With UEFA playing only one round of World Cup Qualifiers during this international break, the focus shifts to other confederations on Tuesday. We are now entering the home straight of the campaigns in Asia and South America, while the final hex in North and Central America is also heating up nicely. At the end of the day, we should be able to get a clearer picture of which teams can start preparing for next summer in Russia as others see their World Cup dreams fade. Every game is important, but these seven matches on Tuesday have a lot hinging on them on the road to Russia.
Australia vs U.A.E. (AFC Group B)
Ever since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation, qualification to the World Cup has seemed a formality. However, this campaign has been a different beast for the Asian champions. A solid start saw the Socceroos get maximum points from their first two games, but they have since drawn four consecutive games. That run has seen points dropped inexplicably in away games against Thailand and Iraq. As a result, Australia trail Saudi Arabia and Japan in the automatic qualification spots by three points.
While Australia will be looking to make a move up the table as soon as possible, they can’t disregard the threat of their visitors. The U.A.E. are just a point behind their hosts in the playoff spot and already have an impressive away win in Japan. In truth, the Emiratis are probably levelling out as we approach crunch time in the group, but if they can keep it tight, there is every chance they can frustrate Australia like others have recently.
Australia absolutely have to win this match if they want to keep their automatic qualification hopes alive. With an away game against Japan still to play, their is simply no margin for error for the Socceroos. For the U.A.E., a loss will be the end of their campaign. However, any sort of positive result increases the pressure on Australia and with a favourable set of fixtures to end the campaign, they could take the race for the playoff spot down to the wire.
South Korea vs Syria (AFC Group A)
The ultimate fairytale got another shot in the arm as Syria beat Uzbekistan in Malaysia thanks to an Omar Kharbin Panenka penalty in stoppage time. Thanks to that remarkable result, Syria travel to South Korea just a point behind Uzbekistan in the playoff spot, and sensationally, just two points behind their hosts in one of the automatic qualification spots. While Syria remain the underdogs — for a variety of reasons that can be read here — not many would have predicted them getting seven points from China, Iran and Uzbekistan. At the very least, Syria will make life as difficult as possible for South Korea.
The hosts have questions to answer themselves after Thursday’s loss in China. With Uzbekistan hosting Qatar later in the day, any slip-up at home could prove costly in the bid for automatic qualification. The pressure is high on the pre-campaign favourites, but most neutrals will be watching to see if Syria can get another result to keep the dream alive.
Iran vs China (AFC Group A)
While South Korea were slipping up against China, Iran were grinding out a professional 1-0 win away in Qatar. Carlos Queiroz’s men have yet to concede a goal in the campaign and another win in front of Tehran’s famous frenzied crowd will put Team Melli on the doorstep of Russia.
However, as the South Koreans found out on Thursday, China are a different beast under Marcello Lippi. Queiroz will know better than most, that the venerable World Cup-winning Italian manager cannot be underestimated. Lippi’s appointment may well have come too late to save this campaign, but if the Chinese can show the same commitment and organization that was on display against South Korea, they can certainly throw a spanner in the works for Iran. If anything, this game promises to be an intense battle between two experienced tacticians in the dugout.
Bolivia vs Argentina (CONMEBOL)
The matchup that will forever be associated with Diego Maradona’s Argentina getting a 6-0 thrashing in the rarefied air of La Paz. While Argentina haven’t sunk to the depths of that 2010 campaign, this 2018 qualification campaign is certainly giving it a run for the money. The 1-0 win over Chile brought three points and crucially put the Albiceleste back in the automatic qualification spots. However, there wasn’t much else to cheer, as Argentina again looked a disjointed team, despite Edgardo Bauza fielding Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria in the starting eleven. Bauza’s remit is simply to get the three points at this stage, but if Argentina struggle to score against the competition’s weakest defence, serious questions will have to be asked.
Ecuador vs Colombia (CONMEBOL)
In a race where there is barely any room to breathe, the Andean neighbours face off in a crucial battle. An overdue win over Bolivia put Colombia in the final automatic qualification spot, just one point ahead of Ecuador in the playoff spot. Both teams go into this match knowing that one of them is likely to be overtaken by Chile. Ecuador are almost unbeatable at home, but Colombia are probably the one team that can adjust to the high altitudes. It’s simply too close to call. Expect a lot of nerves, especially if the game is still level in the second half. A win would inch the victor closer to Russia, while a loss would leave the door open for Chile. Which brings us to …
Chile vs Venezuela (CONMEBOL)
The reigning two-time Copa America champions haven’t had a good run in a campaign plagued by inconsistency. Alexis Sanchez and co. need to make a positive statement against the competition’s bottom-feeders to take advantage of the fact that one or both of Ecuador or Colombia will drop points. However, if Chile waste this opportunity, they might as well kiss their hopes of being in Russia next summer goodbye. The pressure is on!
Panama vs U.S.A. (CONCACAF)
The second Bruce Arena era got off to a dream start as the U.S.A. thrashed Honduras 6-0 to get off the mark in CONCACAF’s final qualification stage. Arena will look to take the positive vibes forward in what is bound to be a tricky tie in Panama. The Americans can’t afford to bask in the glow of their victory for too long, as the Panamanians will be looking to get revenge for the US dashing their 2014 World Cup dream right at the death. If Panama get a win, they will be four points ahead of their vaunted visitors in the last automatic qualification spot while also putting the US back at square one. However, if Arena can inspire his men to another win, the US will be confident of making it to Russia as they look to put the Jurgen Klinsmann reign behind them.