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After ten games and countless hours of breath-taking action, we now have our group winners and play-off fixtures confirmed.
Some world class players will not be heading to Russia next year, notably the likes of Gareth Bale, Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben will all have to watch the World Cup from their sitting rooms next summer.
The World Cup won’t be the same without these stars but it is also a chance for new stars to be born on the world’s biggest stage. We saw the likes of Mario Götze and Toni Kroos announce themselves at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
What more can be written about this little magician?
When his side needed a hero, they got one. 1-0 down after 40 seconds in their crucial World Cup qualifier against Ecuador, the Argentine captain produced a magnificent hat-trick to secure their place in Russia next year.
The 2014 runners-up began the day sixth in the group, knowing only a top-four place would see them qualify automatically for Russia.
They made a horrific start in Quito, conceding inside 40 seconds, but the Barcelona superstar sparked Argentina’s fight back to ensure they secured their place in next year’s tournament. Argentina have had their troubles of late, but the World Cup wouldn’t have been the same with the G.O.A.T.
McClean the hero once again
Over the years, Ireland have had many hero’s; Ray Houghton, Roy Keane, Robbie Keane and Robbie Brady and once again when Martin O’Neill’s men needed a crucial goal, they got one.
James McClean fired in the winner not long after half time as Jeff Hendrick produced a brilliant cross near the by-line. It was a back to the wall performance as Wales dominated possession and territory.
The changing point was mid-way through the first half as the “Welsh Pirlo”, Joe Allen, suffered a muscular injury and had to be replaced.
This meant Aaron Ramsey had to play further back, hindering his attacking influence on the game. Ireland played the smarter football and will be a nightmare team to come up against in the play-offs. There is something about this Ireland team.
They haven’t got the most talented footballers but they have incredible self-belief and a desire to win. They seem to gel-together whenever they put on the green jersey which is something that seems to be eluding England.
They play as individuals rather than a collective team.
Scotland and Wales bow out
After an immense Euro 2016, where they reached the semi-finals after a stunning 3-1 win over Belgium, Wales have failed to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
They were among the top seeds and, although Group D always had the potential to be one of the tightest and most competitive in Europe, it did present Wales with a fine opportunity to qualify for a first World Cup since 1958.
However, five draws on the bounce was the ultimate downfall for this team.
The loss of their talisman and leader, Gareth Bale, for the final two games was just too much for Chris Coleman’s side. They hadn’t the spark to break down a well organised Ireland side.
This now will cast doubts over the future of manager Chris Coleman but also presented reasons to be optimistic with the emergence of a new generation of young players. It is reported that the players have asked Coleman to stay on but the decision is ultimately with the Welsh FA.
Gordon Strachan’s Scotland side are in a similar boat to their Welsh neighbours.
Poor performances added to by some unfortunate luck means Scotland will once again miss out on a major tournament.
Gordon Strachan’s future as Scotland manager will be discussed at a Scottish FA board meeting in the coming days.
Victory in Slovenia on Sunday would have secured a play-off place and a chance to reach Scotland’s first major finals since the France 1998 World Cup, but a 2-2 draw combined with Slovakia’s win over Malta meant the Slovakians finished as runners-up to England, who have qualified automatically for next year’s finals in Russia.
They had it in their hands but just couldn’t get the result over the line, which seems to be a typical characteristic from this Scottish side.