With just under 10 months to go under the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, qualifying for the tournament is reaching a conclusion with 19 places still to be decided.
Qatar are already certain of their place as tournament hosts, while 12 other nations have already booked their tickets leaving 19 places to be handed out in February, March and June.
With the next round of international qualifiers set to begin on January 29/30, 101 Great Goals have produced a guide on each of FIFA’s six confederations, including who is likely to qualify and which heavyweights could yet miss out.
Thirteen spots are available to European teams and 10 of those have already been snapped up, with Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Croatia, England and Germany already guaranteed as group winners from qualifying.
However with the play-offs yet to get underway, there is a likelihood that some big names will miss out.
Path C (above) sees Italy host North Macedonia while, on the other side of the draw, Portugal will face Turkey meaning at least one of the two previous European Champions will not feature at the winter World Cup.
If Italy and Portugal do win their respective semi-finals, they’ll meet at Estádio do Dragão on 29 March in a game not to be missed.
Elsewhere, in Path A, a battle of Britain final could be on the cards.
Scotland take on Ukraine at Hampden while Wales will welcome Austria to Cardiff, with both home teams hopeful of victory and hopeful of their first World Cup appearance since 1998 and 1958 respectively.
In Path B, Poland will travel to Moscow to face Russia with Sweden taking on Czech Republic in Stockholm later that evening.
European qualifying returns and concludes in late March.
In format terms, South American World Cup qualifying is the easiest to explain but that doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the drama.
All 10 CONMEBOL members are placed into one 10-team league, in which everyone plays everyone home and away.
The top four sides qualify automatically, while the fifth-place finisher drops into the inter-confederation play-offs.
The two heavyweights Brazil and Argentina have both qualified already, with Seleção maintaining their record as the only nation to appear at all 22 World Cups.
Below them though, seven teams are fighting for 2.5 spots, with only Venezuela out of the running with four games to go.
Ecuador are the surprise package in third, knowing another four of five points will ensure they’re back at the World Cup after missing Russia and their success has placed doubt over the participation of traditionally stronger sides such as Uruguay and Chile.
Uruguay are only a point off fourth place but have been in enough trouble to sack manager Óscar Tabárez – who had been in charge for 194 games over 15 years – while Chile are also a point behind fourth-placed Colombia and fifth-placed Peru.
In terms of dates, everyone will play two fixtures during this international window, January/February, with the final pair of games coming in March.
Uruguay face the current bottom two this week, Paraguay (A) and Venezuela (H), needing to win both to leap back into contention, and it could also be a decisive month for Peru who face the sides just above them, Colombia in Barranquilla before Ecuador come to Lima.
The Africa Cup of Nations may be taking centre stage right now, but huge World Cup qualification fixtures lie right around the corner.
In total, 44 teams have already been eliminated – including Ivory Coast who appeared at three successive tournaments from 2006 to 2014 – while 10 teams who progressed from their second-round groups have advanced to the third and final round which uses two-legged play-off format in March.
On 22 January, the pairings were drawn and five fascinating match-ups were formed.
The headline is the very first tie out the hat: Egypt vs Senegal, as that is Mohammad Salah up against his Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané. Both were at Russia 2018 with Senegal qualifying for the first time in 20 years while the Pharaohs ended their 28-year exile.
Meanwhile, west African rivals Ghana and Nigeria will go head-to-head, after both crashed out early at this year’s AFCON, while 2019 African champions Algeria will meet Cameroon, hosts and front-runners to win the ongoing edition of that tournament.
DR Conga, bizarrely, failed to qualify for AFCON but have made this far in qualifying, looking to appear at a first World Cup since 1974 but look like big underdogs in their tie against Morocco.
In the final tie, Mali, who have never qualified for a World Cup, will fancy their chances against Tunisia, who have appeared at five, including 2018.
North, Central America and the Caribbean
In CONCACAF, the final Octagonal round is well and truly underway with the region’s eight best teams battling for 3.5 World Cup spots.
With eight of 14 matches having already been played, there is a clear divide between the top four and the bottom four.
Canada are the surprise front-runners given that the Canucks have only ever qualified for one World Cup before, doing so in 1986, and they face a triple-header of games in January/February including a vital one against the USA without star man Alphonso Davies.
They only need to do enough to secure a top-three finish to ensure survival and with USA and Mexico, look set to do so despite pressure from Panama in fourth.
The Stars and Stripes missed Russia 2018, their first qualification failure for 32 years, while Mexico haven’t failed to qualify since 1982.
The two meet at the Azteca in March with both very much expecting to qualify for Qatar.
Panama, who made their World Cup debut in 2018, complete the front-runners, currently occupying the inter-confederation play-off place and look to be the only side able to break into the top four at this point.
Jamaica, El Salvador and Honduras, who’ve won just two matches between them, could be mathematically eliminated by the end of this window.
Asian World Cup qualifying is the longest and most arduous of all the processes, starting way back on June 6, 2019 and concluding over three years later.
Right now, the 12 teams still involved are in the midst of their third-round campaigns, split across Groups A and B.
The top two in each section qualify for Qatar, while the third-place finishers play each other for the right to compete in the inter-confederation play-off.
In Group A, the top two spots could be signed, sealed and delivered in this international window.
Iran and Korea Republic are the run-away leaders in this group with both, possibly, needing just one more win to qualify.
On 27 January, Iran welcome Iraq to Tehran while South Korea face Lebanon in Sidon and both know a victory could rubberstamp a top two finish.
Below them, any of the other four nations could take third, with the United Arab Emirates currently best placed to do so.
Over in Group B, there’s three sides battling for those all-important top two positions.
As it stands, Saudi Arabia are in the catbird seat having only dropped points in Sydney, a goalless draw, to date and could book their ticket to Qatar with two wins in this window.
Below them though, Japan and Australia are still very much in the hunt with the Samurai Blue currently one point better off.
The Socceroos meanwhile are in big danger of missing out on a first World Cup for two decades.
Graham Arnold’s team end the campaign with two decisive matches, hosting Japan on 24 March before visiting Saudi Arabia five days later.
Before then, the other game to keep an eye out for is on 1 February as the current top two go head-to-head at Saitama Stadium.
As mentioned, whoever slips down to third will have to play Group A’s third-place side just to reach the inter-confederation play-off.
Oceania is the smallest of FIFA’s confederations, highlighted by the fact just 0.5 World Cup places are on offer.
This part of the world has been hit hard by the pandemic, leading to the 2020 OFC Nations Cup having been cancelled all together.
In fact, OFC World Cup 2022 qualifying hasn’t even started yet, with the majority of these teams last playing a competitive fixture in June 2017.
Due to travel restrictions, all nine OFC members able to compete will meet in Qatar in March with all qualification matches taking place over 17 days.
After the preliminary round tie, teams will compete in two groups of four with the top two advancing to the semi-finals.
The prize on offer is an inter-confederation play-off ticket which will be handed out to the winners of the final, scheduled for 30 March.
New Zealand are big favourites to do just that, ranked 110 by FIFA but that puts them 31 places above the next-best side the Solomon Islands.
The All Whites have appeared at two World Cups in the past, 1982 and 2010, falling in the intercontinental play-offs during the last two cycles.
By June 2022, 30 teams will be guaranteed a World Cup place with just two places to be decided.
This year’s inter-confederation play-offs will take place as single-elimination ties, played on June 13/14th in Qatar, as opposed to the usual home-and-away format.
In one tie, the fourth round Asian winners will take on the South American side who finishes fifth in the table.
The identity of these two teams are currently unknown but this is not a good draw for Asia, with South American nations boasting an imperious record in these play-offs, winning six of seven ties since Bolivia were demolished by Hungary in 1977.
The other tie pits the fourth-place finisher from CONCACAF up against the winners of OFC qualifying.
No nations from Oceania qualify automatically and the team from that continent has won two of the nine ties they’ve played.
So, the nations from North America and South America will be favourites in their respective ties, regardless of who they are.