World Cup qualifiers: five things to expect from the final round

Tuesday nights might not carry the same charm of a Friday or Saturday evening, but tomorrow night could be a special occasions for many nations, as a the long road to Rio that began over a year ago reaches its last stage.

Only five European teams have already qualified for next summer’s World Cup, with Russia and Spain on the brink of joining Italy, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

 

Here’s five things to expect from tomorrow’s final round of qualifiers.

1) Play-off regulars

For many the play-offs are a trap to be avoided at all costs, the black hole into which dreams of appearing at a big tournament can disappear quicker than you can say the words “Thierry Henry’s handball”.

For Portugal and Uruguay, however, the play-offs have become something of a habit. Portugal’s 1-1 draw against Israel on Friday meant Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. will head for a third straight play-off after reaching the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championships via the back door.

While the Portuguese have only got themselves to blame for not topping a group containing the likes of Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Israel, Uruguay at least have the excuse of falling behind in the extremely competitive South American pool.

Oscar Tabarez’s men fell to a 1-0 defeat in Ecuador on Friday, meaning that,  bar a surprise of epic proportions, they’ll take part in their fourth consecutive play-off. A date with Jordan, however, shouldn’t pose a threat to a side containing Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

2) Third time lucky for Bosnia?

Nine years ago, Bosnia entered their final group game leading the table and primed to reach Euro 2004, before everything went horribly wrong. Six years later, the Bosnian fluffed their lines at the crucial stage again, throwing away their lead in the last game of the group and losing against Portugal in the play-off.

Having also lost against Portugal in the play-off for Euro 2012, Bosnia enter their final qualifying game ahead of Greece only on goal difference, but on the back of a run that has seen them winning four of their last five qualifiers.

Bosnia travel to Lithuania, who have nothing to play for but remain a trickier assignment than the one Greece will have to negotiate as they host Liechtenstein, knowing that they must keep their cool if they’re to finally celebrate qualification to a major tournament.

3) Can Italy stretch their unbeaten run?

Not as exciting to watch as Holland and Germany and not possessing the same aura of invincibility of their Spanish counterparts, Italy have largely flown under the radar during the qualifying campaign.

And yet, the Azzurri are one of only five European sides to have already secured a spot in Brazil next summer and haven’t lost their last 39 qualifying games, an amazing run that could be extended when they host Armenia tomorrow.

Hardly the most spectacular of sides, Italy have already proved that a lack of star names can be smothered by tactical diligence and organisation and they could be a real dark horse in Brazil.

4) Life isn’t that Peautiful in Mexico

Forget about France, Portugal and even, potentially at least, England. The real shock inclusion in the World Cup play-offs is likely to arrive from Central America, where Mexico need a minor miracle to clinch the last spot granting automatic qualification.

Javier Hernandez and his team-mates left it very late against Panama on Friday, Raul Jimenez’ spectacular finish proving crucial in keeping the Mexican’s hopes of a third-place finish alive.

For that to happen, however, Mexico need to beat Costa Rica tomorrow, hoping that Jamaica will do the same against Honduras. Any other result will see Mexico’s chances of appearing at the World Cup for sixth consecutive time hanging by a New Zealand-shaped thread in the play-offs.

5) Will England make it?

Friday’s 4-1 win against Montenegro will count for nothing if England don’t beat Poland tomorrow night.

The Poles might be out of the World Cup but remain a side with some quality performers – Robert Lewandowski’s name is the first that springs to mind – and with some 18,000 fans behind them – in case you didn’t watch TV, listen to the radio or read a newspaper today – they’re likely to try to spoil England’s party.

Roy Hodgson’s pragmatic approach has often been criticised but a dose of good old English calm could be the difference between boarding a plane to Brazil and being put through the mill of the play-offs.

As important as Friday was, in terms of morale as much as in terms of points, England must finish the job tomorrow. 

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