European Playoffs for the 2022 Qatar World Cup
Following the draw for the playoff semi-finals, there is the serious possibility that the previous two European Championship winners may not qualify for the next World Cup in Qatar. The fixtures will take place in late March, and supporters will be trying to work out the likelihood of their nation making the finals. The playoffs will see 12 teams hoping to qualify for the much-coveted World Cup, however, only three can qualify. Who will the three countries be?
Many Scottish fans would not have believed that they would be a seeded team after their first four fixtures in this campaign, but winning their remaining six fixtures placed the team in a seeded playoff spot and has provided the squad with a huge confidence boost in their ability to qualify. Scotland qualified for their first major tournament since 1998 with the 2020 European Championships and the players gave many interviews stating they wanted the buoyant feeling of tournament football to continue and had immediately set their sights on the Qatar World Cup following their elimination in the Euros group stage. The team has been solid under Steve Clarke after an initially difficult beginning to his reign. Clarke has implemented incredibly pragmatic tactics for his team, a style which has got the most out of this average squad and utilised star performers (Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Billy Gilmour) to garner the wins they required, featuring six clean sheets with an outstanding performance and result against Denmark to finish their group campaign. The exhilarating atmosphere the Scottish fans can produce in Hampden Park for the semi-final will make them formidable opponents for Ukraine, and following this Scotland will be a tough side for either Wales or Austria to beat due to their workmanlike tenacity and ability to grind out a clean sheet.
An unbeaten but less than impressive run from the Ukrainians so far has seen them have six draws in eight games within their competitive group. Their two impressive draws against the current world champions, France, provided them with their playoff spot. The strong defensive performance throughout the campaign will give the side some semblance of hope for reaching Qatar through this path. The Ukrainians have adopted a back three with a focus on remaining defensively solid, particularly to avoid a repeat of their 4-0 trouncing in the quarter-finals of the 2020 Euros with England due to an exposure of their players’ individual defensive fragility. This focus on their defence has led to the side relying on the individual talents of Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk to provide the goals, which has seen a poor return in goals throughout qualifying, and this will be a cause for concern when they come up against Scotland in their semi-final come March. The Ukrainians will go into this game expecting very little, although it could be a night to remember for this side and their fans if they do manage to overcome the Scottish.
The Welsh have reached the last two Euros and will want to reach their first World Cup since 1958, especially with how close they were in 2018 to competing in Russia. Since the appointment of Gary Speed, and with subsequent managers, the Welsh have been a consistently competitive side, even reaching a semi-final in the 2016 Euros. Rob Page has seamlessly continued the impressive run of results since taking over the role as head coach currently in place of Ryan Giggs. At the backend of the campaign, the Welsh side have embraced a high pressing and attacking style of play, exciting many fans and utilising the talents of their quality players (Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Neco Williams). The shift towards more expansive and entertaining football has not impacted their strong defence, with Joe Rodon particularly displaying his talents throughout the campaign. Wales will not fear anyone in the playoffs having performed well against many “major” international sides, with this current crop of players and the nation having lost only two competitive home fixtures since 2017 – to the Republic of Ireland and Denmark. Through the trust in their tactics, the belief in their own ability and the immense support their fans provide, the Welsh squad and its fans will more than believe the flights to Qatar will be theirs come March.
Austria will come into the playoffs searching for a miracle following a poor qualifying campaign, finishing fourth in their group. This miracle would be greatly appreciated by the fans who have not witnessed their nation in the World Cup since France in 1998 and will be looking to a number of highly talented players in the form of David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic to achieve this. Their individual ability will be vital for the Austrian side to overcome the strength of Wales, a feat that will be as impressive as when the Austrians overcame the might of the Prussians in the Battle of Leuthen. The side are attempting to implement an active, front-footed approach that wants to dominate possession and press with vigour, however, up to this point it has not borne any fruit, as witnessed in their qualifying campaign. The Austrians have the weakest defensive record through qualifying in the playoffs and will need to improve quickly if they are to have any chance of reaching the World Cup finals. A relatively strong finish to qualifying, with three wins in their final four games, should give the team and their fans a slither of hope of reaching Qatar.
The favourites to make it through this path will be the Welsh, despite the incredibly competitive nature of this path. The Welsh will have confidence in their attacking ability allowing them to overcome the weakest defence in the playoffs, and if they reach the final, they will be confident of beating the strong defences of either Scotland or Ukraine. However, as we go into these fixtures all the sides involved will have the belief they can qualify, while many British fans will be excited about a Celtic nation final showdown.
Russia were incredibly close to gaining an automatic qualification, however, a loss to Croatia in their last game prevented this and now the side must dust themselves down and get ready for a tough semi-final. Prior to their home World Cup in 2018, there was little expectation or belief in their national team from their fans, although their great performance in this tournament and their competitive show in the 2020 Euros have radically changed this feeling. Similar to many teams in the playoffs, Russia have been strong defensively, conceding only six goals, and will look to utilise this strength in the semi-final against a free-scoring Polish side to set up a potential final against Sweden or the Czech Republic. The Russians have created little in the way of clear goal scoring opportunities and, given the strong defences they will face, this will need addressing prior to March, otherwise, they risk not qualifying for Qatar.
The Poles overcame a challenging group including the 2020 European finalists, England, solid Albanians and the determined Hungarians. The Polish have qualified for the last three consecutive international tournaments and would like to make this their fourth. Poland scored the most goals out of the sides left in the playoffs, scoring an impressive 30 goals throughout the campaign. The Polish attack is spearheaded by the world-class talent of Robert Lewandowski, with his presence providing any team that Poland faces a conundrum. The team will look to remain rigid at the back while using their attacking ability along with Lewandowski’s potency in front of goal to secure the necessary two wins in the playoffs. An away trip to St. Petersburg will not be easy, however, with the ability the squad possesses, they and their fans should be confident about their potential to progress to Qatar.
Going into the final two fixtures of the campaign the Swedish side would qualify automatically by taking four points against Georgia and Spain, however, they lost these two fixtures and must now contend with these playoff fixtures to reach Qatar. The Swedes were disappointed with how they crashed out of Euro 2020 after their shock defeat to Ukraine and now, following their poor end to this stage of the qualifying campaign, they need to right their wrongs. Sweden are a team that always sets up well tactically. They limit their opponents’ possession in central areas, forcing them to cross from wide areas usually to no avail due to the defensive solidity of Victor Lindelof and Joakim Nilsson; then making the most of the pace of Alexander Isak and the talent of Dejan Kulusevski through counter-attacks. The Swedish are arguably expecting to be the favourites to achieve the World Cup spot through this path and will want to embark on their fourth consecutive major international tournament in Qatar come 2022.
The side finished third in their qualifying group behind Belgium and Wales. They’ll be hoping to improve upon their performances and can look back upon their Euros campaign as inspiration in the hope of making it to Qatar. The Czechs were a surprise package in the 2020 Euros, reaching the quarter-finals thanks to impressive performances, with Patrik Schick and Tomáš Souček shining brightly within the side. The team will look to their strong defensive shape that can sit deep and absorb pressure from the opposition, then breaking at pace or defending higher up the pitch to impose high pressure upon their opposition depending on the scenario. The Czechs primarily like to utilise the half-space to bring about crossing opportunities to score their goals. The Czechs will have to overcome Sweden, and with their ability to cause an upset and perform against the odds, they have every chance of reaching the World Cup.
The Swedish will be slight favourites in this pathway to the World Cup final, however, all the nations will have full belief in their ability to win their fixtures. The Polish and Russian fans will be well aware of their long and incredibly troubled history; desperate for their team to win this fixture and take their nation to Qatar. The Czechs will have faith in their ability to cause an upset against the slight favourites Sweden but will need to be at their best. This path to the World Cup will be an intriguing watch as all the sides are well matched and will be confident of competing in Qatar.
The Italians went through the campaign unbeaten playing attractive, free-flowing and attacking football yet with defensive solidity. However, the four-time World Cup and reigning European champions have provided a banana peel for their hopes of qualifying. The side will regret winning only one game in their last five, especially their draws with Bulgaria and Northern Ireland as the overwhelming favourites to win the matches. The nation missed out on the last World Cup in Russia due to their inability to overcome Sweden in the playoffs and their last knock-out match in the World Cup was their final win in 2006. Failure to compete in this World Cup is simply unthinkable and unforgivable to the nation’s fans. Roberto Mancini and his squad will be extremely confident about their hopes of qualification due to his extremely strong record as manager (30 wins and only three losses in 46 games), with a trophy to complement this record and the extremely talented players within the squad; Gianluigi Donnarumma, Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne. The Italians should qualify through this route and we can expect to see them in Qatar.
North Macedonia will be huge underdogs going into the playoffs but any side would be foolish to take them lightly. The Germans found this out in their 2-1 defeat in March. The Macedonians recently qualified for their first European Championships in 2020 and will look to qualify for their first World Cup. The lowest-ranked side in the playoffs will go into the semi-final looking to continue their free-scoring form having scored 12 goals in their last four games of the qualifying campaign. This form has emerged due to the shift from a back three with a focus on defence and flank play to a back four with more emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch and taking advantage of their attacking ability. The Macedonian players and fans are well aware of their unlikeliness to qualify through this path due to their trip to Rome to face Italy, but they will go in with every belief of causing an upset in the semi-final.
The Portuguese are the next biggest side in the playoffs and many fans would expect them to qualify. The side is full of talented players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias just to name a few. The 2016 European Championship winners would be expected to win their playoff game and qualify with this talented squad. However, there would be a valid concern surrounding the guaranteed qualification of Portugal through this route. Under the stewardship of Fernando Santos, the Portuguese finally won a major international trophy and have qualified for the knockout phases of the last three tournaments. However, the side’s performances have been nothing to write home about, particularly struggling against average sides like the Republic of Ireland, Hungary and Ukraine. Many sides within this route are better than or of this mediocre standard, and so we may need to resign to the fact that Portugal will not be at the finals in Qatar unless there is a vast improvement. Portugal have gone about achieving results through the individual attacking brilliance of their squad due to the defensive nature under Santos, yet their attacking talents have not flourished in their recent round of fixtures. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the players’ form or a change of tactics come March, Portugal may not qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France.
Turkey have qualified for the playoffs through an incredibly difficult group containing the Netherlands, a strong and youthful Norway and a tricky Montenegro. The Turks went into the 2020 Euros as the dark horse due to their impressive dismantling of the Dutch but, given the terrible performances that ensued, the interest and intrigue soon disappeared. The Turkish side are still a strong and dangerous side for anyone to face. The team are very direct in their style, attacking at pace and attempting to expose the space. The utilisation of their impressive target man Burak Yilmaz and attacking talents of Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Cengiz Ünder will be key to their success. The Turkish side have the second weakest defence from the sides that remain in the playoffs having conceded 16 goals in ten games and will need to improve upon this considering they are facing a strong Portugal side in the semi-final. Turkey will be looking to redeem themselves after their poor Euros campaign and will hope to change perceptions of the team in Qatar, reigniting the interest that once was.
At least one of the previous two European champions will not be in the 2022 World Cup. The Italians will be favourites to reach Qatar through this pathway, however, the Portuguese will believe in their ability to defeat them. The Turkish would want to take revenge following their embarrassing 3-0 defeat in Euro 2020, and the Macedonians will believe in their ability to overcome the odds. The Italians will believe in their ability to qualify through this path but will face determined opponents.
The playoffs are incredibly competitive and exciting for the fans of the countries involved and the neutrals, particularly in Path 3. The Italians, Swedish and the Welsh go into these playoffs as the favourites to make the finals through their prospective paths, but the Portuguese will have the belief they can overcome their opponents while the Scottish and Czechs have strong sides and a great opportunity to pull off a major surprise come March, and reach Qatar achieving the dream for all of their players, staff and fans.
Written by Brendan McGilligan
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