Reigning World Cup champions Germany have demonstrated top form in the qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, winning their first three matches without conceding a goal for the first time in the history of European and World Cup tournaments. While France defeated rivals Netherlands, Spain and Italy are marching in step. England caused a stir with discussions about Wayne Rooney, while Iceland achieved further good results.
The qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia has accelerated worldwide. While some favourites are on the way to missing out on participation, the reigning World Cup champions are presenting themselves in brilliant form. Germany have totally convinced in their so far three encounters. The result: three matches, three victories, eight goals – and a record. Never before in tournament qualifications has a DFB team achieved three wins without conceding a single goal. After the 2-0 win over Northern Ireland – previously Norway and the Czech Republic (3-0 respectively) had being given no chance against the champions – German national coach Joachim Loew was quite happy: “So far we have solved our tasks very well.”
Though the dream start did not trigger great emotions, even the officials felt that the team appears to have gained consistency and concision compared to the European Championship qualification. The German team appeared to lose a bit of their single-mindedness after winning the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro – now they are again presenting themselves motivated and dangerous. Thomas Mueller has regained his instinct for goals; the star of FC Bayern Munich has already scored four times in the current qualification thus shooting Germany to the top in Group C, ahead of Azerbaijan (7 points) and Northern Ireland (4). Sami Khedira, who like Mueller shone as goalscorer against Northern Ireland, returned to his club Juventus Turin totally happy: “We were very focused and aggressive. I think we can be happy with our performance”.
The position in their group is currently more cause for confidence in Khedira’s sporting homeland Italy than their style of play under the new national coach Giampiero Ventura, 68. The solid 3-1 opening victory in Israel was followed by a 1-1 draw with, for 60 minutes, an alarmingly dominant Spain, and a lucky 3-2 win in Macedonia, ascertained with two late goals from Ciro Immobile, thus preventing a disgrace against the 146th-ranked country in the world. As the Spanish team, coached by Julen Lopetegui, won 2-0 in Albania, the expected duel for the only direct ticket to Russia is already fully underway. Bayern Munich’s Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti encouraged his fellow-countrymen and coaching colleague Ventura: “Of course the team had problems against Macedonia, but they fought and won. That’s what counts in such a period of change”, he told “Gazzetta dello Sport”, adding: “They can still compete with Spain for the qualification. And then there are, of course, the play-offs“.
After three matches the Netherlands already face the shame of another elimination. After a 1-0 defeat by France the Dutch (4 points) are in third place in Group A, behind France and Sweden (7 points each). After failing to qualify for EURO 2016, Oranje are threatened with failure again. Following their first defeat in a World Cup qualifier for 15 years their worries are substantial, although the necessary rejuvenation is making progress. The Netherlands played without one of their veteran stars such as Sneijder, Van Persie, Van der Vaart and Robben for the first time in 14 years.
Switzerland are heading Group B with nine points – thanks to a shaky 2-1 win in Andorra. European champions Portugal (6) kept in touch with an easy 6-0 in the Faroe Islands and proved that they have promising talent - 20-year-old André Silva achieved a hat-trick in the first half. The FC Porto striker has now recorded four goals in his three international matches.
Silva has thus scored more goals than England in their past three matches. However, the Three Lions are leading Group F, with 7 points and 3-0 goals, from Lithuania and Slovenia (5 points each). But not everything is quiet on the Isle. The sacking of coach Sam Allardyce, after he made several controversial statements in a secretly filmed interview, was followed by discussions about captain Wayne Rooney. Interim coach Gareth Southgate had sent him on late during the goalless draw with Slovenia. Previously Rooney had even been booed off the field during the 2-0 win against Malta. Despite leaving him on the bench Southgate stands behind the 30-year-old: “The pressure on him is immense, the criticism of him sometimes unfair. He continues slogging away and is a proud captain”.
Iceland, the conquerors of England at the European Championship, attracted further attention, though for positive reasons. After an opening 1-1 draw with Ukraine, a memorable 3-2 last-minute victory over Finland was followed by a safe 2-0 over Turkey. The men who enjoy the support of international fans are second behind Croatia (7 points each) in the strong Group I. Ukraine (5) hold third place, while Turkey (2) might only dream of the tournament in Russia.
The battle for World Cup tickets has also fully broken out in South America. Only Brazil with 21 points from ten matches have so far presented themselves superior. Uruguay (20) are not far behind, but then follow endangered countries: Ecuador and Columbia (17 each) are currently in the remaining two direct qualification places. World Cup runners-up Argentina (16) hold fifth position which ascertains a play-off place. After ten of altogether 18 matches Paraguay (15) and Copa America champions Chile (14) could not qualify.