World Cup qualifying preview: Plenty of Reds in action worldwide

Liverpool

It’s early days yet in the club season, but the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup are approaching their conclusion. A lucky handful of teams can already start planning for Russia in June, with many more out of the running and plenty of nations facing into a crucial six days which could determine whether or not they join next summer’s festivities. As ever, the majority of the Liverpool squad have linked up with their national teams, so let’s see what Jurgen Klopp’s men are facing over the coming days.

Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – England

England simply need to remain unbeaten in their final group games at home to Slovenia and away to Lithuania to qualify for a sixth successive World Cup, although two wins will still be the aim. While Slovenia, Slovakia and Scotland are all slugging it out for second place in the group, only a total collapse from Gareth Southgate’s team will deny them qualification before Sunday night. Even if they are held to a draw by Slovenia at Wembley, a similar result between Scotland and Slovakia would be enough for the Three Lions to qualify.

With Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne ruled out through injury, that leaves three Liverpool players in Southgate’s squad for the forthcoming qualifiers. Of the trio, Reds captain Jordan Henderson is most likely to feature, although his indifferent club form could deny him a place in the England starting XI. Daniel Sturridge is most likely to see action from the bench, especially as he has been a substitute for most of Liverpool’s games so far this season, while the form of Harry Kane and, to a lesser extent, Marcus Rashford will likely restrict him to a substitute role again. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might also have to be content with substitute appearances, with precious few starts for the Reds since his move to Anfield at the end of August. Then again, should England seal qualification on Thursday, Southgate could decide to considerably change his starting XI for the trip to Lithuania.

Andrew Robertson – Scotland

Also in UEFA Group F, Scotland retain hope of reaching the playoffs and they meet both of their rivals for second place in their final two games. First up is a home clash against Slovakia on Thursday before a tricky visit to Slovenia three days later. Gordon Strachan’s men are currently a point behind Slovakia, so defeat at Hampden Park would rule them out of yet another major tournament. A draw would effectively eliminate the Scots also, as they would then need to better Slovakia’s result and the Slovaks play host to Malta. Even if they beat Slovakia and Slovenia fail to beat England, a draw in Ljubljana would likely see them miss out to Slovakia on goal difference.

Andrew Robertson is something of a forgotten man at Liverpool, which beggars belief given that he only joined the club this summer and has looked impressive in his all too sporadic appearances in a red shirt. Strachan seems to like him, though, and there is a good chance that he will feature for the Tartan Army as they seek to prevent another qualification failure.

Danny Ward and Ben Woodburn – Wales

Wales are currently in pole position to take second place in UEFA Group D, but they face two challenging games and know that any slip-up could cost them qualification for a first World Cup in 60 years. On Friday they have a tough assignment in Georgia, who have scuppered many a qualification campaign for others, before a potential winner-takes-all clash with the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff on Monday. Assuming Ireland beat Moldova at home, Wales would have to take three points in Georgia to retain second going into the Cardiff showdown. If Chris Coleman’s team match Ireland’s result on Friday, a draw would then be enough to claim second, although with the worst runner-up being denied a play-off place, they might still miss out on that particular lottery.

One big reason why they are still in with a chance, though, is because of a Liverpool striker. Ben Woodburn had the archetypal fairytale debut for his country, coming off the bench to score a 25-yard winner when the stakes were sky high against Austria last month. He will likely be a substitute again, but the teenager has shown that he can make an impact when thrust into action. Reds goalkeeper Danny Ward is also in the Wales squad, although it would probably take an injury or suspension for Wayne Hennessey for the Liverpool man to feature.

Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino – Brazil

Brazil were the first team to successfully qualify for the 2018 World Cup, having been assured of their place for several months, and in September they ensured that they would top the South American qualifying section. That makes the remaining qualifiers away to Bolivia and at home to Chile academic for the five-time world champions. The clash in Bolivia has nothing riding on it, as the home side cannot qualify, but the meeting with Chile could go a long way to deciding if Alexis Sanchez and co miss out, reach the playoffs or join Brazil in Russia next summer.

Liverpool might not be playing this weekend, but Reds fans could still have that matchday anxiety as they wait to see if their two Brazilians get through international week without accruing an injury. Roberto Firmino might not be firing on all cylinders of late, but Philippe Coutinho has been excellent since being restored to the Reds line-up after a controversial summer. If either was to get injured in games that are effectively meaningless for Brazil, Klopp and Liverpool fans would be apoplectic.

Emre Can – Germany

Germany might not be assured of qualification yet, but with a five-point lead over Northern Ireland plus a visit to Belfast and a home tie against Azerbaijan to come, it would represent a major shock if the world champions were to be pipped for top spot in their group. Indeed, only a defeat in Northern Ireland on Thursday would prevent them from securing qualification, although even if they lose at Windsor Park, their goal difference is such that a draw against Azerbaijan would see them over the line.

Emre Can has been named in Joachim Low’s squad for their concluding group fixtures, although his form for Liverpool hasn’t been spectacular and Germany’s wealth of midfield quality means that he will probably be restricted to substitute appearances. If the world champions were to seal qualification on Thursday, Can might be given a start for the Azerbaijan match three days later.

Simon Mignolet – Belgium

Belgium are the only European team to have already secured qualification for next year’s World Cup, with Roberto Martinez’s men a massive eight points clear at the top of their group having dropped only two points thus far. They close out the qualifiers with a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina and a home tie against Cyprus, both of whom are in the running for the playoffs. Defeat in Sarajevo could see their opponents secure that playoff spot.

With Thibaut Courtois the undisputed Belgian first-choice goalkeeper, Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet has seen little competitive action in recent months. With qualification already assured, Martinez might decide to shuffle the pack and give Mignolet a run-out, but the former Everton manager could be reluctant to compromise the integrity of the qualifiers for the other teams in the group. If he takes that stance, Mignolet isn’t likely to feature.

Dejan Lovren – Croatia

Croatia are currently top of Europe’s most competitive group, with only goal difference keeping them ahead of Iceland and just two points separating them from Turkey and Ukraine. They host Finland on Friday before making the trip to Ukraine on Monday. Victory in Zagreb won’t seal qualification, but unless Iceland win in Turkey, it would all but see Croatia through to the finals. Should Iceland defeat Turkey, the Croats would probably need to win in Ukraine, as Iceland would most likely beat Kosovo at home.

Dejan Lovren would have been likely to start for Croatia, but he is ruled out through injury. Despite failing to convince at Liverpool, his national team isn’t blessed with centre-back options and Lovren’s experience would have been so valuable to Ante Cacic.

Georginio Wijnaldum – Netherlands

Runners-up at the 2010 World Cup and bronze medallists in 2014, Netherlands are at serious risk of missing out on a second major tournament in a row. They are currently three points behind second-placed Sweden, whom they face in a crunch clash in Amsterdam on Tuesday. Firstly, they must ensure that they don’t slip up in Belarus on Saturday, with anything less than a win potentially ending their hopes of qualifying. Even with a win in Belarus, the Dutch would almost certainly have to beat Sweden, who host Luxembourg before the Amsterdam showdown.

Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum is a key member of the current Netherlands setup, his experience proving vital considering the prevalence of youth in Dick Advocaat’s squad. He will almost definitely be playing in this week’s qualifiers.

Mohamed Salah – Egypt

Egypt have not qualified for the World Cup since 1990 and despite winning four African Nations Cups in the meantime, they have suffered repeated heartbreak in World Cup qualification, not least when Algeria beat them in a playoff for the 2010 finals. The Pharaohs could seal their place in Russia this weekend, though, as they host already-eliminated Congo while Ghana meet Uganda. Indeed, Egypt could qualify without kicking a ball, as they play on Sunday and unless Uganda win a day previously, the CAF Group E picture is settled.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah is his national team’s star man and he is not far off enjoying a similar status with his club, even though he has only played for Liverpool for two months. Similar to Coutinho and Firmino, Reds fans will be saying prayers that Salah does not pick up a knock in what could be a meaningless qualifier – although a Uganda win on Saturday would make for a grandstand occasion in Cairo as Egypt could then seal qualification.

Ragnar Klavan – Estonia

There is a mathematical chance that Estonia can still finish second in UEFA Group H, but they would need to beat Gibraltar and Bosnia-Herzegovina and hope that other results fall in their favour. Indeed, even in the highly unlikely event of the Estonians moving into second, the elimination of the worst runner-up would see them missing out.

Ragnar Klavan has been in and out of the Liverpool team so far this season, but as captain of his country, he is a shoo-in to start for Estonia as they finish another qualifying campaign. He turns 32 at the end of this month, so it’s debatable whether Klavan will call it a day as regards international duty.

Sadio Mane – Senegal

Senegal’s bid to reach a first World Cup in 16 years remains on course, although they are currently locked in what looks a three-way battle for one qualification spot along with Burkina Faso and Cape Verde. The Lions go to Cape Verde on Saturday knowing that defeat would make it very difficult for them to qualify. Senegal’s task would have been a lot harder were it not for a decision from FIFA to annul their 2-1 defeat in South Africa due to match manipulation from a referee who has now been given a lifetime ban from the profession.

Sadio Mane has picked up where he left off last season for Liverpool, with the Reds undoubtedly missing him badly during his three-match suspension in September. He is a key member of Senegal’s team and will surely play in their qualifier this weekend, so Liverpool fans will be keeping a nervous eye to Cape Verde to see if their talisman makes it through the match unscathed.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Dominic Solanke – England under 21s

The England under 21s resumes their qualification for the 2019 European Championships with a doubleheader this coming week. First up is an intriguing clash with Scotland in Middlesbrough on Friday before a trip to Andorra on Tuesday. Last month, Aidy Boothroyd’s youngsters started their qualifying campaign with a draw in Netherlands and a comfortable win at home to Latvia.

Three Liverpool players are likely to feature for the young Three Lions. Joe Gomez, who captains the side, has seen the most first-team action at club level, although many Reds supporters would consider Trent Alexander-Arnold the brighter of the two defensive talents. Dominic Solanke has not had much action for Liverpool since joining in the summer, but he should feature for England in their forthcoming games.