SOURCE: AL JAZEERA & THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
(AL JAZEERA) — The eight stadiums are ready in Qatar and World Cup tickets have been on sale for a week. Now the race to snap up remaining tournament slots resumes. With qualifying disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, fixtures have been squeezed in over the next week or so for teams in the Americas and Asia.
It means Europe’s top leagues will have to take a mid-season break even though the continent’s national teams are not playing next until March when the World Cup playoffs are staged as scheduled.
Attention will then turn to the final tournament draw in Qatar capital Doha on April 1, which will take place ahead of the intercontinental playoffs in June completing the 32-team field for the Middle East’s first World Cup.
Who has qualified so far?
North and Central America & the Caribbean
A chill will be in the air in CONCACAF for an unusual January international window featuring triple-headers.
The US hosts El Salvador on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, where the expected temperature for kick-off was -4C (25F). The US then travels to Hamilton, Ontario, to play Canada on Sunday, and moves on to complete the window against Honduras in the US city of St Paul, Minnesota.
Meanwhile, seeking its first World Cup appearance since 1986, Canada has four of six remaining matches on the road – with games in Honduras and El Salvador sandwiching the home meeting with the Americans.
The US, who want to return to the World Cup after missing out on 2018, is second in the North and Central American and Caribbean region with 15 points after eight of 14 games, one point behind Canada. Mexico and Panama have 14 points each, followed by Costa Rica (nine), Jamaica (seven), El Salvador (six) and Honduras (three).
The top three teams qualify and the fourth team advances to a playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
Apart from last-place Venezuela, seven other CONMEBOL countries are still in contention to join Brazil and Argentina in Qatar, with four qualifiers remaining.
Third-place Ecuador can edge closer to one of the four direct-qualification spots on Thursday with a win over Brazil.
Peru and Colombia are both six points behind Ecuador going into their clash on Friday of fourth and fifth.
Sitting a further point down is Chile, which hosts Argentina on Thursday, and Uruguay, which will be hosted by ninth-place Paraguay.
Bolivia plays at Venezuela on Friday with two points separating the eighth-place team from the qualification places.
The fifth-place team after CONMEBOL qualifying concludes in March can still make the tournament by beating an Asian team in the intercontinental playoffs in June.
Iran can qualify for a third World Cup in a row by beating Iraq on Thursday.
South Korea could also seal a spot from Group A from its doubleheader over the next week – against Lebanon and Syria.
But after featuring at four consecutive World Cups, Australia’s qualification from the other group is in the balance after three matches without a win.
Australia has a four-point edge on Oman. But second place is in reach with Australia only a point behind Japan, which takes on China and Saudi Arabia over the next week.
The UAE, which qualified for its only World Cup in 1990, plays last-place Syria and Iran over the next week, trying to avoid being overtaken by Lebanon, which is a point behind, and Iraq, which is a further point back.
With the continent currently staging the African Cup of Nations, its five World Cup representatives will not be settled until the playoffs in March featuring the 10 group winners.
There will be a clash of Liverpool teammates Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as Egypt and Senegal were drawn together, meaning one of the countries will not contest a second consecutive World Cup.
There is also a meeting of Ghana and Nigeria, who have both failed to reach the African Cup quarterfinals.
Standing in the way of a World Cup spot for African Cup quarterfinalist and host Cameroon is Algeria, which exited the continental showpiece in the group stage last week with one point from three games.
Morocco, whose focus now is on the African Cup last-eight, will play the Democratic Republic of the Congo home and away in March.
European teams have a couple of weeks off now, with their playoffs not until March to determine the last three of the continent’s entry of 13 nations for Qatar.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams that finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams – Austria and the Czech Republic—who won Nations League groups last year.
European champions Italy and Portugal are in the same qualifying playoff bracket. Four-time world champion Italy, which failed to qualify for Russia in 2018, will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semi-final in March. The bracket winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Qualifying for Oceania will take place in a mini-tournament in Qatar in March with New Zealand the favourite to advance to a playoff in June against a team from CONCACAF.