The World Cup puzzle is almost complete after the final round of qualifying matches were played - and now only a few places remain to be filled after the play-offs.
Most of the usual suspects made it through, albeit some faring better than others on the treacherous road to Brazil - and here is a round-up of the qualifying scorecard (Part 1), for a select few who are deserving of a closer look.
With an armada of budding Premier League stars, a tact manager and sound footballing philosophy emanating from Brussels, Belgium are certainly dark horses for the World Cup.
After suffering qualification heartbreak in recent times, both for the Euros and the World Cup, Belgium went back to the drawing board, quietly restructured and reinvented themselves.
The result? A first-class ticket to Brazil.
The Red Devils qualified top of a group that included Croatia, Serbia and Wales, winning eight matches and losing none. That is quite a feat considering that they had not appeared in any international tournament since the World Cup of 2002.
Belgium’s Achilles heel in that intervening period of time had been their inability to get their undeniably gifted individuals to click. The potential has always been there but the results never quite materialised.
That is why coach Marc Wimots deserves a Brussels-pat-on-the back.
Eden Hazard, Thibault Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas, Kevin de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen, Cristian Benteke, veteran Daniel van Buyten and their current star-man Romelu Lukaku will get to display their talents to the world in the sun of Rio next summer - and with Wilmots in the dugout, why shouldn’t the Red Devils dare to dream?
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H from now), clinched their first ever World Cup berth with a 1-0 victory over Lithuania on Tuesday.
Vedad Ibisevic scored the match-winning goal to propel the Dragons to Rio. Safet Susic’s men will now line up at the grandest stage next summer after topping their group, winning eight of 10 matches, beating a dangerous Greece and Slovakia in the process.
Having only suffered a single defeat to the latter last month, the Dragons have displayed grit, mettle and incredible self-belief to book their place for the global showpiece event.
Granted, they somewhat benefited from a lackluster grouping but it should not be lost that they still had to square up against nations with bigger populations and more importantly, greater
Led by their passionate coach and Manchester City’s hit-man, Edin Dzeko, the Dragons scored a ridiculous 30 goals in over 10 matches, conceding just six.
With a current ranking of 18, the Bosnians have proved to be no pushovers - Brazil themselves can attest to that.
Question is, will they hold their own against the world’s best? 3.8 million Bosnians would
probably be shouting ‘watch this space.’
No novices themselves, Switzerland have contested the FIFA World Cup finals nine times.
They featured in each of the last two finals and have made the last eight thrice. However, their most recent appearance in the quarter-finals came at the 1954 finals on home soil.
Enough of the history lesson.
The current crop is shot-through with experience. In Ottmar Hitzfeld, they have one of the most successful coaches in the modern game. The undoubted quality throughout the side was
evident as they coasted to top spot in their group, ahead of Norway and Slovenia.
Deny Benaglio, Phillipe Senderos, Tranquillo Barnetta and Hakan Yakin have spearheaded the drive for their tenth appearance, being the established stars, but the crop of newcomers including Nassim Ben Khalifa, Xherdan Shaqiri, Gorkhan Inler and Valentin Stocker have played their part as well.
The fact that they were hardly shoe-ins for the last and next summer’s World Cups is testament to how much hard work has been invested in the national team.
Swiss football has always been a mixed bag, well atleast for the last two decades, but this time, this time there is a little bit more optimism around the nation.
Quiet optimism it may be, but optimism it still is, and as they line up with the rest of the world in the sandy beaches of Brazil next summer, one cant help but have the feeling that the group stage will not be where the Swiss buck stops this time round.
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