World Cup 2018 qualification: The teams who have booked their place in Russia and why Argentina, Holland, USA and Australia could all miss out

 
Joe Hall
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A World Cup without Argentina? Messi and co have struggled to find a groove in qualifiers (Source: Getty)

Who’s already qualified?

A Neymar-led Brazil were the first team to book their place at next year's World Cup finals alongside hosts Russia after they guaranteed top spot in South American qualifying in March.

Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia will all represent Asia, while Belgium and Mexico are the only teams to have yet qualified from Europe and the Concacaf region — Central and North America.

Who can secure qualification this international break?

Europe

England will be assured of a World Cup spot should they beat Slovenia at Wembley on Thursday night. Below them, just one point separates Slovenia, Slovakia and Scotland. The latter must beat the two former sides in their final two fixtures to win a play-off spot.

Read more: Inept England give Gareth Southgate cause for concern against Slovakia and Malta

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It's been another poor showing for Holland throughout these qualifiers (Source: Getty)

In Group A Holland are facing the prospect of watching a second consecutive major tournament at home. The birthplace of Total Football has struggled to produce the talent capable of carrying the mantle forward — 33-year-old Arjen Robben captain is still relied upon to carry the team. They look likely to need an emphatic win over second-placed Sweden in the final group game to have any hope of snatching a play-off spot.

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Thomas Lemar (l), Kylian Mbappe (c) and Alexandre Lacazette (r) have all forced their way into manager Didier Deschamps' thinking (Source: Getty)

The Swedes, though, led by star winger Emil Forsberg, will be eyeing up an automatic qualification spot currently occupied by France. Days after smashing Holland in August, France slumped to an embarrassing home draw to Luxembourg. Coach Didier Deschamps has a near-unparalleled number of exciting midfielders and strikers to choose from — Kylian Mbappe, Alexandre Lacazette, Ousmane Dembele, Paul Pogba, Thomas Lemar, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial to name only a handful — but has only made small adjustments to his team that finished second at Euro 2016.

Read more: Paris Saint-Germain deals for Kylian Mbappe and Neymar triggers Uefa financial fair play investigation

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Hand in hand: Werner (r) has been a revelation for Low's side (Source: Getty)

Germany and Spain have been their usual profiles in excellence. The reigning champions have won eight out of eight meaning they only need a point from their remaining two qualifiers to ensure they finish top ahead of Northern Ireland. Julen Lopetegui’s Spain have won seven, drawn one and still need one more win to effectively clinch top spot ahead of Italy. After years struggling to find a front man to fill Miroslav Klose’s shoes, Germany appear to have solved the conundrum with RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, who has bagged six goals in eight games.

If it’s drama you’re looking for, keep an eye on Switzerland and Portugal in Group B. The group’s top two look set for a final day shoot-out for first place when they play on Tuesday.

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Teenager Ben Woodburn (l) scored a screamer to keep Wales' qualification hopes alive in their last match (Source: Getty)

Similarly, Wales and Republic of Ireland — currently second and third in their group — play each other in their final game on Monday. Yet even a win may not be enough to make the play-offs as only the eight best runners-up go through. Wales are currently ranked ninth.

Read more: How Chris Coleman used Rafael Benitez's preferred tactics tool to guide Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016

Africa

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Ex-Chelsea player John Obi Mikel captains the side (Source: Getty)

Nigeria will become the first African nation to reach Russia if a squad featuring Premier League stars such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses beat Zambia on Saturday. Egypt and Tunisia could also qualify should they win and other results go their way. Cameroon and Algeria are already out of the running.

Central/North America

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Despite the emergence of wonderkid Christian Pulisic (l), the USA have not been as dominant as in previous qualifying campaigns (Source: Getty)

Panama, who don’t have a single player playing in Europe’s top five leagues, can qualify for their first ever World Cup at the expense of an underperforming USA who will be in serious danger of failing to make the tournament for the first time in 32 years should they lose Friday’s meeting between the two teams.

The USA are currently in fourth place in Concacaf qualifying, a position that earns a second chance to qualify through an inter-continental play-off.

Asia

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Syria will play Australia in a play-off (Source: Getty)

Reigning Asia Cup champions Australia - another regions giant flattering to deceive - have a two-legged tie against relative minnows Syria on Thursday for the chance to make the inter-continental play-off.

The Socceroos only missed out on automatic qualification by a single goal yet that hasn’t been enough to spare manager Ange Postecoglu from stinging public criticism. Meanwhile Syria, a country still wracked by civil war, could become one of the unlikeliest World Cup qualifiers in history although it has been noted that dictator Bashar Al Assad’s use of the team for propaganda purposes somewhat sullies the feel-good story.

South America

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Lionel Messi (l) and Mauro Icardi (r) trudge off after another disappointing result (Source: Getty)

To make early qualification even sweeter for Brazil, arch-rivals Argentina are on the brink of missing out altogether, raising the prospect that Lionel Messi, who will be 35 by the Qatar 2022 tournament, could already have played in his last World Cup.

The 2014 runners-up have gone through three different managers during this qualifying campaign. Despite having a selection of forwards including Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria and Messi, only Bolivia have scored fewer goals in South American qualifying. They are currently fifth, a position which would put them through to an inter-continental qualifier against New Zealand which they would be favourites to win.

Yet the situation is finely poised in South America with six other teams — Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador — still in contention for the remaining three automatic qualification slots or the inter-continental play-off.

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