Italy and Portugal snubbed for Qatar qualification
The two most recent European champions, Italy and Portugal, are yet to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and both nations will need to progress from the play-offs if they are to partake in next year’s spectacle in Qatar.
Sunday marks exactly one year until the 2022 FIFA World Cup gets underway in Qatar, and the majority of Europe's best footballing nations have booked their tickets to the showpiece which kicks off 21 November 2022.
Current European champions Italy missed out on the 2018 WC Finals in Russia after losing to Sweden in the play-offs, and the Azzurri are at risk of being unaccounted for at back-to-back World Cups for the first time in their history.
Also in jeopardy of missing the 22nd FIFA World Cup is Portugal and their skipper Cristiano Ronaldo. The Euro 2016 winners have appeared at all of the last five World Cup tournaments and the Portuguese are at risk of missing the event for the first time since 1998.
Last month Denmark and Germany became the first non-host nations to confirm their places at the next World Cup, each with two group matches to spare.
In the latest international break, and the last until March next year, 10 more teams put their names in the hat with 8 from Europe and 2 from South America.
Each confederation is responsible for organising and governing qualification paths for its members’ and UEFA‘s competing nations were split into 10 groups, with all group winners automatically advancing to the group stage of the 32-team World Cup. The 10 runners-up contest the play-offs together with the two best-ranked group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League who did NOT finish as winner or runner-up in their WCQ group.
From 12 down to 6, thereafter the triumphant 3 nations qualify for the Finals in Qatar.
Select UEFA nations played more/less WCQ matches than others because Groups A-E each had 5 teams whereas Groups F-J contained 6 countries apiece.
In total 13 European nations will be present at the World Cup next year – more than one-third of the total number of participating teams, and tantamount to how many American (8) and African (5) countries, combined, qualify for the tournament.
South America (CONMEBOL) will send 4 (potentially rising to 5) representatives to Qatar, with 3-4 from North and Central America (CONCACAF). The 5th-placed South American nation will contest an intercontinental play-off with the 4th-placed Central/North American nation for the final allocated opening at the tournament.
The remaining 10 places are split amongst Africa (CAF) and Asia/Oceania (AFC) with just 5 African countries given the luxury of competing on the grandest stage, and up to 5 Asian nations making the trip to the desert this time next year.
UEFA WCQ saw a thrilling and dramatic tussle between Portugal and Serbia for top spot in Group A. Portugal picked up a single point from their final two qualifiers including a goalless draw with the Republic of Ireland, followed by defeat to Serbia courtesy of Aleksandar Mitrovic's header in the 90th minute in Lisbon.
This was Serbia's first-ever victory over Portugal and it secured the Serbs their berth to Qatar 2022.
Serbia lost none of their qualifying games and topped Group A with 20 points from 8 games, with Portugal ending runner-up with 17 points.
Sweden led Spain by 2 points which each having to play their final two Group B qualifiers. The Swedes suffered a shock 0-2 defeat to Georgia before losing out to Spain through an Alvaro Morata strike in the closing stages in Seville.
La Roja finished atop Group B with 19 points from 24 as Luis Enrique's army ended 4 points above Sweden.
Euro holders Italy had 14 points after 6 qualifiers but had Switzerland breathing down their necks. The two teams drew 1-1 in Rome last week before Roberto Mancini's men played a stalemate in Northern Ireland while the Swiss squashed Bulgaria, 4-0, to rise above Italy in Group C and snatch World Cup qualification out of the grasp of the Azzurri.
Switzerland are one of five countries to not taste defeat during qualifying and the 14th-ranked side collected 18 points, two more than Italy, as both sides conceded only 2 goals across their 8 games.
On paper France had a fairly straightforward qualifying group however the current World Cup holders did encounter a few stumbling blocks along the way, drawing 3 matches in Group D. France topped their group with 18 points from 8 matches, 6 points above Ukraine who make the play-offs.
Finland were 1 point shy of Ukraine.
Group E contained the trio of Belgium, Wales, and Czech Republic, in addition to Estonia and Belarus. With two qualifiers remaining Belgium held a 5-point lead at the summit and a victory would confirm entry to the World Cup for FIFA's top-ranked nation.
The Belgians secured top spot with 20 points, while Wales edged Czechia by a solitary point to reach the play-offs, however the Czechs will also be in the play-offs as one of two best-ranked group winners in the Nations League.
Denmark breezed through Group F and the Danes were guaranteed group winners with 2 games remaining, after an impeccable run of 8 consecutive wins without conceding a single goal in 720 minutes of play.
Despite incurring a loss at the hands of Scotland, Denmark took away 27 points from a possible 30 and are confirmed to be in the mix at Qatar 2022. The Scottish finished as runners-up in Group F with 23 points, 7 above Austria and Israel.
Austria will be in the play-offs as one of two best-ranked group winners in the Nations League (with Czech Republic).
Group G hosted a three-way affair between the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. The Dutch held a 2-point buffer over Norway, and Turkey a further 2 points adrift, with 2 matches left.
Under Louis van Gaal, Netherlands sealed their position as group winners after gathering 23 points from 10 games, confirming their participation at the 2022 Finals after Die Oranje were absent at Russia 2018. Turkey leapfrogged Norway into the play-off spot, ending on 21 points and 3 points clear of the Norwegians.
Group H was hotly-contested between Croatia and Russia. Despite trailing by 2 points with 2 games to play, the 2018 WC runners-up overcame the 2018 WC hosts, 1-0, to narrowly edge above them in the final standings; Croatia finished a single point ahead of Russia.
With the likes of Albania, Andorra, and San Marino in their group, England and Poland were overwhelming favourites to occupy the top two positions in Group I. Gareth Southgate's team were relatively unscathed in their qualifying efforts as the Three Lions took 8 wins and 2 draws from their 10 matches and scored 39 goals in the process - including a 10-0 walloping of San Marino in the final batch of qualifiers. Poland earned 20 points and finished 2nd-place behind England.
Germany generally crushed their opposition in Group J and had booked themselves into Qatar with two qualifying ties to spare. Die Mannschaft lost one of their 10 clashes – taking 27 points, scoring 36 goals and conceding just 4.
North Macedonia were the only team in Group J to score victory over the Germans and that ultimately proved influential for North Macedonia who came runner-up by 1 point over 3rd-placed Romania.
Netherlands forward Memphis Depay netted a joint-most 12 goals in 10 matches, with England striker Harry Kane also bagging 12 goals in two games fewer. Memphis gave 6 assists and the Barcelona man had the most direct goal contributions (18) of all players in UEFA WCQ.
Polish attacker Robert Lewandowski scored 8 goals in as many games.
Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel kept 8 clean sheets in 10 qualifying games, more than any other 'keeper, as the Danes' tight defence conceded just 3 goals on route to Qatar.
UEFA WCQ Group winners:
Group A - Serbia
Group B - Spain
Group C - Switzerland
Group D - France
Group E - Belgium
Group F - Denmark
Group G - Croatia
Group H - Netherlands
Group I - England
Group J - Germany
UEFA WCQ Group runners-up:
Group A - Portugal (seeded)
Group B - Sweden (seeded)
Group C - Italy (seeded)
Group D - Ukraine (unseeded)
Group E - Wales (seeded)
Group F - Scotland (seeded)
Group G - Russia (seeded)
Group H - Turkey (unseeded)
Group I - Poland (unseeded)
Group J - North Macedonia (unseeded)
*As 3rd-placed teams who won their UNL groups, Austria and Czech Republic advance to the WCQ play-offs with the pair both unseeded.
The play-offs see six pairings with every seeded nation paired with an unseeded counterpart. The victorious 6 nations then contest the play-off finals with the winning 3 teams earning UEFA's three remaining berths at Qatar. The play-off draw takes place next week Friday, 26 November, and the ties will be played in March 2022.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) were allocated 5 entries to the World Cup next year. Similarly to UEFA, CAF divided its members into 10 qualifying groups, but while all of UEFA's group winners automatically qualify for Qatar, CAF's 10 group winners must advance to the play-offs where only the 5 winners will be part of the 32 teams at the tournament.
Morocco were the only African team to win all 6 of their qualifying games, collecting a maximum 18 points and conceding just a single goal in 540 minutes.
Senegal and Mali each won 5 games and drew the other to top their respective groups with 16 points apiece.
Cameroon edged Ivory Coast in Group D, finishing with 15 points and two above the Elephants.
Ghana controversially beat South Africa to replace Bafana Bafana atop of Group G, however FIFA are believed to be investigating after a formal complaint by the South African Football Association.
CAF WCQ Group winners:
Group A - Algeria (Pot 1)
Group B - Tunisia (Pot 1)
Group C - Nigeria (Pot 1)
Group D - Cameroon (Pot 2)
Group E - Mali (Pot 2)
Group F - Egypt (Pot 2)
Group G - Ghana (Pot 2)
Group H - Senegal (Pot 1)
Group I - Morocco (Pot 1)
Group J - DR Congo (Pot 2)
Each nation in Pot 1 will be paired with one from Pot 2, with the 5 winning nations qualifying for the World Cup.
CONMEBOL are allocated a guaranteed four berths to the World Cup, which may rise to five depending on the result of a future intercontinental play-off.
South America's top two footballing nations, Brazil and Argentina, have qualified for the 2022 World Cup with five matches still to play. After 13 games, Brazil have taken 35 points from 39 on offer and have conceded 4 goals thus far, with talisman Neymar scoring 7 goals and making 8 assists for the Selecao.
Argentina trail Brazil by 6 points however La Albiceleste have also put their name into the hat for what is likely to be a last World Cup outing for captain Lionel Messi as a player.
Ecuador have 23 points from 14 games, with Colombia (17) occupying 4th-place. With 4 games remaining Peru (17), Chile (16), and Uruguay (16) will all be knocking on Colombia's door for that fourth and final qualifying spot.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup is scheduled to be staged from 21 November until the Final at the Lusail Stadium on 18 December.