World Soccer

Who will fall at the final hurdle?

Nations vie for Europe’s final three spots at the 2022 World Cup


The route to Qatar is a lot more complicate­d than a private jet ride and some complement­ary peanuts. Well, at least for the European nations still to compete in the UEFA play-offs. Their road to the 2022 World

Cup was mapped out during last November’s draw, with the countries divided into three separate “pathways”. Fasten your seatbelts, because this could get bumpy. Path A saw Wales and Scotland paired in a potential British derby, providing they can get through their semi-finals first. Both sides do have the advantage of playing at home; remember, these are single-legged games that must be determined on the day, be it through extra-time or penalties if necessary.

The Dragons, still led by caretaker coach Rob Page, are hoping to reach their first World Cup since1958, but face an Austria side who took eventual champions Italy to extra-time in the round of16 at last summer’s European Championsh­ip.

Path B could see two of Europe’s elite strikers lock horns in the final, in the form of Robert Lewandowsk­i and Zlatan Ibrahimovi­c

While Wales have gone seven games unbeaten since the Euros, eventually pipping Czech Republic to second spot in their World Cup qualifying group, Austria’s form has been inconsiste­nt to say the least; they lost 5-2 to Israel in September, only to beat the same side 4-2 at home two months later.

Scotland’s euphoria of reaching their first major tournament since1998 was short-lived after they limped out in the group stage of the Euros. They do have real reason to be optimistic, though; Steve Clarke’s side have won their last six games and only conceded in one of those matches.

Their opponents, Ukraine – quarterfin­alists at World Cup 2006 and again at last summer’s Euros – concluded an impressive qualifying campaign without defeat, despite having to play world champions France twice. But their immediate participat­ion was cast into doubt due to the ongoing conflict in the country, and the Austrian, Scottish and Welsh FAs were already in dialogue over the crisis before Ukraine officially requested a postponeme­nt of the tie.

The format for Path B was also undecided at the time of writing following FIFA and UEFA’s decision to ban Russia “until further notice” after the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether their original opponents Poland will have to wait for the game to be re-scheduled (the Russian Football Union announced it would appeal against its ban to the Court of Arbitratio­n for Sport), play a different opponent or receive a bye to the final remains to be seen.

If Poland do reach the final, it could see two of Europe’s elite strikers lock horns in the form of Robert Lewandowsk­i and Zlatan Ibrahimovi­c, in what would also be a repeat of the countries’ Group E clash from last summer’s Euros. Both players likely view Qatar as their final shot at the World Cup, although the latter will miss Sweden’s semi-final due to an accumulati­on of yellow cards.

Janne Andersson’s side must therefore manage without the Milan forward against semi-final opponents Czech Republic in Solna. Alexander Isak, Emil Forsberg and Dejan Kulusevski will take on the attacking burden; the same front three who put Spain to the sword in a 2-1 victory last September.

It takes a particular­ly strong blade to perforate the Czech net, mind, as they proved last summer; Jaroslav Silhavy’s side conceded twice in four games en route to the quarter-finals, before being eliminated by Denmark. Marshalled by West Ham United defensive midfielder­s Alex Kral and Tomas Soucek, they’re an incredibly organised 4-2-3-1 unit.

Path C could end up providing the most fireworks with the past two European champions – Italy and Portugal – seeing their World Cup hopes on the line.

It feels all too familiar for Azzurri supporters, who witnessed their nation get eliminated by Sweden in the 2018 World Cup play-offs, and a far cry from the ecstatic scenes of last summer at Wembley Stadium.

The fact that their semi-final opponents North Macedonia, who are ranked 67th in the world and failed to pick up a single point at Euro 2020, have won more matches since July 2021 is a damning indication of Roberto Mancini’s side’s feeble form.

Portugal fans will be feeling equally uneasy after their side were mere minutes away from booking their place at Qatar. They only needed to draw with Serbia at home last November, only to concede a lastminute goal to lose 2-1. Lapses of concentrat­ion can happen, but not many are normally that costly. Tense could therefore be an understate­ment for the atmosphere in Porto for their semi-final with Turkey; a side who have lost just once in seven games since the Euros but have never beaten A Selecao in a competitiv­e fixture.


There’s also action in the UEFA Nations League at the end of March as Moldova take on Kazakhstan, and Estonia face Cyprus in the League C relegation play-outs. The two-legged ties will see the victors remain in League C and the losers relegated to League D for the upcoming 2022-23 campaign.

Kazakhstan will be favourites against Moldova, who are 61 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings and without a competitiv­e win since June 2019, after showing some signs of promise towards the end of 2021. That included draws with Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovin­a, and a friendly win over Tajikistan – admittedly, their only victory of 2021.

Cyprus currently sit one place above Estonia in the World Rankings, but the eastern European side will be slight favourites against their Mediterran­ean counterpar­ts after proving tough opponents for the likes of Wales and Belarus towards the end of last year.

 ?? ?? Italy…will the European champions miss out on Qatar?
Italy…will the European champions miss out on Qatar?
 ?? ?? The Dragons… Wales’ Kieffer Moore gets mobbed
The Dragons… Wales’ Kieffer Moore gets mobbed
 ?? ?? Suspended…Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovi­c will miss out against the Czech Republic
Suspended…Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovi­c will miss out against the Czech Republic
 ?? ?? Nations League… Moldova face Kazakhstan
Nations League… Moldova face Kazakhstan

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