World Cup Bubble Watch: Japan becomes fourth nation to qualify

The 2018 World Cup is still over nine months away, but in just 11 weeks, the 32-team field for Russia will be set. Beginning Thursday, qualifying ramps up and hits its home stretch. Crucial group matches and playoff ties will be contested over the coming eight days, then again in early October, and finally in November, when the last 11 spots will be claimed.

But with only three international breaks remaining, 28 of the 32 spots remain up for grabs. That’s a lot. Qualifying is still one big, jumbled mess. So over the next two and a half months, we’ve taken on the task of sorting through the chaos.

Welcome to World Cup Bubble Watch.

Before and after every round of fixtures, we’ll dissect the qualifying landscape, assess the World Cup hopes of the dozens of countries still alive, and break the field down into eight categories – from nations that have already qualified to those long since eliminated and everything in between.

On Thursday, Japan became the fourth team to officially qualify with a 2-0 victory over Australia. And 117 of the 211 FIFA members that entered the 2018 World Cup have been eliminated. That leaves 28 vacant spots for 90 teams.

By our count, heading into the August-September window, 60 of those 90 retain a realistic shot at qualifying. Those 60, and the four categories they occupy, are the bubble. And here’s the bubble breakdown:

Already qualified (4): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan
Making travel reservations (2):
 Germany, Mexico
Feeling optimistic (17): France, Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Italy, England, Belgium, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, USA, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt
On the bubble (19): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Ireland, Croatia, Iceland, Turkey, Ukraine, Ecuador, Panama, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Senegal, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Australia, Saudi Arabia
Fretting (22): Netherlands, Czech Republic, Wales, Austria, Montenegro, Denmark, Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peru, Paraguay, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Cameroon, Algeria, Gabon, Morocco, Uganda, Ghana, New Zealand

[MORE: The 33 most important qualifiers of the window, and how to watch them]

(Getty Images)

Now, to dive in further…

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: Six of 10 group games have been played. Matchdays 7 and 8 in August/September, Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Playoffs in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Russia (host)

Making travel reservations (1)

Germany — The Germans haven’t dropped points, and in winning their six Group C games, they’ve accumulated a goal differential of 26. Northern Ireland is five points behind in second and the Czech Republic is nine points behind in third. Germany could potentially qualify with wins over the Czechs and Norway.

Feeling optimistic (8)

France — Group A is a minefield, but France has navigated it reasonably well. It’s tied on 13 points with Sweden, while the Dutch lurk on 10. So why are the French in the “feeling optimistic” category while the Swedes are on the bubble? Simple: they’re a much better team. Even if they don’t win the group, they’ll be heavy favorites in a two-leg playoff.

Switzerland and Portugal — The Swiss are the only other European side perfect thus far, but Portugal is only three points behind in Group B, with a far superior goal differential, and with a home game against Switzerland on the final matchday. (The Swiss won the first meeting back September 2016 in Basel). Both are in good shape, because both will finish top-two and the runner-up will be favored in its playoff. But there is still work to do.

Poland — The Poles are six points clear atop a weak Group E, and if they get a result at Denmark on Friday, they can start booking hotels in Russia.

England — Two points ahead of Slovakia and three ahead of Slovenia, England has to like its chances to top Group F. It travels to Malta, then gets the Slovaks at Wembley on Sept. 4. Six points would all but lock up a berth.

Spain and Italy — The two European giants drew 1-1 in Turin last October, and have been flawless against the rest of Group G since. They meet in Madrid on Saturday, essentially with a secure spot in Russia on the line. The loser, though, will go to a playoff that it’ll be expected to win.

Belgium — Four points separate Belgium and second-place Greece in Group H. The only worry for Roberto Martinez’s side is that it already drew the Greeks at home in March. The Belgians travel to the banks of the Aegean Sea on Sept. 3 for the return fixture, and if they get beaten, there’ll be slight worry, especially with a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina on the horizon in October. But they should be fine.

On the bubble (8)

Sweden — Level with France, but only one home game remaining. And one of the three road trips is to Amsterdam on the final matchday. Sweden is smack dab on the bubble.

Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland has conceded just two goals in six games, both to Germany in a 2-0 away defeat. It has little hope of catching the Germans, but is four points up on the Czechs – whom it gets at home on Sept. 4 – for a playoff place. And its FIFA ranking of 23 could see it seeded for the playoff draw. Northern Irish World Cup dreams are very real.

Serbia and Ireland — Tied atop Group D on 12 points, and with a showdown looming on Sept. 4 in Dublin. Both are four points clear of third place, and therefore seemingly in good shape for at least a playoff berth. But either would likely be an underdog in that playoff.

CroatiaIcelandTurkey and Ukraine — Croatia and Iceland sit on 13 points. Turkey and Ukraine sit on 11. Group I is in desperate need of some separation, and it could get it during this window. There are three matches between the four nations – Ukraine vs. Turkey on Matchday 7, and Iceland vs. Ukraine and Turkey vs. Croatia on Matchday 8. We’ll hopefully have clarity and movement by next Wednesday.

Fretting (11)

Netherlands — Three points back of two teams, and with those two teams already having played each other twice. The Dutch need at least a draw in France on Thursday, and will probably need some help further down the line. But they’re certainly capable of stringing together a few wins and streaking into the playoffs.

Czech Republic — The Czechs need to make up four points on Northern Ireland just to make the playoffs, and have a do-or-die pair of fixtures upcoming: home against Germany on Sept. 1, and at Northern Ireland on Sept. 4. They must win one of the two, and preferably the one in Belfast.

Wales and Austria — They need one of Serbia or Ireland to slump, and need to start winning themselves. But only one can, because they’ll take the pitch opposite each other in Cardiff on Saturday. If there’s a loser, that team will be hanging on for dear life.

Montenegro and Denmark — Neither will make up a six-point gap and catch Poland. One will almost certainly take second in Group E, but remember, only eight of the nine runners-up qualify for the playoffs. With 10 points, Montenegro is currently ninth of the nine.

Slovakia and Slovenia — Slovenia has extracted six of its 11 points from the ever-so-benevolent Malta. Slovakia has won six of its 12 off Lithuania. The two will clash in Slovakia on Friday, but the winner merely has an inside track to underdog status in the playoffs. Sure, England’s grip on first place is somewhat tenuous, but it’s tough to see either of the Eastern European nations surpassing the Three Lions.

Scotland — While Slovakia and Slovenia duke it out, and while the Slovaks travel to Wembley, Scotland gets its golden opportunity in the form of matches against Lithuania and Malta. There’s an outside chance six points could vault the Scots all the way into second place. At the very least, two wins would put them within shouting distance of a playoff place.

Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — The issue for sides like Greece and Bosnia is that, although they appear to be on the bubble at first glance, they are battling for second place. Let’s say that battle is 50/50. Then, even if we give the winner a 50 percent chance in the playoff – probably generous – each has a 25 percent chance to qualify.

Dreams fading (5): Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Romania, Armenia, Cyprus
Still alive, but only technically (14): Belarus, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra, Moldova, Norway, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Albania, Israel, Estonia, Gibraltar

SOUTH AMERICA

World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania.
Status: 14 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 15 on Aug. 31, Matchday 16 on Sept. 5, Matchday 17 on Oct. 5, Matchday 18 on Oct. 10. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Brazil

Feeling optimistic (4)

Colombia — The Colombians trail only Brazil in the table, but are closer to eighth-place Paraguay than the pace-setting Brazilians. They’re at the forefront of a cluster of five teams within four points of each other, and only four of the five can make the World Cup. Colombia is the most likely of the five to qualify, but outside of Brazil, nothing in CONMEBOL is guaranteed.

Uruguay — The Uruguayans will probably be without Luis Suarez for clashes with Argentina and Paraguay. They enter the window in an advantageous position, but can’t afford to drop both matches.

Chile — The Chileans are significantly more comfortable than they were a week ago. That’s because at this time last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was deliberating over a 2016 FIFA ruling that had gifted Chile two points. A 0-0 draw in Bolivia became a 3-0 win because the Bolivians had fielded an ineligible player. In March, the Bolivian FA appealed to CAS, but the initial ruling was upheld on Tuesday. So Chile heads into matchups with Paraguay and Bolivia on 23 points, level with Uruguay and one ahead of Argentina.

Argentina — Speaking of appeals … Lionel Messi won his, got his four-match ban overturned, and will be available to face Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday. The Argentineans currently sit fifth, and face a grueling trip to Ecuador on the final matchday. But their next three games are winnable, and even if they settle for the playoff place, they’ll waltz around New Zealand.

On the bubble (1)

Ecuador — The Ecuadorians are just barely on the outside looking in at the moment, and still must travel to Brazil and Chile. But all it takes is one upset and one slip-up from any of the four teams directly ahead of them.

Fretting (2)

Peru and Paraguay — Four points (and Ecuador) separate Peru and Paraguay from fifth. That’s not an insurmountable deficit. But it’s not one that’s likely to be surmounted either.

If qualifying ended today, Lionel Messi and Argentina would be forced to win a playoff or miss out on the World Cup. (Getty)

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: Six of 10 “Hex” games have been played. Matchdays 7 and 8 in September, Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Making travel reservations (1)

Mexico — Mexico can officially qualify on Friday with a win and a Honduras loss or draw at Trinidad and Tobago.

Feeling optimistic (2)

Costa Rica — The Ticos might not be booking flights just yet, but they’re researching options. The only thing giving them pause is the fixture list, which presents them with the U.S. and Mexico four days apart. If they can beat either of the two CONCACAF giants, they’re in outstanding shape. Even if they can’t, there’s no need to panic.

USA — With both Mexico matches out of the way, the U.S. is in great shape, despite being just one point above fourth place. Simply taking care of business at home – against Costa Rica on Friday, and then against Panama in October – might be enough. The Yanks’ performance under Bruce Arena has assuaged all early concerns.

On the bubble (1)

Panama — The definition of “on the bubble.” One behind the U.S. for direct qualification, two ahead of Honduras for the playoff spot.

Fretting (2)

Honduras — It’s been a stressful and disappointing campaign for the Honduras so far, but the Hex is so forgiving. One win changes the landscape.

Trinidad and Tobago — Three points from six games, and no improvement in sight. Again, a win or two drastically changes the conversation, but it’s not looking good for T&T.

AFRICA

World Cup berths: 5
Structure (current round only): Five groups of four. Winners qualify directly.
Status: Two of six games have been played. Matchdays 3 and 4 in August/September, Matchday 5 in October, Matchday 6 in November.
Table | Fixtures

Feeling optimistic (3)

Nigeria — The Nigerians have taken their Group of Death by storm, beating Zambia and Algeria while Cameroon could only pick up two draws. The final round of African qualification is a sprint, and a four-point lead out of the blocks is massive.

Ivory Coast — The Ivorians were the only team in Group C to win a game on the first two matchdays. They sit atop that group with not only a two-point advantage, but also a talent advantage, and appear to be on their way to a fourth straight World Cup.

Egypt — Four years ago, under American boss Bob Bradley, Egypt won all but one of its World Cup qualifiers … and still didn’t make the 32-team field. After that abomination, CAF altered its qualification structure to all but prevent a repeat, and the new format is treating Egypt well. The Pharaohs have won two of two, and are already five points ahead of Ghana – who, ironically, was the team that dumped Egypt out in the playoffs four year ago. Unless something goes terribly wrong, the Egyptians seem destined for their first World Cup in 28 years.

On the bubble (5)

Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia — Both took six points from a possible six to open Group A. But only one can go to the World Cup. The first of two showdowns is Sept. 1 in Tunisia. The other is four days later. Buckle up.

Burkina Faso, South Africa and Senegal — Burkina Faso and South Africa are on four points. Senegal is on three. Group D is very much still up for grabs.

Fretting (6)

Cameroon and Algeria — That Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria are all in the same group is ridiculous. All three appeared at each of the last two World Cups. Yet the draw (and the format) guaranteed that two will miss out this time around, and Cameroon and Algeria are already in four- and five-point holes, respectively.

Gabon and Morocco — Both are on two points, with the Ivory Coast on four.

Uganda — Surprisingly, the top challenger to Egypt in Group E.

Ghana — Ghana hasn’t missed a World Cup since 2002. If that streak is to continue, the Black Stars probably have to win out, and even then, they’ll need either Uganda or the Congo to win points off Egypt.

Dreams fading (6): Guinea, Libya, Zambia, Mali, Cape Verde Islands, Republic of the Congo

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: Eight of 10 games have been played. Matchdays 9 and 10 in August/September. Intracontinental playoff in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Iran, Japan

On the bubble (4)

South Korea — The Koreans are on 13 points. Uzbekistan is on 12. One of the two will likely be the second team out of Group A. The Koreans play already-qualified Iran at home on Thursday before traveling West for a showdown with the Uzbeks on Sept. 5.

Uzbekistan — Uzbekistan has a perfectly average qualification record: Won four, lost four, scored six, conceded six. And somehow, if it just keeps that up, there’s a chance it could qualify for its first ever World Cup. AFC qualifying is remarkably easy.

Saudi Arabia and Australia — Tied on 16 points in Group B with one match to go, Saudi Arabia and Australia have everything to play for. The Saudis blew their penultimate game, losing 2-1 to UAE on Tuesday. But they get the already-qualified Japanese in their final match, while the Aussies – who lost to Japan on Thursday – get hapless Thailand down under. Australia is currently two down on goal differential, but if both teams win and Australia makes up the two goals, some complex tiebreaker scenarios could come into play.

Dreams fading (1): Syria
Still alive, but only technically (3): Qatar, China, UAE

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 and Solomon Islands won the two groups. Intracontinental playoff in September. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Fretting (1)

New Zealand — The Kiwis will in all likelihood trounce Solomon Islands. But how do you like their chances against Argentina? Or Chile? Or Uruguay?

Still alive, but only technically (1): Solomon Islands

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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.