World Cup qualifying: Slim margins between success and failure

Wales' Gareth Bale. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)

It feels as if qualification for the 2018 World Cup has been ticking over since before the last World Cup in Brazil.  

I suppose that’s to be expected. Coefficients and group seedings are an organic collection of numbers grinding up against each other, causing such things as ridiculous groups that sees Spain and Italy paired together.  

Still, it’s almost behind us, with two final matches of the group stage to determine who make their way to Russia, who goes into the playoffs, and who is staying home.  

Here are some random thoughts I have ahead of this final round of games:

Slim margins between success and failure

Twenty-four teams can still qualify for Russia, while twenty-three teams from Europe have already been eliminated – teams such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Norway and Romania. I single these nations out as great examples of how narrow the line is between success and failure.  

Over the last couple of qualification cycles for major tournaments, all of them have had their moments in the sun, where there was the promise of something special. For Hungary and Romania there was a suggestion of a return to former glories, while Latvia and Israel seemed to be on the brink of new success. Instead, they have all been utterly dismal in this campaign.  

Qualifying is a long process. It can be a huge burden for a fan base to endure, but qualification for a World Cup should never be taken for granted.  It’s a lesson many teams learned this time around, and will have a chance to reflect on further next summer.

Watch both legs from all of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff series in Europe live on Sportsnet from November 9-14. You can also watch online at Sportsnet NOW.

Can Wales get on without Bale?

Sometimes these international windows can be no more than a kick in the teeth. 

Take Wales, for example. Chris Coleman’s side is desperate to show last summer’s showing at Euro 2016 was no fluke, but they currently find themselves sitting in second spot in Group D, just one point up on Ireland.  Wales are on the road against Georgia, while Ireland hosts Moldova, and then the two nations meet in Cardiff on the final matchday for what promises to be an epic encounter.  

Trouble is, Wales is without Gareth Bale, who could even miss a potential November playoff date with one of his pesky calf problems. If you are a Welsh fan, you are still on your hands and knees picking up your teeth with that news.  

It could be argued that Bale hasn’t been on top form for his country in this campaign compared to last summer, but he has four goals and one assist, and his mere presence is huge for his team.  

Georgia will be tough, Ireland will be tougher, and to do it without one of the nation’s best ever is a tough ask for Wales. That is football, though. It also makes you think about a team such as Ireland; a team devoid of any star power, but a team with a lot of resiliency. 

Kane ready to break out for England

Which brings us of course to England.  It sure looks like for first time in a while that England is relying on one player. Harry Kane has been brilliant so far this season, and he has over 30 goals in 2017, which puts him alongside a couple of guys named Ronaldo and Messi.  

Kane will captain his country again on Thursday at home to Slovenia, but he has still not been given the full-time job, as manager Gareth Southgate still considers his options.  Now, the captaincy shouldn’t be a big issue, but for some reason England fans have an obsession with it.

It sure looks as if Kane will eventually be made captain, and that makes sense. England is a good side, certainly not in the same stratosphere as the top handful of nations in the world, and the team will in all likelihood break the hearts of its fans once again next year. But in Kane they have a superstar. The world hasn’t quite caught on to the fact just yet, but it will.  As one pundit put it, Kane is elusively great at all aspects of the game.  

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