As the final round of World Cup qualifiers approaches, the destiny of many teams has already been decided, while others, like England, will be made to sweat until the very end before knowing whether they can book their hotels in Brazil.
However, if there’s anything the qualifiers have taught us is that international football is alive and kicking, with outsiders emerging alongside the usual suspects.
Here’s four teams worth keeping an eye on next summer…
Belgium have made the tag of “dark horses” their own in the past 18 months and are now 6th in the FIFA rankings, the dubious tool through which the world football’s biggest organisation tries to compile a “who’s who” of international football.
Belgium, however, are no fluke. Marc Wilmots’ side have swept opponents aside in Group A, winning eight of their nine qualifiers, scoring 17 goals and conceding only three in the process.
The goalscoring exploits of Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are nothing new to Premier League fans, as isn’t Eden Hazard’s brilliance and Vincent Kompany’s solidity at the back, but for many Belgium still remain a surprise package.
A very young side, Belgium have made the most of a combination of technique and sheer physical power and everything seems to point to a bright future for the Red Devils, who will hope to emulate the Vincenzo Scifo-inspired side that reached the semifinals in 1986.
Bosnia are not quite in Brazil yet and their track-record in crucial encounters doesn’t bode well for their hopes of reaching their first major tournament.
The Bosnians, ranked 18th in the world. entered their final qualifying game to the 2010 World Cup leading their group, only to fluff their lines at the crucial moment and disappear in the doldrums of the play-off, where they came unstuck against Portugal, the same side which knocked them out at the same stage two years later.
However, a win away in Lithuania tomorrow night will secure a ticket to Brazil for Edin Dzeko & Co., who have the third-best goalscoring record of the nine groups in the UEFA zone.
Bosnia’s goal tally of 29 has been better only by Germany and Holland and while Dzeko might be the only household name in the team, Safet Susic’s men have made of tactical diligence and a high-tempo game the keys to their success.
It’d be easy, and largely misguided, to dismiss Colombia as a one-man team built around Radamel Falcao.
The Monaco striker is obviously the stand out name of the team managed by the experienced Jose Pekerman, who guided Argentina to the 2006 World Cup, but there’s more to Los Cafeteros – The Coffee Growers – that the former Atletico Madrid man.
Falcao’s 15 goals have been instrumental in Colombia reaching their first World Cup in 16 years and, hadn’t it been for a late wobble that saw them losing to Uruguay and drawing at home against Chile, Colombia could have probably pushed Argentina for the top spot in the group.
Pekerman has drummed into his men the need for defensive solidity with relatively good results, considering that Colombia have kept six clean sheets in 15 games, including a valuable 0-0 draw in Argentina, while James Rodriguez and Teofilo Gutierrez have provided excellent support for Falcao.
Having achieved qualification in dramatic fashion on Friday as they came back from a three goal deficit to draw 3-3 against Chile, Colombia, ranked 5th in the world, will be a tricky customer for many next summer.
If their qualifying campaign is anything to go by, Chile are likely to light up our summers in nine months time, for Jorge Sampaoli’s men have made the “you score four, we score five” attitude.
As their draw against Colombia on Friday showed, their brilliance in the final third of the pitch is not always matched by solidity at the other end – La Roja have conceded 24 goals in 15 games, including four against Argentina and Uruguay and three in back-t0-back fixtures against Colombia and Ecuador.
However, since losing 1-0 in Lima against Peru in March, Chile, ranked 16th in the world, are unbeaten in eight games – including friendlies against Brazil and Spain – and with talents such as Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, La Roja‘s fans have plenty of reasons to be hopeful ahead of the World Cup.
Having made the round of 16 in their last two World Cups – in 1998 and 2010 – don’t bet against Chile surprising a few people again next summer.