We have reached the stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers when it all feels like a local long distance charity race. The favourites, Brazil, crossed the line ages ago; Iran and Japan joined them soon after; we’ve politely applauded Mexico, Belgium, South Korea and Saudi Arabia and now we’re anxiously looking down the track wondering where everyone else has gone.
Spain are striding effortlessly towards us; Costa Rica, grinning broadly, are right behind them. And, look… there’s England, clad in ludicrous headphones and prohibitively expensive kit, clutching their side and weeping as they just try to put one foot in front of the other. But where are the United States? Italy? And what on earth has happened to Argentina?
STORY OF THE WEEK
Syrian commentator breaks into tears after Omar Al-Somah’s historic goal against Iran. Goosebumps. pic.twitter.com/MSUC2IBCD0
– Mohamed Osama (@_DrOsama) September 5, 2017
Against all the odds, Syria still have a chance of making it to the 2018 World Cup. Omar Al-Somah’s injury time equaliser to claim a 2-2 draw against Iran on Tuesday night was enough to secure third place in the group, sparking jubilant celebrations and reducing one commentator to floods of tears. There’s still a long way to go, a two-legged playoff against Australia (to be played in Malaysia) will not be easy, but what an achievement for a nation ravaged by war.
PERFORMANCES OF THE WEEK
What a week for little Luxembourg! They picked up their first competitive win for nearly two years when they beat Belarus 1-0 on Thursday and then they only went and held mighty France to a 0-0 draw on Sunday.
It is not often that this tiny nation (population just over 500,000) manages back-to-back clean sheets, especially when faced with the firepower of one of the best teams in Europe. It’s just a bit of a shame that this extraordinary run of form only lifts them to second-from-bottom in their group and still seven points adrift of fourth placed Bulgaria. Still, every journey begins with a single step.
RESCUE OF THE WEEK
The United States were just five minutes from catastrophe when Bobby Wood stepped up to salvage a point. Defeat to Honduras would have left them down in fifth in their hexagonal qualification group, grasping for points and praying for favours.
This has not been an elegant campaign by the Americans, who were beaten by Costa Rica in New York. Nevertheless, with games against Panama (one point ahead of them) and Trinidad Tobago (already out) still to play, progression to Russia remains in their hands.
UNEXPECTED THRASHING OF THE WEEK
Spain vs. Italy was supposed to be a tight affair. Italy, after all, hadn’t lost a World Cup or European Championship qualifier since 2006. But Spain are on a mission. They walloped the Italians 3-0 in Madrid to take a commanding lead in Group G and look certain to qualify now after hammering Liechtenstein 8-0, while Italy reclaimed some modestly with a 1-0 win over Israel.
In 2014, you may recall, Spain were the pretournament favourites and were obliterated 5-1 by Netherlands (how unlikely does that seem now?), crashing out in the group stages. Given how well they played here, you would be wise not to back a repeat performance.
NOT OUT OF IT YET
Speaking of the Dutch, their blue period continued with a 4-0 hammering at the hands of France, just days before Didier Deschamp’s side went worryingly goal shy. But don’t write them off just yet. Where there’s life, there’s hope.
They are three points (and six goals) off Sweden, who they meet in the last game of the campaign next month. Before that, they travel to bottom-placed Belarus, while Sweden meet the suddenly redoubtable Luxembourg. Should we be bracing ourselves for a most unexpected recovery? Probably not, given Netherlands’ form since 2014, but it’s good to be optimistic.
THEY WON’T… WILL THEY?
Argentina haven’t failed to qualify for a World Cup since missing out in 1970, but two draws in two games leaves them languishing outside the CONMEBOL automatic qualification spots.
Lionel Messi might be getting Barcelona through a tricky period, but even he can’t single-handedly drag Argentina to Russia. Jorge Sampaoli’s team have two games left, against fourth placed Peru and not-out-of-it-yet Ecuador, to recover their campaign. If they don’t find some form from somewhere, the 2014 runners-up are going to be watching the 2018 tournament on the television.
SAVES OF THE WEEK
“He is Superman here!” said one Costa Rican fan of goalkeeper Keylor Navas this week. After the saves he made against the United States last week, especially one midway through the second half, he is Superman everywhere, especially in the metropolis of New York. Navas, now 30, made his name in the 2014 World Cup as Costa Rica scorched a path to the quarterfinals. Thanks to the Real Madrid stopper’s heroics, they’re close to securing the chance to repeat the performance in Russia next summer.
FOOLISH GESTURE OF THE WEEK
Should we be disappointed in Dele Alli or secretly impressed? Disappointed because, as grown-ups, we know that the behaviour of professional footballers trickles down to the amateur game? Impressed because of the sheer guts required to openly give a middle finger gesture in the middle of a game, and then claim it was a joke.
Alli, who had just seen his appeals for a freekick turned down by the referee, said he pointed the gesture not at the referee but at teammate Kyle Walker in an as-yet-unexplained joke? Hard to believe, but either way, a ban will soon follow.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.