By Charlie Ryan
World Cup qualifying finally came to a close last weekend, featuring playoff clashes across Africa, Europe, North America, and Oceania. As the pack completed its last phase of trimming, let’s take a look at which countries punched their ticket to Russia next summer.
Croatia Breeze by Greece
Croatia sealed their World Cup berth in dominant fashion, crushing Greece at home in the first leg 4-1, and grinding out a 0-0 draw in Athens. Captain Luka Modric led the Croatian charge, winning 26 duels and six tackles, completing seven long balls, and converting from the penalty spot early in the first leg. The Greek defense looked hollow and rudderless, shipping three goals in just 33 minutes of the first leg of the playoff—half of the amount of goals conceded in 10 group stage matches. Croatia continued their supremacy in Zagreb, improving to 18 wins and three draws in their last 21 matches, scoring 47 and only conceding six in that span. After failing to advance past the group stages in 2014, the pressure will be on for this aging yet Croatian side to deliver next summer on the world’s biggest stage.
Defensive Masterclass Sends Sweden to Russia
For the first time since 1968, Italy will not be attending the World Cup. The Azzurri were unable to overcome the one-goal deficit from the first leg in Stockholm, and found themselves leaving the San Siro pitch empty-handed, suffering a goalless draw at the hand of an impermeable Swedish side. Ciro Immobile did not translate his superb form for Lazio into goals for the national side, and the midfield looked disjointed and lackluster over both legs. Boneheaded tactical decisions from Italy boss Giampiero Ventura, like slotting Lorenzo Insigne, the Serie A’s most prolific winger, into midfield with 15 minutes to play in the first leg and then outright refusing to play him at all in the second, proved costly. Monday’s draw concluded the international career of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, whose joviality and leadership will be dearly missed on the biggest of stages next summer. But to ignore Sweden’s outstanding performances over both legs would be to miss half the story. Janne Anderson’s men delivered tactically-sound, highly organized, and gritty performances at home and away, and were fully deserving of their qualification, proving themselves to be much greater than the sum of their parts.
Morocco Cap Stellar Campaign with Win over Côte d’Ivoire
“How stupid can you be to choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?” Marco van Basten asked of Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech in 2016. A year later, Ziyech and Morocco punched their ticket to the World Cup while the Netherlands failed to qualify for their second successive major tournament. Goals from Fenerbahce fullback Nabil Dirar and Juventus center back Medhi Benatia on Saturday cemented Morocco’s first-place finish atop Group C and return to the tournament after a 20 year hiatus. The Atlas Lions averaged about two goals per game and conceded none, posting the best defensive record in all of AFCON qualification. Morocco will join Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia in Russia next summer, marking the first time in history four Arab nations will compete in a World Cup together.