World Cup qualifying: What to watch for on every continent

The two-week international break might mean a pause for clubs, but it’s all systems go around the globe with World Cup qualifying and every continent is approaching the end of the road to Qatar 2022. Only three teams — including hosts Qatar, who qualify automatically — have already punched their tickets to the big show (well done, Germany and Denmark) and there are 95 nations still with a shot at securing one of the remaining spots in the 32-team field.

– World Cup 2022 qualifying: How it works around the world

With that in mind, we asked ESPN’s regions and writers to offer up what you should be watching for around the world over the next 10 days.

Jump to: Europe | North/Central America | Africa | South America | Asia | Oceania

Europe (UEFA)

Spain in danger?
Luis Enrique’s side are starting to form an identity around a promising young core of players, but they’ve got work to do if they’re to make it to the World Cup. They are two points off Janne Andersson’s Sweden at the top of Group B and face the group leaders on Sunday, but their week begins with a trip to Euro 2004 champs Greece on Thursday (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET).

– Europe: What every country needs to qualify for the World Cup

If Luis Enrique’s team get a victory in Athens, another win against Sweden on Sunday in Seville would guide them home as group winners, avoiding the pitfalls of the playoffs. But Sweden will also be gunning for that top spot, and travel to Georgia on Thursday evening (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET) hoping to maintain that slender lead at the top of the pool.

Spain will be without some key personnel — Ansu Fati and Eric Garcia are absent — but Dani Carvajal is included, making him the first Real Madrid player called up by the former Barcelona manager since March.

Ronaldo’s grudge match
Back in April, Cristiano Ronaldo was so outraged at his late winner against Serbia getting controversially overturned (there was no VAR in the opening qualifiers) that he threw his captain’s armband to the ground and stormed off at the final whistle. Sunday sees the two nations meet again in the return match in Lisbon, and World Cup qualification is on the line.

Serbia hold a one-point advantage over Portugal at the top of Group A, but Portugal have a game in hand. That extra match for Fernando Santos’ men comes against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET), who are out of the running for a spot at Qatar, but will offer resistance: Portugal needed two late Ronaldo goals to get past them in September. A result in Dublin for Portugal would mean they’d be in the driving seat for Sunday’s clash against Serbia, where Ronaldo will no doubt have a bearing on matters.

Could Italy really be dumped into the playoffs?
Italy’s match against Switzerland on Friday has all the hallmarks of a winner-takes-all clash. The two teams are locked on 14 points at the top of Group C, with both finishing off their pool stages with games they’d expect to win – Italy travel to Northern Ireland and Switzerland host Bulgaria. So it’s all eyes on Rome this week as Roberto Mancini’s European champions look to book their place in the World Cup and avoid the playoffs.

Italy’s 37-match unbeaten run came to an end in the Nations League semifinals against Spain in October, but they bounced back by beating Belgium 2-1 to take third. But they will be without a few key players in Nicola Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Ciro Immobile, while Nicola Barella is an injury doubt. With their midfield depleted, Mancini could hand debuts to Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi and Torino’s Tommaso Pobega. They won’t have it easy against Switzerland, however, with Murat Yakin’s side keeping clean sheets in their last four matches – including a 0-0 draw in the return match in Basel in September.

Haaland a big miss for Norway
As Borussia Dortmund have found out over the past week, life without one of the best players in the world is tough. BVB striker Erling Haaland is out injured with a hip injury and may not be fit until Christmas, which will come as a huge blow for his country Norway as they seek to book their place at the World Cup.

Norway are two points behind Netherlands in Group G with two games remaining. Louis Van Gaal’s Oranje face Montenegro on Saturday, while Norway host Latvia. If both teams win, then the final match of the group next Tuesday in Rotterdam (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET) where the two teams meet will be fascinating. But if Norway drop any points, then they have Turkey sitting just two points behind them, looking to capitalize on any slip-ups for a playoff place.

Norway still have the likes of Martin Odegaard to help bolster their qualification hopes, but they’ll have to find a way to make up that shortfall of Haaland’s goal record — an impressive 12 in 15 appearances for the national side — in order to advance. — Tom Hamilton

North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF)

Longtime rivals meet in Ohio
If there is a red-letter day for World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF, it’s when United States and Mexico square off. The latest installment is set to take place this Friday at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET) with both teams looking to cement their places among the three automatic qualification spots. Mexico leads the way with 14 points from six matches, and looks to be cruising towards Qatar. The U.S. is in second place, three back of El Tri.

– CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table

Yet such is the state of the standings that the U.S. is one result from being pulled back into the pack, and the memories from the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying effort still linger in the minds of some observers. The U.S. will have to make do without the likes of Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest, both injured, and a less-than-fully-fit Christian Pulisic. So with an away game against Jamaica set for the back half of this window, a victory over their bitter rivals would go a long way towards clinching qualification.

Canada’s road to Qatar reaches a crucial point
The opening six games of qualifying have witnessed the continued rise of Canada. John Herdman’s side has already recorded credible road draws against the U.S. and Mexico, good enough for third place. The Reds have some emerging talents as well, with not only Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies in the mix, but also Lille’s Jonathan David and the New England Revolution’s Tajon Buchanan.

Canada has historically gotten ahead of itself at times, and this window will provide it with yet another test to see if it is for real, via home matches against Costa Rica and Mexico. A pair of wins would mean that most of the toughest fixtures are already out of the way, and clear the path towards its first successful qualification since 1986. — Jeff Carlisle

Africa (CAF)

The “Elephants” without their Eagle
Wilfried Zaha’s absence from the Ivory Coast squad for their crunch qualifiers — including a blockbuster showdown with Cameroon — is shrouded in mystery. The Elephants boast arguably the most scintillating array of attacking talent on the continent, but will be missing star man Zaha after he was omitted by coach Patrice Beaumelle.

– Africa preview: Can youthful South Africa reach Qatar

Zaha refused to join the team in October because of “homesickness,” according to the coach, who revealed the attacker was reflecting on his international future. However, these quotes were denied by Crystal Palace boss Patrick Vieira, who expressed surprise at Beaumelle’s suggestion and told journalists that the forward still wanted to represent the Elephants.

– CAF World Cup qualifying tables

Regardless of the dissatisfaction or misunderstanding at the root of Zaha’s absence, Ivory Coast have their work cut out to take a further step on the road to Qatar, with both Gervinho and Jeremie Boga also out. One point ahead of Cameroon with two games to play, the Elephants must face the Indomitable Lions in Douala in their final group game (stream LIVE on ESPN+, Tues. 11/16, 2 p.m. ET) — the biggest fixture of the campaign. Fail to progress, and expect fingers of accusation to be pointed at Zaha for abandoning the Elephants when they needed him most.

Will Nigeria let things slip?
Unlike Super Eagles generations of the past, Nigeria have always qualified for major tournaments under current German coach Gernot Rohr. They’ve reached three consecutive competitions and appeared firmly on course to advance to the final round (two-legged playoffs to reach the final) after being drawn into a relatively straightforward Group C. However, a shock home defeat vs. Central African Republic in October has raised concerns that the West African powerhouse may stumble again as two more tricky games await.

They lead Cape Verde by nine points to seven, but they must still host the Sharks — giant-killers on various occasions over the past six years — in their final game, and first play Liberia in neutral Tangiers on Saturday. Unlike some of Africa’s other giants, Nigeria are yet to settle on an effective playing style to see off the smaller sides, while their infamous 4-4 draw with Sierra Leone a year ago (despite being 4-0 up after half an hour) demonstrates just how vulnerable they can be.

Aubameyang vs. Salah for a World Cup spot?
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang appears primed to go down in history alongside the likes of George Weah, Mohamed Aboutrika and Abedi Pele as an all-time African great who never got the chance to showcase his talents at a World Cup.

With Mohamed Salah’s Egypt starting the qualifying campaign slowly, Arsenal skipper Auba — now finding form in the Premier League — could have helped Gabon take the initiative in Group F. Instead, there have been familiar lapses — notably, back-to-back away defeats and allowing Egypt to snatch a 90th-minute equaliser in Franceville — though with two games to go, they’re not entirely out of the running. In matchday five, they must defeat Libya at home and hope Egypt fall in Angola (the Pharaohs have never defeated the East Africans away) to stand any chance.

If that occurs, the Panthers would then set up a winner-takes-all showdown in Alexandria on Nov. 15, meaning we could well see Aubameyang vs. Salah for a spot in the playoffs. — Ed Dove

South America (CONMEBOL)

Expect World Cup spots to start filling up
World Cup qualifying is into the home stretch, with six matchdays remaining and four automatic spots up for grabs. Brazil and Argentina lead comfortably and will no doubt secure their spots in Qatar sooner rather than later. And Brazil can get over the line with a win against Colombia on Thursday.

– South America preview: Colombia looking to James for spark

The most contested battles are taking place below them. Ecuador are third on 17 points, while Colombia and Uruguay sit one point behind — the latter are in the fifth spot because of goal difference and would head into an intercontinental playoff if qualifying ended today. Further down, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru remain in contention despite their inconsistent form; Ricardo Gareca’s Peru are five points off fourth place place, with 18 points still to play for.

– CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying table

Games to watch
The highlight for the upcoming window is Friday’s Clasico del Río de la Plata. Uruguay, with manager Oscar Tabarez under intense scrutiny, must win in Montevideo against an undefeated and supremely confident Argentina, the Copa America holders. If Uruguay lose, Tuesday’s game against Bolivia in La Paz will suddenly take on more challenges than just the dizzying heights of the capital.

Colombia’s visit Thursday to Brazil is another one to watch, with the home team attempting to secure a spot in Qatar 2022. Meanwhile, Colombia has more draws than it would like in a tournament of this level and must impress in Sao Paulo with next Tuesday’s key game against Paraguay in Barranquilla looming. A win in Brazil should put Reinaldo Rueda’s Colombia in the best mood possible for Paraguay, and the return of midfielder James Rodriguez is a reason to hope. — Damian Didonato

Asia (AFC)

Where is Taremi for unbeaten Iran?
Given his star-player status in the country, more than a few eyebrows were raised when Porto striker Mehdi Taremi was omitted from Dragan Skocic’s squad for the upcoming Group A games against Lebanon and Syria. It’s since been reported that Taremi has not seen eye to eye with Skocic in recent times and failed to answer calls from team officials hoping to resolve their conflict.

– Asian preview: What’s to play for this week

There is still plenty of firepower in the Team Melli ranks, however, in the form of Zenit’s Sardar Azmoun and Feyenoord winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, and two wins over the next week should still be well within their reach. Nonetheless, this issue with Taremi has longer-term implications for one of Asia’s top national teams, who gave a good account of themselves at the last World Cup and are expected to feature in Qatar next year.

– AFC World Cup qualifying tables

All to play for in Group B
Can Saudi Arabia maintain perfect start and keep Australia and Japan at bay? Although the latter two nations were expected to be the front-runners in qualifying Group B, it is Saudi Arabia who lead the way thus far as the last remaining team with a perfect record of four wins in the Asian qualifiers.

While they don’t boast as many illustrious names as their rivals — the entire squad plays in the domestic league — Saudi Arabia’s mix of experience and youth has caught the eye, and they already passed one big test with their 1-0 victory over Japan last month. Their next major hurdle is Thursday’s visit to Australia, where anything other than defeat should enhance their qualification prospects, especially given the top two are guaranteed berths at Qatar 2022.

On the other hand, perennial heavyweights Japan — the only Asian team to reach the knockout round at the last World Cup — are in desperate need of recovering from a slow start having already suffered two defeats in their opening four matches. Anything less than wins over Vietnam and Oman could spell trouble for the Samurai Blue. — Gabriel Tan

Oceania (OFC)

The qualifiers in Oceania were originally scheduled to kick off in the second half of 2020, but have faced multiple delays due to logistical challenges stemming from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The latest update from the Oceania Football Confederation in September suggested that the remaining matches will now take place next March, potentially in the centralised, neutral venue of Qatar. — Tan

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