With 12 months to go before we know the 31 teams who will join hosts Russia at the 2018 World Cup, we take a look at some of the major nations and familiar names who appear to have a battle on their hands to make the finals.
Argentina’s 3-0 defeat in Brazil last week left them facing a huge crisis in their qualification bid. However, victory at home to Colombia on Tuesday averted this for now, as at least that win left them fifth and that offers a playoff against the winners of the Oceania region — likely New Zealand.
Head coach Edgardo Bauza obviously wants to avoid this, but with six games to go and Brazil and Uruguay looking favourites to take two of the four automatic berths, there is still work to do — and they don’t want the ignominy of not even getting a playoff. Next up in March is the Albiceleste host Chile, who are a point and a place ahead of them, and defeat would make things incredibly difficult.
Argentina do still have to play the bottom three nations, though one of those games will be at altitude against Bolivia in La Paz. But the last match of qualifying in October, in Ecuador (currently third), has all the hallmarks of a direct battle for an automatic place.
Of course, if Argentina do force their way in it could yet be Chile — winners of the past two editions of the Copa America, both times winning finals against Argentina — who could fall out of the top four.
The Black Stars have become something of a fixture at the World Cup finals, having qualified for the past three tournaments and reaching the quarterfinals in 2010. But their chances of being in Russia are already looking slim.
After being held to a 0-0 draw at home by Uganda, and losing in Egypt, they sit third in the group with only the group winners qualifying. Egypt have a 100 percent record and are now firm favourites to make the finals for the first time since 1990 and only their third appearance overall.
Netherlands and Sweden
After missing out on Euro 2016, there has not been much confidence that head coach Danny Blind would be able to guide Netherlands to the World Cup through a qualifying group that includes France and Sweden. Only the group winners are guaranteed to make it with the runners-up getting a playoff place at best.
The Dutch — who last failed to qualify in 2002 — have already lost at home to France, and while they are only three points off Didier Deschamps’ side at the top of the table, they are also in a battle for second, level points with the Swedes. Sweden host France on June 9, then France are at home to Netherlands on Aug. 31 — those two games will go a long way to deciding the 1, 2, 3 in Group A.
European champions Portugal have only dropped points in one qualifier so far, but that happened to be away to Switzerland who have a 100 percent record. That means the Swiss could play for a draw in the return fixture on Aug. 31, and that could prove to be enough to qualify automatically. That said, with Portugal’s hugely superior goal difference, qualification is still very much in their own hands.
Hungary are also only two points behind Portugal for second place, and with the two nations — who drew 3-3 at Euro 2016 — yet to meet, the picture could change for second place, too.
Australia and Japan
Group B in Asian qualifying is very difficult to call, with one point separating Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia and United Arab Emirates at the halfway stage. However, Australia have one more home game than any of their three rivals, with Japan to play away, so they will feel the odds are in their favour.
Japan still have to go to both Saudi Arabia and UAE, so the home game against the Socceroos could be pivotal if they are not to miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1994. But Australia are short on confidence after being held to a daw in Thailand.
Zero points from two matches, and a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Costa Rica, has put United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s job at risk. But with three of the six nations qualifying automatically, and the fourth playing off against a team from Asia, all is far from lost.
In addition, the U.S. can point to the fact they have played two of their most difficult games — they also lost at home to Mexico — and will expect to be in a much healthier position once they have met Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago come June.
Spain and Italy
With both nations drawn together in the same group, one was always destined to need a playoff to make it to Russia. At present, Spain lead the way on goal difference (superior by seven), so it is looking like Giampiero Ventura’s side might have to win in Spain on Sept. 2 to top the group and avoid the playoffs.