The eight stadiums are ready in Qatar and World Cup tickets have been on sale for a week. Now the mission to snap up remaining tournament slots resumes.
With qualifying disrupted by the 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 having to take a mid-season break even though the continent’s national teams aren’t playing next until March, when the World Cup playoffs are staged as scheduled.
Then attention will turn to the final tournament draw in Doha on April 1, which will take place ahead of the intercontinental play-offs in June completing the 32-team field for the Middle East’s first World Cup.
NORTH & CENTRAL AMERICA & CARIBBEAN
A chill will be in the air in CONCACAF for an unusual January international window featuring triple-headers.
The United States host El Salvador on Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio, where the expected temperature for kickoff was 25 degrees (minus-4 Celsius). The US then travel to Hamilton, Ontario, to play Canada on Sunday, and move on to complete the window against Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Seeking its first World Cup appearance since 1986, Canada have four of six remaining matches on the road - with games at Honduras and El Salvador in this window between the home meeting with the Americans.
The US, seeking 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 fourth team advances to a play-off against the Oceania champion, likely against New Zealand.
Iran will qualify for a third World Cup in a row by beating Iraq today. South Korea, which is without the injured Son Heung-min, could also seal a spot from Group A from its doubleheader over the next week - against Lebanon and Syria - before the two remaining qualifiers in March.
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. If the Socceroos miss out on the two automatic qualification places by finishing third in Group B, they would have to contest a play-off against the third-place team from Group A to advance to intercontinental play-offs against South American opposition in June.
Looking down, Australia have a four-point edge on Oman. But second place is in reach with Australia only a point behind Japan, which take on China and Saudi Arabia over the next week. Before closing Group B in March against current front-runners Saudi Arabia and Japan, Australia today play Vietnam, which is on zero points, and Oman on Tuesday.
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 will edge closer to one of the four direct-qualification spots Thursday by beating Brazil, which won’t be playing Neymar. Peru and Colombia are both six points behind Ecuador going into their clash tomorrow of fourth and fifth.
Sitting a further point down are Chile, which hosts Lionel Messi-rested Argentina on Thursday, and Uruguay, which plays at ninth-place Paraguay in Diego Alonso’s first match as coach following Óscar Tabárez’s firing. Bolivia play at Venezuela tomorrow with two points separating the eighth-place team from the qualification places.
With the continent currently staging the African Cup of Nations, Africa’s five World Cup representatives won’t be settled until the play-offs in March featuring the 10 group winners.
There will be a clash of Liverpool team-mates Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as Egypt and Senegal were drawn together, meaning one of the countries won’t contest a second consecutive World Cup. There’s a meeting of Ghana and Nigeria, who have both failed to reach the African Cup quarter-finals. Standing in the way of a World Cup spot for African Cup quarter-final and host Cameroon is Algeria, which exited the continental showpiece in the group stage last week with one point from three games.
Morocco will play Congo home and away in March. Tunisia will also hope to be African champion before playoffs against Mali.
It’s a couple of weeks off now for European teams, with their play-offs not until March to determine the last three of the continent’s entry of 13 nations for Qatar.
The European play-offs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams - Austria and the Czech Republic - who won Nations League groups last year.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, are in the same qualifying play-off bracket, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament
Four-time world champion Italy, which failed to qualify for Russia in 2018, will first face North Macedonia at home in a play-off semi-final next March. The bracket winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.