break to push Iceland over the finish line and resign Croatia to a playoff spot. Neutrals will be excited to see what Iceland can do after their heroics last summer, England fans will hope they are on the opposite side of the draw after their horror show in Nice!