The World Cup is in balance for the United States, Mexico and Cristiano Ronaldo

This is the last chance week. The World Cup in Qatar is over eight months away and more than half of the tournament’s 32 places has bee...


This is the last chance week. The World Cup in Qatar is over eight months away and more than half of the tournament’s 32 places has been taken. That number will grow over the next seven days, as teams from Tunisia to Tahiti compete to join the 15 countries that have already qualified.

By the time the final group stage draw takes place in Doha on April 1, the picture will still not be complete. The qualifying delays caused by the pandemic, as well as the compassionate break granted to Ukraine after the Russian invasion, mean that the field will only be filled once the last phase of European qualifying and the two intercontinental qualifiers are completed in June. .

But for the vast majority of teams, this is the week that will make or destroy their hopes, that will determine whether the stresses and strains of the past two years have been worth it.

Canada is about to end a 36-year wait to return to the tournament. The Democratic Republic of Congo is 180 minutes from qualification for the first time since 1974. And at least one great power, Portugal or Italy, risks the ignominy of being absent. Here’s what’s at stake in the world.

All but three of Europe’s places in Qatar have already been filled, and the vast majority of the continent’s teams likely to be considered to win the World Cup – defending champions France, as well as Spain, Germany, Belgium and England – have known for a long time that they would be on the pitch.

Exceptions are Portugal and Italy, who failed to win their group and therefore must endure two anxiety-inducing playoffs to join the party. Italy assumes North Macedonia and Portugal meets Turkey this week. If both succeed in these matches, they will face off for a place in Qatar, in a match that could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last international commitment.

The other two European playoff groups were unaffected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s (late) ban from world sport means Poland will have to face either Sweden or the Czech Republic in his playoffs on Tuesday; all three had refused to play against Russia unless FIFA and UEFA acted.

Ukraine game with Scotland, meanwhile, has been pushed back to June, meaning the final European qualifier won’t be known until the summer. The winner of this game will meet either Wales Where Austria.

The specter of 2017 begins to loom again for the United Statesthe Estadio Nacional de San José replacing the Ato Boldon stadium in Couva, Trinidad, and Costa Rica playing the role of Trinidad and Tobago. Gregg Berhalter’s team will have to face the ghosts of a previous generation if they want to defeat them.

If that seems a bit of a stretch – given that the United States sit in second place, needing to win just two of their three games to qualify for the World Cup – it’s because it’s easy to see Berhalter and his young team having to wait until the last minute next week to be sure of qualification.

It is not the same Canada, who needs just one win to secure a first World Cup comeback since 1986, and has the relative comfort of knowing that a single point could just about do it. This is also not the case for Mexicowho also needs two wins, but has a much more lenient schedule next week than the Americans.

The problem for the Americans is that they face three teams… Mexico and Costa Rica on the road, with a home encounter with Panama sandwiched between the two – all of whom harbor their own ambitions of being in Qatar next winter. The United States failed five years ago, when the situation was no less finely balanced. A young and promising team must find a way to make things happen differently this time.

Other than the sight of Brazilian Health Ministry officials marching onto the pitch to extract a handful of quarantined Argentine players last summer, there was precious little drama for either of the big rivals. South America. No more Brazil or Argentina lost a game; both qualified for Qatar with months to spare.

Beneath them, however, tension is bubbling. Ecuador needs just one win from its two remaining games – either away to Paraguay or at home to Argentina – to qualify for its fourth World Cup this century. The continent’s final fourth place in the final, however, is still up for grabs.

Uruguay is the team currently in last place, but faces two direct rivals next week: fifth place Peru in Montevideo, followed by a trip to sixth place Chile. Either side could usurp Diego Alonso’s Uruguay at the final hurdle. Automatic qualification may be just out of reach, but don’t rule it out Colombia – currently in a disappointing seventh place – featuring a late climb to fifth place and a chance for a side door to Qatar in an Intercontinental qualifier in June.

Jürgen Klopp’s squad selection clearly illustrated the priorities of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané. The Liverpool manager has ruled out both players from his side’s FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest last weekend; it was the only way, he said, to ensure that he would not inadvertently find himself embroiled in an international scandal.

Africa’s final round of qualifying is always unforgiving – five home and away knockout matches, with the winner going to the World Cup and the loser going without recourse or a safety net. But fate, this time, was almost cruel: Salah Egypt was drawn to face Mané Senegal, a replay of the Nations Cup final from February. One of Liverpool’s strikers is overwintering.

It’s not the only appetizing tie. Two of the continent’s traditional heavyweights, Ghana and Nigeriawill face each other, just like Cameroon and Algeriaconsidered the strongest of African teams before their disappointment in the Nations Cup. Morocco it will be expected to exceed the Democratic Republic of Congowhile mali must beat Tunisia qualify for their first World Cup.

With two games to go, both Iran and South Korea have already booked their places in next week’s World Cup draw, alongside Qatarwhich automatically qualified as the host nation. Saudi Arabia and Japan are best placed to join them, with each realistically only needing one more win to seal their place in the final.

Australia still has a slim hope of overhauling either, but will need to beat Japan in Sydney on Thursday and the Saudis in Jeddah next week to avoid a playoff, most likely against the United Arab Emiratesfor the right to participate in another playoff, against the fifth-ranked South American team, this summer.

Eighteen months after its launch, the Oceania qualification process finally got under way in Qatar last week. New Zealandas expected, quickly earned a place in the semi-finals. Papua New Guinea and Fiji will face off on Thursday to decide who will join the All Whites in the last four.

Who they will play in the knockout stages remains a mystery. Both Vanuatu and the the cook islands returned a number of positive Covid tests after arriving in Qatar and subsequently withdrew from the tournament. This left the The Solomon Islands and Tahiti as default semi-finalists, left to play a single game to decide their seeding for the next stage.

The eventual winner of the longest qualifying process on the planet will not be sure of a World Cup place, however; he will have to navigate an intercontinental playoff against whoever finishes fourth in North America to qualify for the final.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The World Cup is in balance for the United States, Mexico and Cristiano Ronaldo
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