With just over a year before Russia hosts the 2018 FIFA World Cup, countries hoping to make it to the prestigious tournament have taken to the field once again over the past week.
England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are all still staking a claim to travel to Eastern Europe next summer, but as qualifying continues there’s a possibility that more than one could miss out.
How did each home nation got on over this international break? Do they have what it takes to progress into the 2018 World Cup final group stages?
Many criticised the appointment of Gareth Southgate as one that showed a lack of ambition, although those doubters seem to have vanished as his England side sit top of their group.
It could be argued that they don’t share competition with the most reputable of teams, but outlines how problematic a group it could be.
However, Southgate has done extremely well. Four points clear at the top of the group and slowly integrating a new, young system into the England set-up which has been needed for a lengthy amount of time.
With no other team in their group looking like they can compete, it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that the Three Lions will make it to Russia. The question is, can they perform once they get there?
The Welsh had a brilliant tournament last time around. Nobody could forget that impressive victory over Belgium to reach the semi-final. Although, it hasn’t been plain sailing since then.
Just seven points from five games in this qualifying stage is slightly disappointing. Critics have said this is down to Chris Coleman’s side not playing much as a team, as they chose to disregard the suggestion of friendly matches.
Their ride didn’t get any better as Neil Taylor picked up a red card in their most recent game against Republic of Ireland, and Gareth Bale also being suspended for one too many yellow cards.
However, still only four points off top spot and a chance to redeem themselves when they fly out to Serbia in June, Coleman and his side will be determined to make it to Russia. Will they? With the character they showed in France last summer, there’s an easy possibility.
Gordon Strachan and his Scottish team are in a similar predicament to that of Wales. They haven’t had the best of qualifying campaigns earning the same seven points from five games as the Welsh. Although, they are six points behind leaders England and down in fourth place.
An impressive 1-0 win over Slovenia this past week has seen them move into a much better place than before, but Scottish football isn’t turning heads at this moment in time.
Hosting England in their next qualifying game has come at the right time, though. Full of confidence after that Slovenia win will give them a lease of life to go out and have no fear against their fierce rivals, it should be a feisty affair.
Not qualifying for a major tournament since 1998, the players will be extremely motivated to change that. Games against Lithuania and Malta after that fixture with England might be just what the doctor ordered and puts them in good stead for a first qualification for 20 years.
Northern Ireland didn’t look like they stood any chance of qualifying for Russia when their group was pulled from the hat, but how they proved everyone wrong.
Second in their group behind European heavyweights Germany, Michael O’Neil deserves more all the plaudits for this achievement. They also did so well in France last summer – eventually losing to Wales – but that didn’t dampen their spirits and the Green and White army are certainly looking good for next summer.
Just five points behind Germany they face both Azerbaijan and San Marino in their next two qualifiers, which O’Neil and his team will surely be looking to earn maximum from.
Norn Iron look like they are going to qualify for a second, consecutive major tournament which is an amazing achievement. Lets hope they last the duration though, with Germany and Czech Republic at home still to come.