I have a confession to make. I’m excited for this international break. I know, I know, international breaks are supposed to be the red-headed step-child of the soccer calendar. They’re the weekends that many dread and hope to get through as quick as possible.
That’s never more true than for the first weekend of September international break. The one that comes three games into the Premier League season and right after the transfer window closes, when fans just want to see their team’s new signees in action. But not this time with the start of World Cup qualifying in Europe, which gets underway Sunday.
One of the good things that came out of the expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams was that we learned there are about 20 quality teams in Europe, and that’s not including the Netherlands who failed to qualify for the Euros. But not all of those 20 teams will be going to Russia for the World Cup.
Those 20 teams will be competing for just 13 spots. As usual, all the teams in UEFA will be divided into nine groups, with only the top finisher securing qualification to Russia. The eight best runners-up will go to the playoffs. With such little room for error, every game looms large.
Let’s take a look at some of the big matches from the first round of qualifying.
Group F: Slovakia vs. England (12:00 p.m. Sunday – ESPN3)
Each of the qualifying groups have two favorites to battle it out at the top and these are the two teams from Group F. With such little margin for error, these “six-pointers,” could very well be the difference between a trip to Russia or a trip to the playoffs. This is one of the two biggest games in all of qualifying for England and it could not come at a worse time. There are so many questions surrounding England, who will be playing their first game under new manager Sam Allardyce. How will England line up, who will play, where will Wayne Rooney fit on the field? All these are legitimate questions. To make matters worse, pretty much every player on England not named Raheem Sterling enters this game on some pretty poor form. At the end of the end of the day, England should have enough to get a result. It may not be the ideal result, but it will be enough. 1-1 draw
Group D: Wales vs. Maldova (2:45 p.m. Monday – ESPN3)
It’s amazing how football works. The Euros were the first major tournament that Wales qualified for in more than 50 years and they advanced all the way to the semifinals. Now, anything but failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will be seen as a major failure.
Wales is the favorite to advance out of their group, but will be challenged by Austria and the Republic of Ireland. The one thing they’ll have to look out for is missing Aaron Ramsey in this one. Ramsey was a vital piece in their run to the semifinals and they fell apart when he was suspended for the semifinal against Portugal. Still, this is Maldova, having Gareth Bale and playing at home will be enough for them. Wales win 3-0
Group D: Serbia vs. Republic of Ireland (2:45 p.m. Monday – ESPN3)
The Republic of Ireland are not favorites to advance out of this group, but usurping Austria for the second spot is certainly possible. After seeing the Irish fans in France I think everyone is rooting for the Irish to make it to Russia. The Irish just said goodbye to long-time captain Robbie Keane and will need to find someone to fill the scoring void that he’s going to leave.
If the Irish are going to jump over Austria or even Wales, getting the maximum points in the games against everyone else is vital. They’ll get a good start against a tough Serbian side. Ireland win 2-1
Group I: Ukraine vs. Iceland (2:45 p.m. Monday)
Iceland were the darlings of the Euros, but don’t forget they just missed qualifying for the 2014 World Cup when they lost in the playoffs to Croatia. Now there is chance to get back, but they’ll have their work cut out for them in a group that includes the Ukraine and 2014 foe Croatia. This will be one of the tougher matches they have, and getting any kind of result would be massive for them. 1-1 draw
Group B: Switzerland vs. Portugal (2:45 p.m. Tuesday)
There will be no honeymoon for the European champions, who open their World Cup qualifying schedule with their toughest match of the campaign. The question is, will we see Portugal utilize the depth of their attacking talent, or will they play the same boring defensive game they played at the Euros? If it’s the latter, and it likely will be because why fix what isn’t broken, we’ll be in for a pretty boring affair between both teams who love to play defense and don’t score many goals. That’s a recipe for a 0-0 draw.