The 2022 World Cup qualifiers return in September following an intense summer of international football. Greg Murray assesses what we have learned from Euro 2020 and how the continent’s heavyweights will be approaching the upcoming games.
With just 14 months to go until the 2022 World Cup kicks off, Europe’s national teams are set to battle it out to see who will be going to Qatar. The biggest competition in international football has allocated 13 places to UEFA, with all 55 nations attempting to qualify.
The qualification structure itself is nothing complicated, with the teams split into 10 groups based on their FIFA world ranking as of November 2020. Half of these groups are comprised of six sides and the other half made up of five, with the Nations League semi-finalists rewarded by a position in the latter. The winner of each group gets a ticket to the World Cup, while the runners-up plus the best two Nations League group winners are then entered into a play-off for the three remaining places.
The format has ensured the likes of Italy, England, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France and Belgium avoid facing each other in qualification. Although this has provided a relatively clear route to the World Cup for some, the process appears more complicated for others.
Recently-crowned European champions Italy won their 34th straight game in the Euro 2020 final and made short work of Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in the first round of qualifiers back in March. The Azzurri are going well in Group C, although one of their final two qualification matches is against Switzerland, the side that knocked out world champions France at the Euros. That could be a game to keep an eye on.
Having fallen at the final hurdle at Euro 2020, England will want to go one step further at the World Cup and are on the right track to do so. Gareth Southgate has reportedly been offered a contract past the 2022 edition and the Three Lions are also on course to qualify for the showpiece in Group I.
England witnessed the emergence of more young players over the summer, who will be gaining vital international experience in their upcoming fixtures. The Three Lions’ clash with Hungary on October 12 is a key date to look out for as they aim to secure qualification as quickly as possible.
For France, a ticket to Qatar appears a near certainty following Les Blues’ excellent start to their campaign. After a disappointing European Championship, Didier Deschamps will be glad of the opportunity to experiment with his squad with World Cup qualification sewn up early.
France arguably have the strongest pool of talent in the world and their final qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Finland should provide the perfect opportunity to blood young players while phasing veterans out. The only question that remains, is whether after 18 months of limited challenges, Deschamps’ side are able to raise their level and become only the third team to successfully defend the World Cup.
Unlike their southern neighbours, Belgium are bidding to win their first ever significant tournament at the Qatar World Cup. Roberto Martinez’s side are the only team to ever top the FIFA rankings without lifting a major trophy, and the winter tournament may be the last opportunity for their so-called golden generation to fulfil their potential.
The Red Devils have also made a strong start in their group and will hope to have qualification wrapped up before they face Estonia and Wales in their final two matches. Martinez should have his full squad available for the remaining qualification fixtures after injuries to captain Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne impacted their chances at the Euros. If those two talismanic players hit top form come November 2022, then Belgium will be among the tournament favourites.
World Cup qualification is a more precarious prospect for Luis Enrique’s Spain following their first round of fixtures. La Furia Roja experienced their common problem of lacking a cutting edge during the Euros, with Spain struggling to produce an elite forward since the glory days of David Villa and Fernando Torres.
As a result, the 2010 World Cup winners were held to a 1-1 draw against Greece in their opening qualifier, as they try to gain a significant advantage over the rest of Group B. Spain remain favourites to progress to the finals, but if they are to improve on their Euro 2020 performance Enrique will have to solve their goalscoring problems. The next generation coming through could well be the solution, with Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres and Pedri already showing signs of brilliance.
The situation is even more perilous for Spain’s Iberian rivals, Portugal. Having failed to retain their European Championship and Nations League crowns in 2021, Fernando Santos’s side are locked in a battle with Serbia in Group A. Even so, the Selecao undoubtedly have a talented squad and will be confident of qualifying by hook or by crook. Their home game against Serbia on November 14 will be the final fixture in the group and could be a huge occasion.
Santos also has concerns regarding what his team will look like in Qatar. In November 2022, Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo will be approaching his 38th birthday, potentially with his club future at Juventus in doubt. The national side has been built around their all-time leading goalscorer for something approaching two decades and the Selecao need one of their newer stars to step up if they are to compete at the top level again.
Last and, on this rare occasion, least, Germany are struggling after lying third in Group J following their first three fixtures. A shock 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia was a real low point for Die Mannschaft, for whom failure to qualify for the World Cup would represent a national disaster. However, this summer marked the start of a new cycle for German football as Joachim Low left his post following 15 years as manager.
New boss Hansi Flick comes in after an extremely successful spell at Bayern Munich and will oversee the job of ushering in the next generation of talent. World Cup winners Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller are nearing the end of their journeys with the national team, with the future likely to be based around the exciting talents of Kai Havertz, Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry. Whether this attacking trio will be able to fire Germany to victory come 2022 remains to be seen. Europe’s top seven sides each have their own challenges to face across the next 14 months, ahead of next year’s World Cup. At either end of the spectrum former winners Spain and Germany are in the midst of rebuilding projects, while current world and European champions France and Italy have the tough task of maintaining momentum. Other top European teams such as England, Belgium and Portugal will look to make the most of talented squads and finally win football’s ultimate prize in Qatar.