What would a World Cup look like without the world’s best player?
The quadrennial tournament, after all, is supposed to showcase the best in global soccer. That’s its primary purpose. That’s what makes it such an enthralling and widely consumed event. But what if it didn’t?
The question isn’t yet pressing. But it’s certainly worth asking after Argentina slumped to a 1-1 draw at home against Venezuela on Tuesday. It is currently hanging on to fifth place, and the fifth of four-and-a-half South American World Cup spots. That’s as ominous as it sounds. With two matches remaining, the 2014 World Cup finalists are one loss away from real danger. And the world, therefore, is one Albiceleste loss away from being forced to confront the prospect of a World Cup without Lionel Messi.
In fact, the sport’s second-best player hasn’t secured his spot in Russia either. But he, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Portugal are storming through their qualifying group. Messi and Argentina, meanwhile, are sputtering.
They are not in a hole. Not yet, at least. But with the third-to-last qualifying window in the books, they are one of 12 nations that sit squarely on the World Cup bubble. Over the last week, five countries have punched tickets to Russia; 27 have been eliminated. The 2018 World Cup field has been cut to 67, with eight teams already qualified and 59 still vying for the 24 remaining places.
By our count, six of those 59 are near certainties. Ten of the 59 are extreme long shots. That leaves us with 43 teams for 18 spots, and with the following bubble breakdown:
(Bold indicates upward movement. Italics indicate downward movement.)
Already qualified (8): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia
Making travel reservations (6): Germany, France, Spain, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica
Feeling optimistic (10): Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Serbia, Colombia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt
On the bubble (12): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, Turkey, Argentina, Peru, Chile, USA, Panama, Honduras
Fretting (21): Netherlands, Wales, Ireland, Denmark, Montenegro, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Scotland, Slovakia, Paraguay, Gabon, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Uganda, Australia, Syria, New Zealand
Dreams fading (6): Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Ecuador, Ghana, South Africa
All but eliminated (4): Albania, Austria, Trinidad and Tobago, Mali
And now, to dive in deeper …
World Cup berths: 13 (plus host)
Structure: Nine groups of six. Each group winner qualifies directly. Eight best runners-up go into playoffs for final four spots.
Status: Eight of 10 group games have been played. Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Playoffs in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Russia (host), Belgium
Making travel reservations (4)
Germany — Eight wins in eight, 35 goals scored, two conceded. A point away from Russia.
France — A 0-0 home draw with Luxembourg was surely the most shocking result of the entire qualifying cycle. It also left France just one point ahead of Sweden in Group A. We’re not advising the French to unbook any flights just yet, but any dropped points at Bulgaria on Matchday 9 will open the door for the Swedes.
Spain — An 8-0 walk – er, hike? Ski trip? – in the park in Liechtenstein essentially leaves Spain one win away from Russia because of its plus-29 goal differential.
England — The Three Lions came from behind to beat Slovakia at Wembley thanks to Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford. They’re now five points clear with two to play. A win over either Slovenia or Lithuania will be enough.
Feeling optimistic (5)
Switzerland and Portugal — Both held serve, and should again on Matchday 9. Portugal will then need to beat Switzerland in Lisbon on Matchday 10. A draw or loss would send the Swiss to Russia. Whichever nation doesn’t qualify directly will go to the playoffs.
Serbia — The Serbs are thinking about making travel reservations after a 1-0 win in Ireland that opened up a four-point gap at the top of Group D. One point from their final two fixtures – at Austria, vs. Georgia – is conceivable, but three or more are likely, and would send Serbia to Russia.
Poland — Wins all around on Matchday 9 means it’s as you were in Group E. Poland can clinch with four points from its last two games – at Armenia, vs. Montenegro.
Italy — Almost certainly heading to the playoffs, and, at No. 12 in the FIFA rankings, will be seeded for those playoffs.
On the bubble (6)
Sweden — France’s failings against Luxembourg restored the glimmer of hope that is direct qualification for the Swedes. But their most likely avenue is the playoffs, and a convincing win over Luxembourg at home would all but assume them of second place.
Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland can’t stop winning! Its fifth victory and fifth clean sheet in a row, 2-0 over the Czech Republic, clinched a playoff place. And heck, if it can make it six against Germany in Belfast on Oct. 5, it would still have a slim chance at top spot in Group C.
Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey — Who the hell knows what’s going on in Group I. The four nations sit two points apart with two games to play. And the only two games between the four over the final two matchdays feature one of the teams on 14 points – Ukraine, Turkey – hosting one on 16 – Croatia, Iceland. And with three of the four tied on goal difference (Croatia has a five-goal advantage over the rest), any order of finish is in play.
Netherlands — Stayed alive with a 3-1 victory over Bulgaria, but the Dutch honestly belong in the “Dreams fading” category. In all likelihood, they’ll have to beat Sweden by more than six goals on the final matchday.
Wales — The Welsh are still in with a shout! Three days after beating Austria with a debut goal, 17-year-old Liverpool attacker Ben Woodburn turned provider and set up Hal Robson-Kanu to break the deadlock in Moldova. Their six-point window has them in second place, because…
Ireland — … Because the Irish conjured up two consecutive duds. They followed up a draw in Georgia with a 1-0 home defeat to Serbia, and not only conceded top spot to the Serbs but sunk a point behind Wales for second. They could end up needing three points from a trip to Cardiff on the final matchday.
Montenegro and Denmark — We’re all about wacky tiebreaker scenarios here at World Cup Bubble Watch, so how about this one: Montenegro and Denmark are almost perfectly level in Group E. Each has 16 points. Each has played eight, won five, drawn one, lost two. Each has scored 18 goals and conceded seven. So what’s standing in the way of lots-drawing?
First of all, Montenegro’s 1-0 win over Denmark on Matchday 3. But let’s say the Danes get revenge with a 1-0 victory on Matchday 9. Let’s then say they lose to Romania 1-0 on Matchday 10, while Montenegro beats Poland 1-0. The two countries would be deadlocked on each of the first six tiebreaking criteria. The seventh is discipline: One point for a yellow card, two for a second yellow, four for a straight red, and the team with fewer points goes through.
So where do Montenegro and Denmark stand here? One point apart! The Danes have picked up nine yellows. The Montenegrins have picked up 10. Neither team has been shown a red. So if Denmark earned one more yellow than Montenegro over the two matches … LOTS!
Scotland and Slovakia — These two square off at Hampden Park on Oct. 5. With Slovenia (14 points, tied with Scotland, one behind Slovakia) playing at Wembley the same day, the winner in Glasgow should be in the driver’s seat for second place.
Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — Greece spurned its chance to take points of Belgium. The Bosnians get theirs on Matchday 9. They also have a one-point advantage, but Greece’s last two games are against Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Dreams fading (3): Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovenia
Still alive, but only technically (2): Albania, Austria
World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania (New Zealand).
Status: 16 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 17 on Oct. 5, Matchday 18 on Oct. 10. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Brazil
Making travel reservations (1)
Uruguay — Uruguay leapt out of the CONMEBOL mess, beat Paraguay 2-1 in Asuncion, and is a win away from Russia. That win could come in either of its last two fixtures against the two worst teams in South America, Venezuela and Bolivia. It would take a disaster to ruin plans for next summer.
Feeling optimistic (1)
Colombia — Radamel Falcao snatched a point in Brazil, and the Colombians probably only need two more to qualify. But neither remaining fixture – vs. a desperate Paraguay, at Peru – is a gimme.
On the bubble (3)
Peru — When we embarked on our international break journey last week, we had all four of the big boys – Colombia, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina – feeling optimistic. But purely based on percentages, there was always the possibility of a party crasher. And, well … Peru, welcome to the party.
The only South American team to take a full six points from the window currently sits in fourth place, ahead of Argentina on goal differential. That tie could be broken when the two sides meet in Argentina on Oct. 5. The Peruvians also play Colombia, so there’s plenty of work still to do. But at the very least, they’re one of five teams for the four remaining spots.
Argentina — Argentina should be fine. It should handle Peru at home, and three points should be enough. But also should have beaten Venezuela at home. And it shouldn’t have lost to Bolivia in March. It shouldn’t be in a position where optimism comes with caution. At this point, no outcome would be surprising for Argentina. And a loss to Peru would put it in grave danger of missing the World Cup.
Chile — A disastrous 180 minutes for Chile have left it peering up at CONMEBOL’s top five from sixth place. The latest setback was a 1-0 loss in Bolivia. Worry-ometer readings have reached decade highs. The conundrum here is that all it takes to restore order is one win. If Chile beats a sliding Ecuador team at home on Matchday 17, it will be in great shape. But given recent results, handicapping that game is darn near impossible.
Paraguay — Opportunity knocked, but Paraguay didn’t answer the door. Instead, it conceded two second-half goals to Uruguay and remained in seventh, three points off the World Cup places. A home fixture against Venezuela on the final matchday offers hope, but that minus-6 goal differential could prove costly.
Dreams fading (1): Ecuador
World Cup berths: 3.5
Structure (current round only): One group of six. Top three qualify directly. Fourth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Asia.
Status: Eight of 10 “Hex” games have been played. Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Mexico
Making travel reservations (1)
Costa Rica — A point against Mexico on Tuesday left the Ticos needing a similar result in either of their final two matches to officially qualify. Their flights are booked, and hotel agents are on the other line as we speak.
On the bubble (3)
Panama, USA and Honduras — We’ve covered everything here. The U.S. is still in the best shape of the three teams, largely due to remaining fixtures. Panama is a close second. Honduras is a close third. Still all to play for.
Still alive, but only technically (1): Trinidad and Tobago
World Cup berths: 5
Structure (current round only): Five groups of four. Winners qualify directly.
Status: Four of six games have been played. Matchday 5 in October, Matchday 6 in November.
Table | Fixtures
Feeling optimistic (4)
Nigeria — The Nigerians settled for a 1-1 draw in Cameroon, and Zambia’s victory over Algeria reduced the gap at the top of Group B to just three points. But Nigeria gets Zambia at home on Matchday 5. A draw would probably be sufficient. A win is likely.
Ivory Coast — A shock 2-1 home defeat to Gabon kept the gap atop Group C at two points. Morocco’s subsequent draw with Mali closed it to one. But the Ivorians, with Morocco scheduled to visit on the final matchday, are still in good shape.
Egypt — The Pharaohs got retribution for a 1-0 defeat in Uganda with a reciprocal result and home, and lead Group E by two points. Ghana lurks four points back, and hosts Egypt on Matchday 6. But the group will be done and dusted, and the finale meaningless, if Egypt beats the Republic of the Congo and Uganda fails to beat Ghana in October.
Tunisia — Tunisia beat the Democratic Republic of the Congo at home, then fired two late-second-half goals in the return fixture to secure a 2-2 away draw and stay three points clear in Group A. Now all the Tunisians need is four points from Guinea and Libya.
Democratic Republic of the Congo — They’ll need two wins and some help. But hey, who knows, maybe Naby Keita (Guinea) can singlehandedly beat Tunisia.
Zambia — Somehow one of the last two teams alive in the Group of Death. But the Zambians probably have to win in Nigeria on Matchday 5.
Morocco and Gabon — Gabon did its part by upsetting the Ivory Coast. Morocco’s draw in Mali was deflating, though. The Moroccan’s still control their own destiny because of that showdown with the Ivorians on Matchday 6, but they’ll be underdogs there.
Uganda — Couldn’t eke out a point in Egypt, so will almost certainly have to beat Ghana. Not impossible, but not likely.
Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, and Senegal — Cape Verde sprung the surprise of the round with two 2-1 victories over South Africa. The Islanders are now joint top with Burkina Faso, which twice tied Senegal in a span of four days. Senegal is one point back. South Africa is two. Burkina Faso is the favorite, but the group is completely up for grabs. South Africa could go worst-to-first with a Matchday 5 win.
UPDATE: Actually, South Africa can’t go worst-to-first with a win. That’s because, in a wild turn of events, its 2-1 win over Senegal from last November has been nullified, and the match will be replayed in November. The reason: Referee Joseph Lamptey was banned for life for “match manipulation” after awarding South Africa a penalty for a non-existent handball. So with an extra match to play, Senegal is now the group favorite. South Africa drops back to one point, and has a lot of ground to make up.
Dreams fading (2): Ghana, South Africa
Still alive, but only technically (1): Mali
World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure (current round only): Two six-team groups. Top two in each group qualify directly. Third-place teams advance to intracontinental playoff. Winner of playoff advances to continental playoff vs. CONCACAF.
Status: Group play concluded. Australia vs. Syria in the intracontinental playoff in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia
Australia and Syria — Syria’s stoppage-time equalizer in Iran – a second goal against a team that hadn’t conceded a single one in 12 prior matches – is undoubtedly the best moment of World Cup qualifying. I mean, just listen to this:
Syrian commentator breaks into tears after Omar Al-Somah's historic goal against Iran. Goosebumps. pic.twitter.com/MSUC2IBCD0
— Mohamed Osama (@_DrOsama) September 5, 2017
But the Syrians still face an uphill climb to the World Cup. They’ll have to beat Australia over two legs, the do the same to the fourth-place finisher from CONCACAF. An upset of Australia would be incredible, and even more so if it meant a playoff against the United States.
World Cup berths: 0.5
Structure (current round only): Two three-team groups. Winners advance to intracontinental playoff. Playoff winner advances to intercontinental playoff vs. South America.
Status: New Zealand beat Solomon Islands in the intracontinental playoff. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
New Zealand — The Kiwis took care of the Solomon Islands, 8-3, on aggregate. If Peru finishes fifth in CONMEBOL, perhaps New Zealand could be competitive. Or maybe Paraguay sneaks in. But any of the South American sides would be favored in the playoff.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.