Five things we learned from World Cup qualifying
There were some spectacular results in qualifying for Qatar 2022
Some surprise standouts emerged in on either side of the Atlantic
Read on for insight and analysis from the past week
The big boys can be beaten
Although several favourites still recorded comfortable wins, most notably Japan’s 14-0 triumph in Mongolia, several matches threw up surprising results.
Few would have predicted that the Netherlands would lose 4-2 to Turkey in their opening FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifier. Having looked unstoppable after their 6-0 rout of Germany in the UEFA Nations League last autumn, Spain toiled to secure a 1-1 draw with Greece, before only beating Georgia 2-1 thanks to an injury-time winner.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup™ Finalists had perhaps the most stuttering start of all, with Russia 2018 runners-up Croatia suffering a 1-0 defeat to Slovenia in their first qualifier, while reigning champions France dropped two points with a 1-1 home draw against Ukraine.
Most surprisingly of all, four-time winners Germany slumped to a 2-1 loss to North Macedonia in Duisburg. Joachim Low’s men had already shown signs of weakness in their 1-0 win in Romania, and this latest shock setback suggests they have not yet overcome the issues that led to their heavy 6-0 defeat at the hands of Spain last autumn.
Concacaf sides hitting new heights
Europe is not the only place where the game’s "minnows" seem increasingly well equipped to cause problems for bigger teams, as ongoing development work also seems to be paying off in other regions.
British overseas territory Montserrat, home to just under 6,000 people, held overwhelming favourites El Salvador to a 1-1 draw and are still unbeaten in qualifying, while Puerto Rico also shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw with former World Cup participants Trinidad and Tobago. Observers attribute this improvement in performance to factors such as the Concacaf Nations League, which offers more opportunities for teams to develop in competitive conditions.
"I'm very proud of this group. We've talked a lot about not playing with fear. The takeaway from this is: we're a young team that has great potential," said Puerto Rico coach Dave Sarachan. "We're not happy we drew, but we're pleased that we were prepared, and that the group competed. It keeps us in the hunt."
Denmark rotating their way to success
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand has followed a policy of total rotation during the Scandinavians’ opening three World Cup qualifiers. After beginning their campaign with a 2-0 win over Israel, he changed all ten outfield players for the match against Moldova, with only goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel making a second successive start.
His move paid off with a free-scoring 8-0 win from a Danish team that is generally more attack-minded than that of his predecessor Age Hareide. But did this record-breaking result earn anyone a spot in the starting line-up for the next game against Austria? Not a bit of it – Hjulmand once again rotated all ten outfield players en route to a 4-0 victory in Vienna.
Goals scored: 14
Goals conceded: 0
Players used: 21
Spain have Pedri… and a striker problem
The list of supertalented Spanish youngsters seems endless. Just a year after Ansu Fati’s heralded arrival onto the world stage, all eyes are Barcelona’s 18-year-old midfielder Pedri, who featured for his country in all three of their World Cup qualifiers, making two starts along the way, and already appears to be a key part of Luis Enrique’s plans for the national side.
A familiar problem also seems to have re-emerged for the Spanish. While their possession and passing is as impressive as ever, they lack the necessary aggression and penetration in front of goal. What’s more, there does not appear to be any sign of a prolific attacker who can consistently capitalise on the apparent dominance of Enrique’s team.
Curaçao daring to dream under Hiddink
He guided Korea Republic and the Netherlands to World Cup semi-finals and won the UEFA Champions League. Now Guus Hiddink has been appointed national team coach of the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, population 150,000.
He has made a flying start with his new side, recording a 5-0 victory over St. Vincent and the Grenadines followed by a 2-1 win over Cuba.
"If people ask: 'Are we going to the World Cup?' then I say: 'Yes, we’re going to the World Cup.' What else can I say? We are going to do everything we can. The ambition is there and it would be fantastic if Curaçao makes it to the World Cup," said Hiddink.