The final international break of the season has been completed with multiple countries from across the globe competing in World Cup qualifiers, play-offs or friendlies.
A swathe of tickets to Qatar were confirmed, and further play-off slots determined. Here are some of the main talking points and takeaways from those matches.
Luis Enrique was facing questions about his future amid speculation around the Manchester United job and the fact that the Asturian is yet to renew his contract with the RFEF.
But his answers were as emphatic as his team’s performances. The national team’s return to Catalonia was a triumphant one with thousands of fans turning out at the RCDE Stadium to see a late winner in La Roja’s 2-1 victory over Albania.
The author of the decisive goal was a Catalan – Dani Olmo, born in Terrassa – and set up by Jordi Alba. Ferran Torres, another link to Barcelona, scored the opener to continue his fine international record (13 goals in 24 caps).
Alvaro Morata was captain on the night and told the comical anecdote about the coin toss. Not realising what he had to do during the pre-game formalities, when the referee showed him the coin, he motioned to take it from him rather than call heads or tails.
The return to Riazor against Iceland was more emphatic, as La Roja won 5-0 courtesy of braces from Morata and Pablo Sarabia along with a first international goal for Yeremy Pino.
Morata has now reached 25 Spain goals in 52 caps, moving him to 8th in the nation’s all-time scoring charts. Moreover, only three men reached the tally of 25 faster than Morata in terms of the number of games. Sarabia’s goals both came off the bench and were both assisted by fellow substitute Marcos Alonso.
Brutal African Qualification
The five decisive play-off second legs took place as African qualification reached the finish line, and it was incredibly dramatic. Of the five ties, one went to a penalty shoot-out, two were decided by away goals, and one other by a single goal. It could barely have been closer.
In Senegal, it was a case of here we go again for the Lions of Teranga as they had to go through a penalty shoot-out against Egypt, just as they had 51 days earlier in the AFCON final.
It was the same result too, with Sadio Mane scoring the winning spot-kick to send his nation to Qatar. But there was controversy with a number of fans shining lasers into the eyes of the Egyptian takers and their goalkeeper. This was only the second time ever that a place at a World Cup was decided by a penalty shoot-out (previously Australia vs Uruguay in the intercontinental play-offs for the 2006 tournament).
In Algeria, the emotions swung like a pendulum. In the 118th minute of extra time, the hosts scored what they thought would be the winner, only for Karl Toko Ekambi (formerly of Villarreal) to steal the headlines with a goal in minute 124. The image of coach Djamel Belmadi crestfallen on the turf went viral on social media.
Ghana also went through on away goals with Thomas leading the Partey, which led to angry pitch invasions from the Nigerian fans. Morocco (with a concussed Bono) and Tunisia completed the CAF contingent.
In Europe it was all about whether North Macedonia could repeat their shock elimination of Italy against Portugal. For the minnows it wasn’t to be, with a brace from Bruno Fernandes sending A Selecao through.
Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at his 5th World Cup. In the other game, Poland beat Sweden 2-0 meaning that Robert Lewandowski will get another opportunity to shine on the biggest stage too. Wales await the winners of the postponed Scotland-Ukraine tie to determine the final UEFA spot.
In South America, the four automatic spots were already set ahead of the final round of matches (Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay), but three nations were vying for the intercontinental play-off spot. Peru depended on themselves, but knew any slip-up would allow Colombia and Chile a chance.
The Peruvians made sure with a 2-0 win over Paraguay, meaning Colombia’s 1-0 win in Venezuela was in vain. Uruguay also won, with Luis Suarez scoring a chilena in Chile against Chile. It was a significant goal, as it places him as outright leader of the all-time South American qualifying goal charts, one ahead of his great friend Leo Messi.
With both strongly hinting that Qatar will be the end of their international careers (at least their last World Cup), it begs the question as to whether anyone can enter the Suarez zone and catch El Pistolero?
At the top, Brazil continued their imperious form with a 4-0 win in La Paz. The Selecao had not won a qualifier in Bolivia for 37 years, and the emphatic margin was the joint-heaviest defeat suffered at home by Bolivia.
Tite’s side have been phenomenal, winning 14 of their 17 matches, scoring 40 goals and conceding just 5. They are the new World number one side, in the FIFA rankings, usurping Belgium, and will surely be one of the leading contenders to win in Qatar.
Their eternal rivals have been impressive too, with Argentina equalling their own record of 31 matches unbeaten. They haven’t lost since the semi-finals of the 2019 Copa America, and this current run includes revenge on that defeat – winning the Copa against Brazil at the Maracana.
Under Lionel Scaloni, La Albiceleste now look a competent and functioning unit, with the hunger and desire to keep improving and winning. Many footballing purists would love to see Leo Messi lead this side to victory after the heartache of 2014.
CONCACAF is all but settled too. At the time of writing, Canada are safely through, with the USA and Mexico almost certain to join them, leaving Costa Rica to enter the play-offs.
Barring freak circumstances, therefore, in June it will be Los Ticos having to face New Zealand, while Peru awaits the winner of the tie between the UAE and Australia. These, along with the final European spot will complete the line-up for Qatar. The draw takes place in Doha on Friday April 1st. Insert April Fool’s joke here…