What to Watch For In This Weekend’s World Cup Qualifiers

Miles Robinson of USA Soccer scores a game-tying goal against Honduras on Sept. 8, 2021.
Miles Robinson of USA Soccer scores a game-tying goal against Honduras on Sept. 8, 2021. CBS Sports Galazo

National teams are gearing up during a two-week international break that harks to World Cup qualifying matches this weekend. Only three teams — host Qatar (who qualifies automatically), Germany, and Denmark — have already punched tickets to the big show in Dec. 2022. Still, 95 nations have a shot at securing a spot in the 32-team field. Let’s dig into the action to preview what’s at stake for teams in the Western Hemisphere.

CONCACAF

The top three out of eight qualifying teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean will qualify directly, with the fourth-placed team going to an intercontinental playoff in June 2022.

USA v. Mexico

This Friday is the big one. While each team sits comfortably as the top two in the standings, the importance of this game to both teams is very real. 

The Yanks sit three points behind Mexico through six matches and face their stiffest test yet when Tata Martino brings his team to Cincinnati on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET. Mexico has lost two straight finals to the USMNT and would love to exact revenge in Ohio, but the team has had its fair share of struggles there.

The States, with a young, largely unproven squad, has shown expected inconsistency — disappointments like a home draw with Canada and a sluggish performance in a loss against Panama versus a dynamic second half in Honduras that saw the USMNT scoring four goals and exhibiting the resiliency to march back from an early deficit to take all three points against Costa Rica. 

For its part, Mexico has also not been reliable. The squad required a last-minute goal to beat a weak Jamaica squad and only fought to draws against Panama and Canada at the Azteca in Mexico City. 

Christian Pulisic, the now-healthy Chelsea star, returns to the pitch for the Blues, but how much he plays is still a question. U.S. fans will be clamoring to see more of Pulisic, but coach Gregg Berhalter will need to keep health in mind for the man nicknamed Captain America. 

Berhalter also needs to determine who’s minding the net for the USMNT, though each appears like a quality option. Man City’s Zack Steffen impressed in the Bundesliga and Premier League while New England’s Matt Turner is a terrific shot-stopper. 

Mexico will still feature a vicious attack led by Raul Jimenez, but its aging midfield might be giving ground to the young upstarts up north.

Canada vs. Panama and Mexico

In third place in CONCACAF, the rising Canadian team is going to have to fend off Panama, sitting right behind them in the standings, before facing the league-leading Mexicans.

John Herdman’s squad has already recorded solid road draws against Mexico and the U.S. with Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies (voted Canada’s best soccer player) on wing/defense and Lille’s Jonathan David leading the charge along with the New England Revolution’s Tajon Buchanan on wing behind him.

Still, Canada has to face a history of letdowns at critical junctures. A pair of wins or a win and a draw would almost certainly clear a path for its first qualification since 1986 with its toughest opponents out of the way.

CONMEBOL

With three more rounds until the South American qualifier wraps up on March 29, 2022, the race is tight to secure third and fourth place automatic bids for the World Cup. The fifth-place finisher falls to a repechage — an intercontinental playoff TBD draw. 

Uruguay vs. Argentina and Bolivia

Uruguay’s disastrous October, with a draw against Colombia at home, a 3-0 loss at Argentina, and a beat down from Brazil, means the team’s critical draw ia against Argentina in Friday’s Clasico del Río de la Plata in Montevideo. Manager Oscar Tabarez, already facing intense scrutiny, must get the Charruas going against the undefeated and supremely confident Argentinian Copa America holders.  

If Uruguay loses, Tuesday’s match against Bolivia in La Paz will suddenly take on huge significance in the capital’s dizzying heights. There is still a ways to go in the CONMEBOL, but the hand-wringing has already begun with Bolivia, Chile, and even Paraguay hot on Uruguay’s reeling team’s heels.

Colombia vs. Brazil

After a controversial 0-0 draw against Brazil in Barranquilla, Colombia was again unable to score a goal against Ecuador in October. This leaves the team in an uneasy tie with Uruguay as Los Cafeteros prepare for Friday’s tilt in São Paulo against Brazil.

A win in Brazil would situate Reinaldo Rueda’s squad in an excellent position to secure a place in the top four as it prepares for Tuesday’s match against Paraguay in Barranquilla. Still, a match against the mighty Canarinho on the road is a very tough ask. The return of midfielder James Rodriguez, however, gives the Colombians a big reason to hope and maybe a chance to score some goals.

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European Qualifiers

The 10 winners of each of 10 UEFA groups will qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The final three places are allocated for playoffs featuring the 10 runners-up and the two best-ranked 2020-21 UEFA Nations League from France, Spain, Wales, Austria, and the Czech Republic. As noted before, Germany and Denmark have already won Group’s F and J, respectively, securing their seats in the World Cup. 

Italy vs Switzerland

In 2018, Italy’s first failure to qualify for the World Cup since 1958 caused shockwaves through the sport. Winning EURO 2020 and a world record  37-match unbeaten streak run helped to wipe away that wound, but Roberto Mancini’s men still have work to do to avoid a similar fate. 

The Azzurri’s Friday clash against Switzerland on Friday will almost be winner-takes-all bedlam. The two teams are deadlocked at the top of Group C with 14 points each and each close-up pool stages with expected wins — Italy travels to Northern Ireland and Switzerland hosts Bulgaria. 

Switzerland is on an impressive run of its own, however, having lost only one of its last 36 World Cup qualifying matches. The Italians will also be without a few key players in Nicola Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Ciro Immobile, while Nicola Barella’s presence is in doubt. With a depleted midfield, Mancini could call up Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi and Torino’s Tommaso Pobega. 

Friday’s meeting in Rome will go a long way toward deciding who takes Group C’s top spot and an automatic ticket to Qatar.

Spain vs. Greece and Sweden

In Group B, Spain trails an Alexander Isak-inspired Sweden by two points. The pair are set to meet in a super-match in Sevilla on Sunday. Before then, however, the Spaniards will have to overcome a tricky Thursday trip through a Greek team that held Los Toros to a draw at home in March and beat Sweden in September.

If Luis Enrique’s team earns a victory in Athens, a win over Sweden would help to lead them to the group’s top spot, avoiding the pitfalls of the playoffs. But the Swedes already lead Group B and have an easier pitch in Georgia on Thursday. Spain will also be without some key personnel — Ansu Fati and Eric Garcia — so Dani Carvajal, the first Real Madrid player called up, will have to step up. Luis Enrique’s young core of players are starting to form an identity, but they’ve got work to do. 

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