World Cup Qualifiers Preview: Part One

We find ourselves heading into the weekend that all Premier League fans fear the most, the first international break of the season. While we’re kicking around at a loose end and having a rest from supporting our team, Liverpool’s star players get no such rest, as they’ve got international duty to do. This is part one of the preview of Liverpool’s international break.

Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho – Brazil

Brazil have had an easy ride and wasted no time in becoming the first team from South America to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. With four games to go, Brazil sit at the top of the qualifying table, a comfortable nine points ahead of Colombia in second place. They will want to hold onto the top spot but may wish to use the remaining fixtures to do some squad rotation, or try out different tactics ahead of the upcoming tournament. They have a home game against Ecuador in the early hours of Friday morning, a side who are currently sixth in the table and will be desperately trying to sneak up a couple of places and into the final qualifying spot. This is followed by an away trip to Colombia on Tuesday evening, a clash which promises to be hotly contested as the home side will see it as one final effort to close the gap and secure qualification themselves. Brazil won the return leg 2-1, so there may be an element of revenge about the tie as well.

Roberto Firmino has had an excellent start to this Premier League season, picking up two goals and two assists in the striker position. He has only recently begun to start more consistently for his country, scoring just a single goal in this qualifying campaign so far. However, due to his recent run of form he will be looking to compete with Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, among others, for a starting spot over the next week.

As we all know, Philippe Coutinho has been missing from the Liverpool side with what can only be described as a ‘suspicious’ back injury. The winger picked up the knock in preseason and has been complaining about regular niggles that prevent him from returning to domestic action. However, the Brazilian doctor has said that Phil is in the perfect condition to play so he is in real contention to start against Colombia. Liverpool fans will be interested to see what his match time is like over the next week, as it will give them a clear indication as to how committed his future is to the club.

Sadio Mane – Senegal

After they made it through the second round of qualifiers thanks to a 5-2 aggregate win over Madagascar, Senegal find themselves in a real battle for a place in next year’s World Cup. They are in third place in Group D, with only the team finishing top gaining qualification. With still four games to go, there is plenty of time to make up the single point on group leaders, Burkina Faso. They play Burkina Faso twice in four days, starting with the home fixture on Saturday evening, so a full allocation of points would all but knock their rivals out of contention. On the other hand, if Senegal lose both the fixtures it will be impossible for them to finish top of the standings.

Sadio Mane is unsurprisingly a very key player for his country, and what he offers in terms of pace, skill and attacking threat will be vital to gaining the two positive results they need. Mane will be disappointed having only scored a single goal during the qualification process so far and will be looking to make a more of an obvious impact over the coming week. Liverpool fans will be watching nervously and hoping that he is returned to Anfield in full health.

Mohamed Salah – Egypt

Elsewhere in Africa, Egypt top Group E having already picked up comfortable wins over Ghana and Congo. Like Senegal, they also face the same team in back-to-back fixtures, as they prepare to take on second placed Uganda. If Egypt do the double, they’ll be almost impossible to catch and will be in a very commanding position to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990. The match in Uganda is taking place today, with the return leg being on Tuesday.

Salah is his country’s most obvious option going forward, because his 29 goals in 53 appearances make him the only player in the squad with a goal tally in double figures. His stellar performance against Arsenal on Sunday should be a sign of good things to come for Egypt, during this international break.

Georginio Wijnaldum – Netherlands

Moving into Europe now, the Netherlands are pushing to finish either first or second in a difficult group. Sitting in third in Group A, as a part of the UEFA side of qualifying, they face two very important matches in the coming days. First is a trip to France tonight, where they will face the side who are one position and three points ahead of them. In Europe, only the top team gain automatic qualification, whereas the eight best runners-up (out of nine groups) continue into an additional playoff group. A victory here would put them on level points with France and edge them ahead on goal difference. Following, on Sunday, the Netherlands will welcome Bulgaria, who currently lie below them in fourth position. A win for the men in orange would surely separate the top three from the rest of the pack, making it a three-horse race for the top two spots. Having lost the return fixture to both teams, it is vital that Gini’s team come away with a positive result this time around.

Liverpool’s number five has anchored himself in the starting line-up following solid performances last season. However, he faces stiff competition for his national side and often has to make appearances from the bench. His last full 90 minutes came during the 5-0 win over Luxembourg, who prop up the table having only registered a single point. Gini bagged himself a goal as well, and will be keen to make a similar contribution this time around, in order to help book his side a spot in Russia next year.

Dejan Lovren – Croatia

Croatia are currently sitting in a very strong position at the top of Group I. However, a 1-0 defeat in the last game to Iceland, means that goal difference put them ahead of everybody’s favourite team from EURO 2016. An easy win is expected on Saturday when they take on bottom of the table, Kosovo. Croatia won the away leg 6-0 so will be hoping for a similar result here to put a bit of a gap between themselves and Iceland. They’ll face a much sterner test three days later when they travel to Turkey, who are in the hunt for qualification, just two points adrift of the Croats. A loss in this game will make it a lot harder for Lovren’s side to qualify from one of the most competitive groups in the competition.

Over the last few years, Dejan Lovren’s relationship with his head coach has been becoming increasingly poor and he was even left out of the EURO 2016 squad. He had played very little part in the qualifiers to this stage and the defence have seemingly been getting on alright without him, conceding just two goals. He played in the match when Croatia recently lost to Iceland, so it is unclear how much of a part he will play in these two upcoming games.

Ragnar Klavan – Estonia

Estonia are playing for pride more than anything else at this stage, as defeat to Greece this evening will eliminate any hope they have of qualifying. Their chances are already incredibly slim at this stage, as they are second-bottom in Group H, only minnows Gibraltar are below them. A home fixture against Cyprus on Sunday could end up being nothing more than an exhibition match for the Blueshirts.

Ragnar Klavan is the current Estonia captain and has won Estonian Player of the Year four times since 2012. The central-defender will be disappointed with his side’s and his own efforts so far, a definite low point coming when he scored an own goal during the 8-1 defeat to Belgium in November. Klavan will be striving for a better showing from the national team, as they aim to end the qualifying campaign with their dignity in tact, if nothing else.