World Cup Bubble Watch: Entering the home stretch

Argentina and Chile are both in danger of missing the World Cup. (Getty)

World Cup Decision Day is not quite upon us. But it is lurking, encroaching on hope around the globe, provoking crippling anxiety. World Cup qualifying is about to hurtle down its home stretch, and when it does, it will be exhilarating. It will also be frightening.

Eighty-two matches will be played between Thursday, Oct. 5, and Tuesday, Oct. 10. When the dust settles, at least 21 nations will have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The dreams of at least 19 others will have been dashed in the six-day span. Anywhere between 15 and 27 hopefuls could remain just that: hopeful.

Or, if you prefer, they could remain somewhere on the bubble.

[VIEWER’S GUIDE: The most important October qualifiers, and how to watch them]

That bubble currently comprises 59 nations. Eight others have already qualified, so the 59 are vying for 24 remaining invitations to the World Cup next summer.

By our count, six of those 59 are near certainties. Ten of the 59 are extreme long shots. That leaves us with 43 teams for 18 spots, and with the following bubble breakdown:

Already qualified (8): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia
Making travel reservations (6): Germany, France, Spain, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica
Feeling optimistic (10): Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Serbia, Colombia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt
On the bubble (12): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, Turkey, Argentina, Peru, Chile, USA, Panama, Honduras
Fretting (21): Netherlands, Wales, Ireland, Denmark, Montenegro, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Scotland, Slovakia, Paraguay, Gabon, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco, Senegal , Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Uganda, Australia, Syria, New Zealand
Dreams fading (6): Cyprus, Bulgaria , Slovenia, Ecuador, Ghana, South Africa
All but eliminated (4): Albania, Austria, Trinidad and Tobago, Mali

Now, for some breakdowns of the breakdown …

EUROPE

World Cup berths: 13 (plus host)
Structure: Nine groups of six. Each group winner qualifies directly. Eight best runners-up go into playoffs for final four spots.
Status: Eight of 10 group games have been played. Matchdays 9 and 10 Thursday through Tuesday. Playoffs in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Russia (host), Belgium

Making travel reservations (4)

Germany — Eight wins in eight, 35 goals scored, two conceded. A point away from Russia. If the Germans don’t get that point in Northern Ireland on Thursday, they’ll get it against Azerbaijan Sunday.

FranceLes Bleus somehow failed to beat Luxembourg at home on Matchday 8, meaning they’ll travel to Bulgaria on Saturday knowing dropped points would likely mean a drop in the Group A standings. Sweden sits just one point back, and plays Luxembourg the same day. But France has Belarus next Tuesday, while Sweden concludes group play in Amsterdam. Oh, and by the way, France is the most talented team in the world. It would be heavily favored in a playoff, should the campaign come to that.

Spain — A three-point lead in Group G and a plus-29 goal differential effectively have Spain one win away from Russia. It should get that win Friday at home against Albania.

England — The Three Lions are five points clear in Group F. Triumph over either Slovenia (Thursday) or Lithuania (Sunday) will be enough.

Feeling optimistic (5)

Switzerland and Portugal — All Group B roads lead to Lisbon. Provided both contenders win on Saturday – the Swiss host Hungary, Portugal plays at Andorra – the two will meet for a winner-goes-to-Russia showdown on Tuesday at the Estadio da Luz in the Portuguese capital. A draw would punch Switzerland’s ticket. Whichever nation doesn’t qualify directly will go to the playoffs.

Serbia — The Serbs opened up a four-point gap at the top of Group D with a 1-0 win in Ireland on Matchday 8. One more victory will be enough, but neither Austria (Friday) nor Georgia (Sunday) will be a pushover. Even if disaster strikes, though, the Serbs are guaranteed at least a second-place finish.

Poland — Poland can clinch with four points from its last two games – at Armenia (Thursday), vs. Montenegro (Sunday). Anything less would open the door for either Montenegro or Denmark, both of whom lay in wait three points back, and with superior goal differentials.

Italy — Barring a Spain collapse, Italy is heading to the playoffs from Group H. And at No. 17 in the FIFA Rankings, the Italians will almost certainly be seeded for those playoffs.

On the bubble (6)

Sweden — Sweden’s range of possible outcomes is expansive. It could qualify directly with two wins and a France slip-up. It could also be eliminated with a slip-up of its own against Luxembourg (Saturday) and a loss to the Dutch (Tuesday). But working in the Swedes’ favor is goal differential. Theirs is plus-11. Holland’s is plus-5. So if Sweden were to beat Luxembourg 3-0 and the Dutch were to win 1-0 in Belarus on Matchday 9, the Dutch would have to beat Sweden by four goals on Matchday 10. Anything less would probably send the Swedes to the playoffs.

Northern Ireland — Five victories and five clean sheets on the trot have Northern Ireland all but assured of a playoff place, and within touching distance of Germany. But a win over the Germans on Thursday would only mean something if Die Mannschaft went on to lose to Azerbaijan on Sunday as well. So the Northern Irish can probably start gearing up for two massive games in November.

Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey — Group I was a mess heading into Matchday 7. It was a mess going into Matchday 8. And – you’re not going to believe this – it’s still a mess heading into Matchday 9! So we’ll save the in-depth breakdown for the next edition of Bubble Watch, slated for Saturday afternoon. But here’s what you need to know for now …

Croatia and Iceland lead the group on 16 points. Ukraine and Turkey are on 14. Each of the four has one match against either Finland or Kosovo remaining, and one against a fellow contender. Turkey hosts Iceland on Thursday. Ukraine hosts Croatia on Sunday. So in all likelihood, this will come down to the final matchday.

Fretting (9)

Netherlands — The Dutch not only have to win both of their matches – at Belarus (Saturday), vs. Sweden (Tuesday) – just to stay alive. They probably have to make up six goals on Sweden in the process. The three late goals conceded to France in a 4-0 defeat on Matchday 7 could prove costly.

Wales and Ireland — With Serbia four points clear in Group D, the Welsh and Irish are likely battling for a playoff place. And they should get to ride into battle opposite each other on Monday in Cardiff. If both take care of business on Friday – Wales at Georgia, Ireland vs. Moldova – Ireland would need to pilfer all three points in Wales on Matchday 10. But Wales will arrive at the battlefield without its general, Gareth Bale, who’s been ruled out for both October games with a calf strain.

Montenegro and Denmark — We’re all about wacky tiebreaker scenarios here at World Cup Bubble Watch, so how about this one: Montenegro and Denmark are almost perfectly level in Group E. Each has 16 points. Each has played eight, won five, drawn one, lost two. Each has scored 18 goals and conceded seven. So what’s standing in the way of lots-drawing?

First of all, Montenegro’s 1-0 win over Denmark on Matchday 3. But let’s say the Danes get revenge with a 1-0 victory on Thursday. Let’s then say they lose to Romania 1-0 on Sunday, while Montenegro beats Poland 1-0. The two countries would be deadlocked on each of the first six tiebreaking criteria. The seventh is discipline: One point for a yellow card, two for a second yellow, four for a straight red, and the team with fewer points goes through.

So where do Montenegro and Denmark stand here? One point apart! The Danes have picked up nine yellows. The Montenegrins have picked up 10. Neither team has been shown a red. So if Denmark earned one more yellow than Montenegro over the two matches … LOTS!

Scotland and Slovakia — These two square off at Hampden Park on Thursday. With Slovenia (14 points, tied with Scotland, one behind Slovakia) playing at Wembley the same day, the winner in Glasgow should be in the driver’s seat for second place. But Scotland travels to Slovenia on Sunday, while Slovakia hosts Malta. So behind England, Group F is still a crapshoot.

Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — Bosnia hosts already-qualified Belgium in Sarajevo on Saturday. Anything less than a win puts Greece – with matches against Cyprus and Gibraltar remaining – in the driver’s seat for a playoff place.

But this is a good place for a note that not only pertains to Greece and Bosnia, but also to Scotland, Slovenia and Slovakia, to Wales and Ireland, to Montenegro and Denmark, and even to Sweden and Holland: Not every runner-up has a playoff place reserved for it. Only eight of the nine do. The second-placed side with the lowest point total, excluding games against last-place teams , is excluded and eliminated. Even if Greece jumps Bosnia in Group H, it could end up being the odd one out.

The situation is complicated, but a handy table of second-place teams can be found here.

Dreams fading (3): Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovenia
Still alive, but only technically (2): Albania, Austria

SOUTH AMERICA

World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania (New Zealand).
Status: 16 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 17 on Thursday, Matchday 18 on Tuesday. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Brazil

Making travel reservations (1)

Uruguay — Uruguay is one win away from Russia, and its final two fixtures are against the two worst teams in South America, Venezuela (Thursday) and Bolivia (Tuesday). It would take a disaster to ruin plans for next summer.

Feeling optimistic (1)

Colombia — The Colombians are virtually one win away, but their remaining fixtures are less kind. A home match vs. desperate Paraguay on Thursday is far from a gimme. A Tuesday trip to red-hot Peru is downright tough. If the carnage of Matchdays 15 and 16 carries over to 17 and 18, Colombia might be able to sneak into the top four without another win. But it’d be better off not leaving that to chance.

On the bubble (3)

Peru and Argentina — Playoffs excluded, there won’t be a more momentous 2018 World Cup qualifier than the Argentina-Peru clash at La Bombonera on Thursday. The two sides are tied on 24 points for the final direct qualification spot, with Chile lurking one point behind. The Argentines are favored, and the prospect of the 2014 World Cup runners-up missing out on the 2018 edition altogether remains almost unthinkable. But with Peru having won its last three and Argentina having failed to win its last three, Leo Messi and Co. are in a perilous position.

Both Peru and Argentina will have work to do beyond Thursday, regardless of the result in Buenos Aires, and both are in for difficult final exams. Peru hosts Colombia; Argentina travels to Ecuador. But Thursday will be pivotal.

Chile — Worry-ometer readings have reached decade highs in Santiago. All it takes to restore order is one win, and the Chileans get a golden opportunity at home against fading Ecuador on Thursday. But if they can’t pick up three points there, Brazil – and potentially the last gasp for a golden generation – awaits on Tuesday.

Fretting (1)

Paraguay — In seventh and three points below the cut line, Paraguay needs at least a draw at Colombia on Thursday, and surely will need a victory on Tuesday at Venezuela. But even if it can get both, its minus-6 goal differential could stand in between it and Russia 2018.

Dreams fading (1): Ecuador

CONCACAF

World Cup berths: 3.5
Structure (current round only): One group of six. Top three qualify directly. Fourth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Asia.
Status: Eight of 10 “Hex” games have been played. Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Mexico

Making travel reservations (1)

Costa Rica — The Ticos need a lone point over their final two matches to officially qualify. Their flights are booked, and hotel agents are on the line as you read this.

On the bubble (3)

Panama, USA and Honduras — We covered everything here back in early September, and will dive in further later this week. The U.S. is still in the best shape of the three teams, largely due to remaining fixtures. Panama is a close second. Honduras is a close third. Still all to play for.

Still alive, but only technically (1): Trinidad and Tobago

AFRICA

World Cup berths: 5
Structure (current round only): Five groups of four. Winners qualify directly.
Status: Four of six games have been played. Matchday 5 in October, Matchday 6 in November.
Table | Fixtures

Feeling optimistic (4)

Tunisia — In great shape, provided it gets a result from Saturday’s visit to Guinea. If it does, a November win over Libya will send the Tunisians to Russia. Three points or fewer from the final two, however, puts the fate of the current Group A leaders in the hands of second-place Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nigeria — A home win over Zambia on Saturday locks up Nigeria’s bid. A draw and then another draw in November at Algeria do likewise. But a loss would leave the two remaining Group B contenders level, and with everything to play for on Matchday 6.

Ivory Coast — Anything less than a win at Mali on Friday would put the Ivorians in a spot of bother. And with not one but two teams knocking on their door atop Group C scenarios are murky. But Marc Wilmots has as much talent at his disposal as any manager on the continent. It would be a surprise to see Les Elephants botch this.

Egypt — The Pharaohs lead Group E by two points. Ghana lurks four points back, and hosts Egypt on Matchday 6. But the group will be done and dusted, and the finale meaningless, if Uganda fails to beat Ghana on Saturday and Egypt takes care of lowly Congo on Sunday.

Fretting (8)

Democratic Republic of the Congo — They’ll need two wins and some help. But if there’s an African player who can singlehandedly win a game, it’s Naby Keita. Keita plays for Guinea. And DR Congo probably needs Guinea to beat Tunisia.

Zambia — It’s not quite the biggest match in the Zambian soccer history – they did win the African Nations Cup in 2012, after all – but an upset of Nigeria on Saturday would put the Zambians in contention for a first-ever World Cup bid. Can they shock the African giants?

Morocco and Gabon — Gabon did its part by upsetting the Ivory Coast on Matchday 4. Morocco’s draw with Mali kept Group C extremely tight. The two will meet on Saturday in a match that should cut a three-team group down to two.

Uganda — Uganda will almost certainly have to beat Ghana on Saturday. Not impossible, but not likely.

Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, and Senegal — Cape Verde and Burkina Faso are tied atop Group D on six points. But Senegal is the favorite, because … well it’s complicated.

The Senegalese have a game in hand, because the referee who presided over their 2-1 loss to South Africa last November was found guilty of “match manipulation.” The ref was banned for life, the result was subsequently nullified, and a replay scheduled for November. So Senegal will play last-place South Africa twice next month, in addition to its Saturday clash with Cape Verde.

But Senegal still has work to do. So do Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. Group D’s one World Cup berth is very much up for grabs.

Dreams fading (2): Ghana, South Africa
Still alive, but only technically (1): Mali

ASIA

World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure (current round only): Two six-team groups. Top two in each group qualify directly. Third-place teams advance to intracontinental playoff. Winner of playoff advances to continental playoff vs. CONCACAF.
Status: Group play concluded. Australia vs. Syria in the intracontinental playoff in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

Fretting (2)

Australia and Syria — The first leg is Thursday in Malaysia. The second leg is Tuesday in Australia. The Syrians are underdogs, but have been for a while now. The designation hasn’t stopped them from getting this far, so why should it halt them now?

OCEANIA

World Cup berths: 0.5
Structure (current round only): Two three-team groups. Winners advance to intracontinental playoff. Playoff winner advances to intercontinental playoff vs. South America.
Status: New Zealand beat Solomon Islands in the intracontinental playoff. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Fretting (1)

New Zealand — The Kiwis have some down time before the intercontinental playoff. They’ll fill part of it with a friendly against Japan. But they’ll also be rooting for either Peru or Paraguay to finish fifth in CONMEBOL.

Previous editions of Bubble Watch: Aug. 29 | Sept. 2 | Sept. 6

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.