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World Cup Qualifying
(Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

2022 World Cup Qualifying: What to watch for in this week’s internationals

World Cup Qualifying
(Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

2022 World Cup Qualifying: What to watch for in this week’s internationals

The first international break of the year starts Thursday, January 27, with the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying taking place in Asia (AFC), North America (CONCACAF), and South America (CONMEBOL) until next Wednesday, February 3.

With these first round of qualifiers being in a World Cup year, every game could be a death blow at any team’s chances of a World Cup berth in Qatar. 13 teams have qualified for Qatar leaving 19 qualifying places remaining. Of the 13 that have qualified, 10 come from Europe, two from South America, and the host nation Qatar. There will be no qualifiers taking place in Europe or Africa, especially with the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) ongoing. Here are some of the biggest games taking place in the next eight days.

AFC Qualifiers – Current table after six matches played

Group A

  1. Iran (16 points)
  2. South Korea (14)
  3. UAE (6)
  4. Lebanon (5)
  5. Iraq (4)
  6. Syria (2)

Group B

  1. Saudi Arabia – 16
  2. Japan – 12
  3. Australia – 11
  4. Oman (7)
  5. China (5)
  6. Vietnam (0) 

Japan (12 pts.) vs Saudi Arabia (16 pts.) – Group B

This is a key game between Group B’s top two teams, both set to face Australia in the final two WCQ matches. In each group, the top two teams qualify meaning a win for either team would be crucial. Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino and Vissel Kobe’s Yuya Osako have led Japan with nine goals each during qualifying. Japan currently sits with a record of 4-0-2 and will play China on January 27 before taking on Saudi Arabia. This would be the seventh straight World Cup for the Samurai Blue. Saudi Arabia comes into this international break winless in their last three matches all in the Arab Cup, but are one of two teams that have yet to lose in WCQ. Led by a pair of Al Hilal SFC, Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari, with six goals each Saudi Arabia looks to qualify for their second straight World Cup after missing out on the previous two competitions. When the two met earlier in the group stage Saudi Arabia came away as winners beating Japan 1-0. Saudi Arabia will be hosting Oman prior to going to Saitama, Japan to take on Japan on February 1.

Lebanon vs Iraq

With Iran and South Korea controlling the top two places in Group A and looking to qualify this week (Iran needs three points and South Korea needs four to qualify for the 2022 World Cup) this becomes three teams fighting for third place. This is important as the third-place teams from both groups face off for a chance of advancing to the inter-confederation play-off. Both teams are currently chasing the UAE for that third-place spot, but the UAE still has to play both Iran and South Korea in their final four matches giving hope to the winner of this game. Iraq won their most recent match 1-0 in a friendly against Uganda last week but has not won in a competitive competition since June 2021. They are looking to get back on track and qualify for their second-ever World Cup and first since 1986. Meanwhile, Lebanon come in with one win in their last five matches and only squeaked out a 1-0 win over Sudan thanks to an own goal. Lebanon has not beat Iraq since a 1-0 win in 2012, but the two played to a 0-0 draw earlier in qualifying. The two will take the pitch on February 1.

Oman vs Australia (11 pts.)

This game is big for both teams. For Australia, three points could see them jump Japan for second place in the group and automatic qualification to Qatar. For Oman, a win pulls them only a point behind the Socceroos who still have to play the top two teams in Group B. Unlike Australia, Oman has a much easier final two matches playing the bottom two teams, China and Vietnam. Australia has gone winless in their last three AFC World Cup Qualifying matches and will be without leading scorer Harry Souttar who suffered an ACL injury against Saudi Arabia in November. Souttar has been a goal-scoring threat while controlling the backline and Australia will now rely on Columbus Crew defender, Milos Degenek, to take up that center back position. Oman looks to improve from a 3-1 defeat in Australia last time the teams played. The Reds are trying to qualify for their first World Cup, but have a massive hurdle in Australia standing in their way. Oman hosts Australia on February 1.

CONCACAF Qualifiers

Current table after eight matches played

Canada (16 points)
USA (15)
Mexico (14)
Panama (14)
Costa Rica (9)
Jamaica (7)
El Salvador (6)
Honduras (3)

Big games

Costa Rica vs Panama

With the top three teams qualifying automatically for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the fourth-place team going to the inter-confederation play-off this game becomes crucial for both teams. Panama sits tied for third on points but falls behind Mexico on goal difference, but plays Mexico next week. A win over Costa Rica would make that gap between fourth and fifth even larger and will have Panama seeing their second consecutive World Cup birth on the horizon. For Costa Rica, a loss could very well mark the end of their attempt to qualify for a fifth World Cup in the last six as they still have to play all three of Canada, Mexico, and the USA. With a win however they would be right back in the mix only three points back of Panama. Panama has given up seven goals in their last three World Cup Qualifiers since shutting out the US 1-0. Meanwhile, Costa Rica have only six goals to their name in this round of qualifying which is the third least of the eight teams remaining. The two played each other in the first match of this round but neither team was able to put the ball in the back of the net as it finished 0-0. Panama will have to travel to Costa Rica and take on Costa Rica on January 27.

Canada vs USA

The top two teams in the group face off for the last time. Canada, a surprise leader of the group, will be missing their best player in Alphonso Davies due to the Bayern Munich star recovering from COVID-19. Canada has been unbeatable in this round largely due to the play of Davies, who has scored five goals in qualifying, in both attack and defense. Canada is currently tied with the US in the least amount of goals conceded with five. The last time Canada played they had a famous 2-1 win over Mexico thanks to a brace from Cyle Larin. The Beşiktaş forward has been the leading scorer for Canada with eleven goals. The Canadian team is looking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986. After an embarrassing qualifying process four years ago the US has brought in their new era of players well. Coming off a year in which the US beat rivals Mexico three times, the American team will be looking to keep the momentum rolling. The US will be led by Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic and Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie. When the two teams met last, goals from Larin for Canada and Brenden Aaronson for the US were enough for a 1-1 draw in Nashville. This time the two will be in Ontario, Canada for the game that takes place on January 30 with Canada looking to get their first win over the US since 2019.

Mexico vs Panama

Mexico looks to continue their dominance of Panama in this match of currently tied third-place teams. El Tri has not lost to Panama since 2013, a streak that spans 11 matches. Mexico will be playing angry after losing three of their last four with the only non-loss being a draw with Chile. Mexico will turn to their forward duo of Raúl Jiménez and Hirving Lozano to lead the charge against a tough Panama team that drew 1-1 in the other qualifying match. In that previous match, Mexico was without Jiménez and Lozano and needed a late equalizer from Jesus Corona to manage a point. Rolando Blackburn scored the goal for Panama in the 1-1 draw. Panama will be relying on a strong attacking performance from Blackburn and current leading scorer Gabriel Torres (4 goals) to break through the Mexican defense that has only allowed seven goals in this round of qualifying. Mexico and Panama will play each other on February 2 at a nearly empty stadium following a reverse of the ban on fans by the Mexican Football Federation that was put in as a result of a chant being said.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers

Current table after 14 matches played

Brazil 13 games played (35 points)
Argentina 13 games played (29)
Ecuador (23)
Colombia (17)
Peru (17)
Chile (16)
Uruguay (16)
Bolivia (15)
Paraguay (13)
Venezuela (7)

Big Games 

Ecuador vs Brazil

Two of the best teams in South America during the 2022 World Cup Qualifying process face off. Brazil along with Argentina have already qualified for Qatar and Ecuador is not far behind. Qualifying for the World Cup would mean a return to the competition for Ecuador following an absence in 2018. Brazil will be without their top three scorers in qualifying. Neymar is recovering from an ankle injury and both Roberto Firmino and Richarlison were left out of the squad. Even without the three, it is still full speed ahead for a team that only lost once all of 2021. Being called on to replace Neymar, Firmino, and Richarlison will be Aston Villa midfielder Philippe Coutinho, Leeds United winger Raphinha, and Real Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior. Coutinho returns to the Brazilian team after missing out in 2021 due to a knee injury. Ecuador will be led by all-time leading goalscorer Enner Valencia, 34 goals. The former West Ham striker will lead the attack with Ecuador’s World Cup Qualifying leading goalscorer Michael Estrada, who has five goals. In the previous qualifying matchup between the two Brazil won 2-0 with goals from Richarlison and Neymar. Ecuador will look to take advantage of the missing Brazilians when they play each other on January 27.

Colombia vs Peru

The top four teams in CONMEBOL qualifying advance to the World Cup automatically with the fifth-placed team moving onto the inter-confederation play-off. As it currently stands Colombia and Peru are tied on points for that fourth automatic qualifying spot. That means that the winner of this match will have sole possession of fourth place and control their own fate. Colombia has not been at its best as of late managing only one win in their last six matches, while Peru has been on a roll winning three of their last four. Peru has been led in qualifying by the fourth-highest goalscorer in CONMEBOL qualifying, Christian Cueva. Cueva scored in each of Peru’s last two World Cup Qualifying matches and could add another goal against a Colombia side that beat Peru in the first qualifying matchup. It was goals from three different players that propelled Colombia to a 3-0 win in the Peruvian capital in June last year. Colombia is being led by a pair of three goal scorers in Miguel Borja and Atalanta forward Luis Muriel. This fixture takes place in Barranquilla, Colombia on January 28.

Bolivia vs Chile

Two teams who are currently on the outside looking in are Chile and Bolivia. Chile sits in sixth only one point back of a qualifying spot and Bolivia sits eighth only two points back. With only two points separating five teams fighting for two spots, every match between those teams is crucial to win and can be the difference between going to Qatar or staying at home in November. Bolivia is led by Marcelo Moreno, the leading scorer in CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying with nine goals. While Bolivia has been a one-man army, Chile has been much more of a team with four different players having scored three or more goals in qualifying. One player that has been on a tear this season but has not scored many goals for Chile is Blackburn forward Ben Brereton Díaz. The English-born striker has scored 20 goals in 24 matches for the Championship side. Chile won two of three games against Bolivia last year with the third game being a 1-1 draw in World Cup Qualifying. Moreno had success for Bolivia scoring both of their goals against Chile in 2021. Bolivia has one of the best home-field advantages in soccer since their stadium in La Paz, Bolivia sits at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. They will look to use their suffocating home-field advantage in their favor when they host Chile on February 1.

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