2014 World Cup Qualifying: 10 Biggest Storylines So Far
The field is very nearly set for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Following a thrilling week of international football, 21 teams have now guaranteed their places in the prestigious international tournament next year; 11 more will join them in the upcoming months as they go through playoff ties to determine the final field of 32.
Obviously, there's a lot to talk about and plenty of storylines to watch for.
Let's take a look at the 10 biggest storylines so far.
10. The Curious Case of Mexico's Decline
Few saw Mexico's decline coming. Even fewer thought it would be as bad as it has been.
The harsh truth for El Tri is that they most likely don't even deserve to be in the World Cup this year. Were it not for the graces of the United States, they would have been eliminated from the running in their 2-1 defeat to Costa Rica and would have been left to wonder what went wrong.
Fortunately, their dream is still alive: they simply need to beat Oceania champions New Zealand over a two-leg playoff.
A year ago, you would have almost guaranteed Mexico to defeat the All Whites, but one simply cannot be as sure now. Especially with Chicharito missing for the first leg.
Will Mexico's decline continue as they struggle or bomb out to New Zealand? Or will El Tri finally find the form and subsequent success that we all know they're capable of?
An interesting storyline to follow.
9. Egypt Facing Shock Elimination in Africa
Everything was going right for Egypt in their bid to reach the 2014 World Cup next year.
Drawn into Group G alongside Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, they cruised through undefeated to the knockout rounds of the qualifying stage—scoring the second-most goals out of any team in Africa.
And then came the stunning result against Ghana.
Bob Bradley's team were thumped 6-1 by a rampant Ghana team led by Asamoah Gyan and seemingly threw their World Cup dream out the window in the process. They were perhaps a touch unlucky to draw the Black Stars over some of the other teams, but such is the process of qualifying for the World Cup; it isn't meant to be easy, and you should have to beat the best teams to get there.
Unfortunately for Egypt, after looking like one of the best teams in Africa over the past 12 months, it seems that they will fall short in bid to make it to Brazil next year.
What seemed like a strong chance has now become very small indeed.
8. Are England the Real Deal This Time?
The inevitable question that must be asked—seemingly ahead of every major international tournament—is as to whether England are indeed the real deal or not this time around.
Roy Hodgson's men have had their struggles well-documented over the past few decades, and while the Three Lions will obviously be wanting to play down any expectations about their chances this year, there's still a real sense of pressure and anticipation about what they can produce.
Yes, England were poor at times in the qualifiers and lacked the killer instinct that was needed. Yes, they looked sluggish in the passing game and susceptible in defense.
But at the end of the day, they got the desired result (first place in their group) and are on their way to Brazil. It wasn't flashy, but it was what was required, and if the Three Lions produce a similar showing in South America next year, they are definitely worth mentioning in the discussion.
After all, it's hard to fault a winning team.
7. Are the Netherlands?
Everything that was said about England—plenty of expectations and pressure but seemingly always falling short on the biggest stage—could also be said about the Netherlands.
Bleacher Report's Ryan Bailey recently dubbed the Netherlands as the best country never to win the World Cup, and when you look back over their history (both from the 1970s and even in recent years), it's hard to believe that they haven't tasted World Cup glory somewhere along the path.
Is this the year that the Oranje finally break through?
If their qualifying form is anything to go by, they're definitely worth watching out for. The Dutch went undefeated over 10 games in a group containing several tricky Eastern European teams and finished with the best points difference out of any team in the UEFA qualification process.
Better than Germany; better than Spain.
The question will be whether the Netherlands can continue in such form.
This year won't be the first time that they've shown impressive form in qualifying, and as we know from their history, they've often backed up such performances with a poor showing on the biggest stage. Whether this year will be any different or not still remains to be seen.
One of the more underrated favourites (if that's possible) to watch out for.
6. Tiny Nations Now on the Biggest Stage
There's something nice about watching the "minnows" of world football make a name for themselves. Every World Cup there's a team that everyone writes off—only to have them star and make a bold run to the knockout rounds—and this year could very well be the same.
There's certainly no shortage of smaller nations to watch for heading into the playoff rounds, and with a little bit of self-belief, who knows, they may well be on their way to Brazil!
Costa Rica (population 4.6 million), Bosnia and Herzegovina (population 3.8 million) and Honduras (population 8.4 million) have all booked their spots in Brazil next year. Jordan (population 6.5 million), New Zealand (population 4.7 million) and Iceland (population 0.3 million) are all in playoff ties that could well see them en route to South America later next year as well.
Plenty of Cinderella stories to cheer on next year.
5. Breakout Team to Watch: Japan
As mentioned on the previous slide, there's always a team capable of breaking out at the World Cup. Plenty of underrated teams have already been talked about.
But one that isn't getting a lot of attention—and probably should be—is Japan. The Samurai Blue cruised through the Asian qualifications without any real problems, and with a rapidly improving squad, are certainly capable of causing havoc in the group stage next year.
Players like Atsuto Uchida, Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Shinji Okazaki are gaining (or already have gained) great reputations across Europe and will lead Japan this year. They are a strong and complete squad who always play with plenty of heart and self-belief, and they are one of the best counterattacking teams heading to South America next year.
Watch for the Asian powerhouse to ruffle a few feathers in 2014.
4. Belgium: Underrated or Overrated?
Belgium will be the most under-pressure team in Brazil next year. That's a bold prediction, and one that needs some explaining, but it's most definitely going to be the case.
Ever since people started to "realise" just how strong their squad was, the expectations on them to be a breakout team have gone through the roof. They are seemingly the best-placed team to break up the expected dominance of Spain, Germany and Brazil, and while there's certainly some merit to that argument, there's also a lot that's not yet known about Belgium.
It's important to remember that less than 18 months ago, Belgium were a team that didn't even make it through to the group stage of the 2012 European Championships.
The World Cup in 2014 will be their first major tournament in 12 years.
So yes, while their squad is supremely talented and packed with up-and-coming stars such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Axel Witsel, it's also very unproven. There's a lot of hype and pressure, and while that might be correct to some extent, it can also blow the expectations on them out of proportion, which Bleacher Report's Andy Brassell highlights well in his column.
Could everyone's "underrated" team actually be "overrated"?
3. Intriguing Playoffs Lie Ahead
While many teams have already ensured their qualification to Brazil next year, there's a host of others that still have to contend with playoff fixtures to try to win their spots.
And while not all are officially confirmed, there's certainly some stellar matchups to watch out for.
Can New Zealand end Mexico's tumultuous summer over two legs? The All Whites will take a huge boost from Mexico's poor road form and the fact they'll be without Chicharito for the first leg.
Jordan might seem up against it when they take on the might of Uruguay, but given the geographical difference of the two nations, don't be surprised to see a very tight leg in Asia. Jordan have been relatively sound at home throughout qualifying and can trouble the South Americans.
African playoffs are already one leg through, where there's a real chance that some big-name teams in Egypt, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Algeria could all miss the World Cup.
And then there's Europe, where the top-draw matches could be numerous.
We could have Sweden trying to get through against the attacking strength of Croatia; we could have Ukraine trying to topple Romania's solidity in midfield; we could have Portugal taking on France, where the big-name players and world-class wingers would simply write the storyline themselves.
November is set to be a very busy month indeed.
2. CONMEBOL Teams Are Super Strong
If there was one lesson learned throughout qualifying, it was simply that CONMEBOL teams are very, very strong this year. And with a distinct geographical advantage to their European counterparts, all CONMEBOL teams are capable of pushing for World Cup glory in 2014.
After all, no European country has ever won the World Cup in South America, and with the strength that the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Colombia possess, it's going to be a big ask once again.
Yet the strength of South America also exists well outside those teams. In fact, the entire final group stage was truly one of the closest seen in recent years and shows just how dangerous every South American team is going to be next year. After all, if they weren't that strong, there's no way they would have kept a Uruguay side packed with players like Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in the playoffs.
Take a look at just how close it was this year.
Argentina beat Peru. Peru beat Bolivia. Bolivia beat Uruguay.
Uruguay beat Colombia. Colombia beat Paraguay. Paraguay beat Ecuador.
Ecuador beat Chile. Chile beat Venezuela, who...
1. Who Is Going to Stand Up to La Roja?
With all of that in mind then, the biggest storyline must be as to which teams are going to challenge for the 2014 World Cup title next year? Or to put it better, which team is going to stand up to the dominance that Spain has showed in recent international history? Is anyone capable?
Brazil certainly proved their credentials with a stunning victory at the 2013 Confederations Cup. Both Germany and the Netherlands appear to have done the same in qualifying.
If Uruguay qualify, all five South American teams must be considered a real chance given the geographical and climatic advantage they'll have next year.
It's also hard to completely rule out the likes of Italy or Belgium.
Talk about a storyline worth watching for.
Hit me up on Twitter for more sports goodness: Follow @dantalintyre.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!