World Cup qualifying is drawing to a close, but some stellar names could miss Russia 2018. We see who could be watching the action from their couch next summer.
Argentina: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano
The list of talent available to coach Jorge Sampaoli is obscene, yet Argentina are still in big, big trouble. A World Cup without Barcelona superstar Messi would be bad enough, but the other names on this list are also world-class performers. Argentina realistically need a victory away to Ecuador — where they’ve won only once since 1960 — to guarantee at least a playoff against New Zealand. But they might well need help from Brazil (to draw with or beat Chile) to qualify automatically.
Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo
Holder of the Ballon d’Or, winner of back-to-back Champions League titles and talisman of the current European champions, it doesn’t get much bigger than Ronaldo. Portugal are currently second in their group and trail leaders Switzerland by three points. The two nations meet in Lisbon on Tuesday, and if Portugal do not win then it will be the playoffs for Cristiano & Co.
Chile: Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal
Sanchez’s 85th-minute winner against Ecuador keeps Chile in the competition, but the Arsenal forward might need to produce more heroics if he is not to miss the finals along with Vidal. Chile go to Brazil on Tuesday knowing a win takes them to the finals; draw and they could be left with that playoff against New Zealand. Sanchez won’t even think about losing in Brazil and the likely complete elimination that would bring.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon
After being drawn in a group with Spain, there was always going to be one of world football’s big hitters in the playoffs, and it seems certain Buffon and his Italy teammates will be forced to go down this route as they trail the 2010 champions by three points. Buffon had earmarked next summer’s tournament as his emotional farewell to the game — will his plan be ruined by a playoff defeat?
Netherlands: Arjen Robben
The demise of the Dutch continues, and Bayern Munich star Robben seems unlikely to earn an international swan song at next summer’s World Cup. The 33-year-old will need to inspire Netherlands to two victories this week, and hope Sweden slip up too, if they are to even sneak into the playoffs.
Wales: Gareth Bale
With Bale ruled out of Wales’ final two qualifiers against Georgia and Republic of Ireland through injury, the chances of him missing the finals as well is increased. If Wales can win both games they will definitely be in the playoffs; if they don’t, they probably won’t have enough points even to get into those second-chance ties in November.
United States: Christian Pulisic
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder is seen as one of the hottest young talents around, and his stock would surely rise further with an appearance at the World Cup. Yet United States are outside the automatic places and defeat to Panama on Friday would leave them with the chance of a playoff at best. The U.S. do know, though, that two wins this week will definitely take them direct to Russia.
Gabon: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Aubameyang’s decision to sit out Gabon’s crucial qualifier against table-toppers Ivory Coast last month, which they lost 3-0, means they have only a slim chance of edging them out for a place in the finals. So the Borussia Dortmund striker, one of Europe’s most prolific forwards of recent seasons, is unlikely to make it to Russia.
Senegal: Sadio Mane
Liverpool’s flying wide man is one of the most exciting players in the Premier League, but he may not grace Russia. That said, Senegal still have qualification in their own hands with a quashed tie against South Africa still to replay. If they win their three remaining matches they are there; if not, it could be a summer of rest.