For European nations the end of the path that could lead to Qatar 2022 is in sight. The group stages of UEFA's World Cup qualifying campaign come to an end over the coming days and while there will be several nations vying for an extra berth at next winter's tournament in the playoffs, most of Europe's places will be divvied up in the next seven days.
Two of UEFA's 13 spots at the tournament have already been claimed. Germany became the first nation to join Qatar in the tournament when they won in North Macedonia last month, while Denmark joined them the following day. For some of the continent's big hitters the upcoming games should merely be about formalizing their passage to the tournament but there is plenty to play for.
1. Spain teetering
- Greece vs. Spain: Thursday, November 11, 2:45 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
- Spain vs. Sweden: Sunday, November 14, 2:45 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Though UEFA should not have cause to complain about its allocation, there are generally so few spots that one superpower tends to miss out every four years. Think England in 1994, or the Netherlands in 2002. In 2018 it was Italy who fell before the first hurdle, a defeat to Sweden that may well be playing through a few Spanish minds as they battle to escape Group B. The coming days are a far cry from the last international break when Luis Enrique's side won a host of admirers for their elegant run to the Nations League final and near defeat of France.
Still both at that tournament and Euro 2020, they have proven to be a side who can delight in one game and infuriate in the next. If Alvaro Morata, Pablo Sarabia and Dani Olmo catch fire in front of goal, then La Furia Roja can beat any side in the world. The issue is that there can be games where it feels like they are going out of their way to beat themselves.
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It is not necessarily a given that Spain will even make the playoffs; they travel to Greece with a four point cushion over the Ethniki but John van 't Schip's side are a tough out who have conceded just six goals in as many qualifiers, beating Sweden at home in September.
The likeliest scenario for Spain, however, is that they head back to Seville to prepare for a top of the table clash against Sweden on November 14. On this occasion they could be at or near their best and not win against a team who has already come away from Andalusia with a crucial point in 2021, drawing their first group game at Euro 2020. Alexander Isak has inspired Janne Anderson's side to an impressive run through the qualifiers but he won't have to bear the striking load alone this week. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, nearly twice Isak's age at 40, is back in the squad. Where he goes drama tends to follow.
2. Scotland on the march
- Moldova vs. Scotland: Friday, November 11, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
- Scotland vs. Denmark: Monday, November 15, 2:45 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
It has been 24 years since Scotland's men last qualified for the World Cup, 32 since they won a game at the tournament. Could this be the team to change that? Certainly Steve Clarke's side are on the march and have brushed aside what was perhaps a disappointing Euro 2020 campaign with four straight wins that give them a firm grip on second place in Group F. Queens Park Rangers' striker Lydon Dykes, out of the upcoming internationals, has been the hero of impressive victories against Israel and Austria and is the first player to score in four successive matches for the national team since Colin Stein in 1969.
The Tartan Army won't be catching Denmark -- eight wins from eight and not a goal conceded so far -- but a win in Moldova would guarantee them a spot in the playoffs. In theory that should be a regulation three points but the heartache and near misses that have followed Scotland's qualifying campaigns in recent years mean no one will be taking anything for granted, particularly as a meeting with the Danes looms large in the final match.
"Let's get the job done on Friday night," said Scotland coach John Carver. "That's the most important bit. It's great that it's in our hands and that's only the case because of what we did in Austria, what we did at Hampden against Israel and more importantly, what we did in the Faroe Islands.
"We spoke about how difficult that would be and what we don't want is all that hard work to go down the drain. Knowing the character and mentality of these guys, hopefully that won't happen. Hopefully they'll be right and there's no reason why they shouldn't be prepared and ready for the game on Friday night."
3. Can the Dutch hold on?
- Montenegro vs. Netherlands: Saturday, November 13, 2:45 p.m. ET (ESPN+)
- Netherlands vs. Norway: Tuesday, November 16, 2:45p.m. ET (ESPN+)
Perhaps the most rewarding and engaging of groups so far has been Group G. Turkey looked to be setting the pace early on but their woeful Euro 2020 has bled into the qualifying campaign; they now find themselves four points off the Dutch, reliant on sizeable favors to make the playoffs.
For a time it looked like the Netherlands were out of the race with Erling Haaland electrifying the group and Frank De Boer's side having staggered out of the blocks. After Euro 2020 the Dutch federation decided they could not persevere with their current manager. Enter Louis van Gaal, the 70 year old returning for a third stint that has looked more and more impressive by the game, leading to a 6-1 demolition of Turkey in September. A further six points since then and their destiny is now in their hands.
Their remaining two games are certainly not gimmes though. Montenegro rarely give up points without a fight in Podgorica whilst after that Norway travel to Rotterdam for what promises to be a shoot out for top side. The visitors will be without Erling Haaland, sidelined until the new year with injury issues, but this young team captained by Martin Odegaard does have numerous attacking weapons from Alexander Sorloth to Mohamed Elyounousi. Group G has not disappointed in terms of excitement. It could be set for an explosive finale.
There are plenty of other groups that promise similarly intriguing late stage battles for top spot. On November 12 Italy host Switzerland with top spot in Group C on the line. Two days later Russia and Croatia will, barring unlikely wobbles in games against Cyprus and Malta, do the same in Split.
4. Shootouts for second
In many groups it is a matter of when the leaders formally wrap up qualifying. France, England and Belgium should all get the job done in due course but there are plenty of intriguing subplots away from the group leaders as European powers great and small look to position themselves for a playoff berth.
In theory four of the five teams in France's group could catch Les Bleus but the reality is that Ukraine, Finland and Bosnia and Herezegovina probably cannot do much better than second in Group D. It is the latter who should feel the most in control of their destiny even though they have a two point gap to make up on Ukraine. Edin Dzeko and company host the Ukrainians, with interim head coach Oleksandr Petrakov after Andriy Shevchenko's move to Genoa, in the last matchday after another home game against the Finns.
Meanwhile in Group J Romania, North Macedonia, Armenia and Iceland are all vying for second behind Germany. Romania are in the driver's seat as they look to return to the World Cup for the first time since their 1990s heyday. Beat Iceland first up and they will eliminate them from contention before they travel to Liechtenstein, who have just one point to their name.
That came against Armenia, who have wobbled of late after a bright start to the group stage. If they are to qualify for their first ever international tournament Henrikh Mkhitaryan and company may well need to beat both North Macedonia and Germany whilst hoping other results go their way.
5. Don't forget the Nations League
In years gone by the post-group stage allotting of qualifying spots had been rather straightforward, the eight best placed runners up duking it out for four more spots at the following summer's tournament. The Nations League has rather thrown a spanner in those particular works with UEFA having designed the competition to add a further competitive edge to the European calendar.
That it certainly has, bringing salvation for two teams who have failed to reach the playoffs through the group stage. One of those teams will be Austria, who cannot finish in the top two in Group F but beat Norway, Romania and Northern Ireland to top spot in League B, Group 1 of the 2020-21 Nations League. The other side is yet to be confirmed but it will come from Group E of the World Cup qualifiers. Whichever of Wales or Czech Republic does not earn the silver medal spot behind Belgium will then enter the qualifying group as an unseeded team.
Adding the two Nations League representatives to the runners up from each of the 10 groups makes for 12 teams, split into three pathways of four in time for March's play-offs. Win your semi-final and your final and you are in the hat for Qatar. The group stage may be nearly over but there is still a long road left before Europe's 13 World Cup representatives are decided.