The European qualifiers for World Cup 2022 were in full swing this past week and a number of insights emerged from the contests.
In Group A—Serbia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Ireland–it is the Iberians who are favorites but trail the Serbs by the goals-scored differential. Portugal, who have been playing in second gear so far, barely managed a 1-0 home win over Azerbaijan and after pulling ahead 2-0 barely held on for a 2-2 away draw. Granted, controversy surrounded the latter match.
With a lack of VAR due to the Covid-19 restrictions, several issues emerged over the course of the qualifying matches, none more obvious than Cristiano Ronaldo’s stoppage-time, disallowed-goal in the Portugal-Serbia match. At least the Dutch referee, Danny Makkelie has accepted responsibility for the gaff and apologized to the Portuguese coach and team.
What is of added note is the fact that Ronaldo has been playing poorly, coach Fernando Santos is reluctant to play his most potent attack, Pepe is injured, and the Portuguese have yet to jell. What bodes well for the team is the fact that in moments they have shown their true potential and when Santos is willing to risk starting Ronaldo with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, and the injured Joao Moutinho, the team sings.
In Group B—Sweden, Spain, Greece, Georgia, and Kosovo—the Spaniards are favored but the Swedes are top of the group. Spanish coach, Luis Enrique, is experimenting with a very youthful group and truth be told it is not working out. The Iberians 1-1 home draw to Greece was a fair score and the Roja’s 2-1 win over Georgia was an incredibly fortunate win at the 93rd minute. With so many available stars from La Liga and elsewhere do not be surprised if Enrique calls up a few more senior players to the fold.
It is Sweden who is playing well with a rejuvenated Zlatan Ibrahimovic providing much-needed offensive punch. He had two assists including on the winning goal over Georgia in his nascent European qualifiers campaign.
In Group C—Italy, Switzerland, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, and Bulgaria—the Italians are just one goal better than the Swiss courtesy of two blank sheets kept by Gianluigi Donnarumma. Italian coach, Roberto Mancini, is fielding a veteran side occasionally peppered by an up-and-coming youngster and his mix has been just right. The Italians were embarrassed by missing out on the 2018 World Cup and the nation will not forget, nor will they forgive Mancini should he not reach the top of their group in these European qualifiers.
In Group D—France, Finland, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kazakhstan—it is the defending champion France who are the overwhelming favorites as none of their opponents are within miles of the French level. Nevertheless, France is starting slowly with Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele their only scorers in a 1-1 home draw with Ukraine and a 2-0 away win over Kazakhstan.
In Group E—Belgium, Czech Republic, Belarus, Wales, and Estonia—the Belgians are the perennial favorites but once again they are playing one great game followed by a mysteriously poor one. They managed a 3-1 home demolition of Wales after the visitors had taken a pretty-goal early lead but then they barely managed a 1-1 away draw to the Czechs. Playing away the Czechs managed to make their 6-2 win over Estonia make the goal-differential count and put them top of the group.
To add a dollop of intrigue in a year without any such need, the UEFA Executive Committee decided to use a two-part format for these European qualifiers. The ten group winners qualify directly to Qatar. The ten group runners-up and the two best Nations League group winners that finished outside the top two of their qualifying groups will then contest for the remaining berths. Those twelve teams would be drawn into three playoff paths, playing two rounds of single-match playoffs with the three winners qualifying.
One thing is for sure, several of the remaining twelve teams will be powerhouses in their own rights and the playoffs will be as hotly contested, watched, broadcasted, and, yes, remunerative, as FIFA and UEFA could possibly want.