World Cup: Talented twelve provide platform for play-off drama

26 November 2021 01:59:02 GMTPlus11
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal face a tricky play-off test

All eyes will be on Zurich come Friday afternoon, with the play-off draw for the European section of the World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign set to be made.

The 10 teams who finished second in UEFA qualifying and the best two Nations League group winners who didn't top their pool are in the hat and there doesn't look to be any easy options.

Europe's last two continental champions, Portugal and Italy, are amongst those awaiting their fate, with the 12 remaining due to be separated into three four-team paths.

They will then face a one-legged semi-final on 24th March, before a showdown with the nation that came through the opposite side of their path on 29th March.

With less than a year to go until World Cup 2022, you can find the answers to all of your questions through our handy All You Need to Know Guide, while bet365's qualification tracker can also keep you up to date.

So much quality among the seeds

Both Portugal and Italy are amongst the seeds, but it is hard not to feel that they only have themselves to blame.

The Selecao, 25/1 for World Cup 2022, had the advantage in Group A going into the final two rounds of fixtures, only to draw 0-0 against the Republic of Ireland, before succumbing to a late Aleksandar Mitrovic strike that allowed Serbia to overtake them at the top of the pool.

Meanwhile, the Azzurri - 12/1 to win the World Cup - missed a late penalty in their penultimate 1-1 draw against Switzerland before being held 0-0 in Northern Ireland.

The consolation is that they will at least play their semi-finals at home and share that privilege with four other nations.

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Home Nations have a chance

UK interest comes in the shape of a Wales side who look to be seamlessly moving through their squad transition under Rob Page and a fast-improving Scotland team.

The pair did well to finish second to Belgium - 12/1 outright - and Denmark, 25/1, in Groups E and F, respectively, seeing off the likes of the Czech Republic and Austria along the way.

Both reached the Euros and an appearance in Qatar would end their long waits for a World Cup appearance. Wales' one and only chance to take on the world came in 1958, while Scotland's plucky showing at France '98 was their last look at being global champions.

The last two seeded teams are Russia and Sweden, having both suffered heartbreaking final round defeats to miss out on automatic qualification.

Fyodor Kudryashov's 81st minute own goal against Croatia cost Valeri Karpin's side an early spot in Qatar, while after losing in Georgia, the Blagult saw their hopes of claiming Group B evaporate as they went down 1-0 in Spain three days later.

Talent suggests hope for unseeded sides

One team that all of the above will be hoping to avoid on Friday is Poland. Paulo Sousa's side finished second to England in Group I, but possess arguably the deadliest striker in world football - Robert Lewandowski.

The 33-year-old didn't appear in every qualifier but still netted eight times and with nine goals in five games, including Tuesday's spectacular overhead kick against Dynamo Kiev, is 4/7 to be the top scorer in this season's Champions League.

Ukraine are also a form side after beating Bosnia-Herzegovina to overhaul Finland and finish behind France in Group D.

Veteran coach Oleksandr Petrakov has been given the chance to take the Yellow and Blue to the World Cup and, having worked with many of the squad through his country's youth ranks, is sure to have plenty of ideas regarding how to get the best out of the talent available to him.

Turkey will also have improved from their disappointing Euro 2020 campaign, while North Macedonia will be aiming to cause a surprise or two in March.

National icon Goran Pandev may now have called time on his international career but having won 2-1 in Germany last March, they showed there is life after their former captain by beating Armenia and Iceland to get here.

Nations League form keeps Qatar dreams alive

Last but not least, two teams who failed to finish second in their groups but have been able to fall back on previous results.

Both the Czech Republic and Austria have been able to rely on the safety net provided by their Nations League performances, making it this far by virtue of winning their pools in the biennial competition.

However, as well as being drawn away in the semi-finals, history could also be against the pair.

Jaroslav Silhavy is sure to have been reminded this week that his country has only qualified once for the World Cup finals since splitting rom Slovakia, being eliminated in the group stages in 2006.

Meanwhile, Das Team's last finals outing came back in 1998.

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