The two-week international break might mean a pause for clubs, but it’s all systems go around the globe with World Cup qualifying and every continent is approaching the end of the road to Qatar 2022. Only three teams — including hosts Qatar, who qualify automatically — have already punched their tickets to the big show (well done, Germany and Denmark) and there are 95 nations still with a shot at securing one of the remaining spots in the 32-team field.
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With that in mind, we asked ESPN’s regions and writers to offer up what you should be watching for around the world over the next 10 days.
Jump to: Europe | North/Central America | Africa | South America | Asia | Oceania
Luis Enrique’s side are starting to form an identity around a promising young core of players, but they’ve got work to do if they’re to make it to the World Cup. They are two points off Janne Andersson’s Sweden at the top of Group B and face the group leaders on Sunday, but their week begins with a trip to Euro 2004 champs Greece on Thursday (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET).
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If Luis Enrique’s team get a victory in Athens, another win against Sweden on Sunday in Seville would guide them home as group winners, avoiding the pitfalls of the playoffs. But Sweden will also be gunning for that top spot, and travel to Georgia on Thursday evening (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET) hoping to maintain that slender lead at the top of the pool.
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Spain will be without some key personnel — Ansu Fati and Eric Garcia are absent — but Dani Carvajal is included, making him the first Real Madrid player called up by the former Barcelona manager since March.
Ronaldo’s grudge match
Back in April, Cristiano Ronaldo was so outraged at his late winner against Serbia getting controversially overturned (there was no VAR in the opening qualifiers) that he threw his captain’s armband to the ground and stormed off at the final whistle. Sunday sees the two nations meet again in the return match in Lisbon, and World Cup qualification is on the line.
Serbia hold a one-point advantage over Portugal at the top of Group A, but Portugal have a game in hand. That extra match for Fernando Santos’ men comes against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET), who are out of the running for a spot at Qatar, but will offer resistance: Portugal needed two late Ronaldo goals to get past them in September. A result in Dublin for Portugal would mean they’d be in the driving seat for Sunday’s clash against Serbia, where Ronaldo will no doubt have a bearing on matters.
Ronaldo and Portugal can confirm their World Cup spot this break, and the Man United striker will be especially motivated to beat Serbia considering what happened last time they met. Nikola Krstic/Soccrates/Getty Images
Could Italy really be dumped into the playoffs?
Italy’s match against Switzerland on Friday has all the hallmarks of a winner-takes-all clash. The two teams are locked on 14 points at the top of Group C, with both finishing off their pool stages with games they’d expect to win – Italy travel to Northern Ireland and Switzerland host Bulgaria. So it’s all eyes on Rome this week as Roberto Mancini’s European champions look to book their place in the World Cup and avoid the playoffs.
Italy’s 37-match unbeaten run came to an end in the Nations League semifinals against Spain in October, but they bounced back by beating Belgium 2-1 to take third. But they will be without a few key players in Nicola Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Ciro Immobile, while Nicola Barella is an injury doubt. With their midfield depleted, Mancini could hand debuts to Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi and Torino’s Tommaso Pobega. They won’t have it easy against Switzerland, however, with Murat Yakin’s side keeping clean sheets in their last four matches – including a 0-0 draw in the return match in Basel in September.
Haaland a big miss for Norway
As Borussia Dortmund have found out over the past week, life without one of the best players in the world is tough. BVB striker Erling Haaland is out injured with a hip injury and may not be fit until Christmas, which will come as a huge blow for his country Norway as they seek to book their place at the World Cup.
Norway are two points behind Netherlands in Group G with two games remaining. Louis Van Gaal’s Oranje face Montenegro on Saturday, while Norway host Latvia. If both teams win, then the final match of the group next Tuesday in Rotterdam (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:35 p.m. ET) where the two teams meet will be fascinating. But if Norway drop any points, then they have Turkey sitting just two points behind them, looking to capitalize on any slip-ups for a playoff place.
Norway still have the likes of Martin Odegaard to help bolster their qualification hopes, but they’ll have to find a way to make up that shortfall of Haaland’s goal record — an impressive 12 in 15 appearances for the national side in order to advance.