- Between Brazil's rise and China's demise, key results and developments unfolded as the road to Russia 2018 continues.
Another FIFA international fixture window is in the books, and attention is set to return to the club game. Bob Bradley will make his Swansea City managerial debut at Arsenal on Saturday. Manchester United and Liverpool clash Monday at Anfield. Pep Guardiola returns to Barcelona with Manchester City in the Champions League next week. Big matches are on the horizon.
But before getting too ahead of ourselves, some important developments took place around the world during the most recent set of World Cup qualifying matches.
Here are the top 10, in no ranking order, as the road to Russia 2018 continues to unfold:
1. Chile has new life
Two-time reigning Copa America champion Chile has its sights set on a deep run in the World Cup, but even getting to the 2018 competition is not a given. It was set to be almost a long shot before Arturo Vidal pumped new life into La Roja's hopes. His two goals–including an 85th-minute winner–gave Chile a massive three points and shrunk the gap to fourth place (CONMEBOL's last automatic berth) and fifth (a playoff vs. Oceania's qualifying champion). Tests against Colombia and Uruguay loom next month, so Chile is far from out of peril, but for at least another few weeks, things are looking up.
2. Is Brazil back?
Building on the momentum created by its Neymar-led U-23 team at the Olympics, Brazil is on an absolute roll in CONMEBOL. Entering September, Brazil was out of the World Cup places. Now, it sits atop the region's 10-team table through 10 of 18 games as a winner of four straight qualifiers. Granted, beating Bolivia and Venezuela, the bottom two sides, should be expected of Brazil, and next month's showdown vs. Argentina will surely provide a more accurate litmus test for where the Seleção stand. No matter, give new manager Tite credit for righting a wayward ship, turning to his rising stars like Gabriel Jesus and restoring some semblance of optimism back to the five-time World Cup champions. Brazil's deep-rooted problems have not magically disappeared, but there's reason to samba again after some highly disappointing results.
3. China falters again
For a nation of 1.35 billion people and one that has poured hundreds of millions in resources into its domestic soccer league, it's rather shocking that China's national team can't figure out how to navigate Asia's World Cup qualifying competition. With a single point from four games hope fading fast, manager Gao Hongbo resigned following a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan. China has only qualified for one World Cup, back in 2002, and it appears as if the drought will extend until at least the 20-year mark barring a miracle run and drastic change in fortune in its final six qualifiers.
4. England moves on, but for the better?
With the Sam Allardyce scandal in the rearview mirror, England fans turned their criticism to Wayne Rooney, their captain and all-time leading scorer, booing him during a 2-0 win over Malta. Interim boss Gareth Southgate put Rooney on the bench for the subsequent 0-0 draw against Slovenia and afterward labeled the Three Lions' situation "a mess." It's clear that change needed to come from the FA after the Allardyce debacle, and it's become more evident that Rooney's time as a must-start player is over. But the expectations that A) England's coaching job is a desirable destination and B) benching Rooney would suddenly lead to the glory days are beyond unreasonable. Southgate is right. England has many problems. It also has the fortune of a soft qualifying group in which it can iron them out over the course of the next year.
5. Iceland magic continues
It took a little bit of controversy, but Iceland's magical Euro 2016 run appears to be continuing on into World Cup qualifying. The dramatic late comeback against Finland was followed with a more standard 2-0 triumph over Turkey, keeping everyone's favorite underdog on the pace through three matches. The true test of the magic comes in the next qualifier, which should be the toughest of the round: At Croatia (both Iceland and Croatia are atop Group I with seven points). If Iceland can take even a point of that, it can start to let itself think ahead just a bit about the dream of qualifying for a first World Cup.
6. Belgium plays like its ranking
The second-ranked Red Devils were among the biggest disappointments at Euro 2016, and they'll never fully be able to placate critics until they embark on a deep run at a major trophy, but the signs that things are clicking for Belgium were prevalent in a pair of lopsided wins that brought the side to a perfect 3-0-0 with a 13-0 goals for/goals against margin. The most impressive of the bunch was a 4-0 triumph over Bosnia-Herzegovina, a World Cup-caliber side in terms of talent. With Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry at the helm, the bevy of attacking pieces Belgium has in its arsenal are putting it together.
7. Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Portugal
Portugal won Euro 2016 without Cristiano Ronaldo for the majority of the final, but it happily welcomed its captain and all-time leading scorer back into the fold after his long injury layoff. Ronaldo torched Andorra for four goals and tacked on beautiful finish against the Faroe Islands and now leads all UEFA World Cup qualifying scorers with those five goals. Surely Portugal would have been fine without Ronaldo in these two one-sided affairs, and he'll likely feast on another minnow next month with the lone qualifier coming against Latvia.
8. Germany on cruise control to Russia
There was little doubt that Germany was the favorite in its World Cup qualifying group, and with comfortable victories over top "contenders" Northern Ireland and Czech Republic in the last week, Jogi Low's defending World Cup champions can pretty much assume the autopilot position until they hit their destination, Russia 2018. Germany is a perfect 3-0-0 with no goals conceded, and it's hard to see Die Mannschaft tripping up at any point in its quest to be able to defend its trophy.
9. Argentina misses Messi
As loaded as Argentina is from a talent perspective, it remains clear as ever that Lionel Messi is the key ingredient if the Albiceleste are ever going to break their trophy drought anytime soon. A 2-2 draw at Peru and 1-0 home loss to Paraguay (which followed September's 2-2 draw to Venezuela) have Argentina in fifth in CONMEBOL's table, outside of the automatic berths to Russia. While Messi has been nursing a groin injury, Argentina has struggled against teams it should be expected to beat without him. Anyone in the camp that Argentina is better off without Messi is sorely mistaken, and the reigning Copa America runner-up will need all of Messi's magic next month in what should be two of Argentina's toughest tests in qualifying: At Brazil and home against Colombia.
10. Nobody had a more eventful window than Enner Valencia
To recap: Ecuador's Enner Valencia faked an injury against Chile last week and left a stadium in an ambulance to escape police, who had a warrant for his arrest over a reported $17,000 in unpaid child support. That warrant was promptly revoked, clearing Valencia to travel with Ecuador to face Bolivia. With Ecuador trailing 2-0, Valencia emerged as the hero, scoring twice–including one in the 89th minute–to salvage a hard-fought point in La Paz and keep La Tri in third place in CONMEBOL. Now that is one wide-ranging international window.