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World Cup Qualifying Finales: A Guide to the Playoffs, Last Steps on Road to Russia

The final nine tickets to Russia will be punched as World Cup qualifying concludes around the globe. Here's what to watch over the next week-plus.

Congratulations, everyone! We're almost there. 

The end of the multi-year quest that is World Cup qualifying is upon us, with the final nine berths set to be claimed over the next nine days. UEFA's playoff round, a pair of intercontinental playoffs and the outcome of three African groups will determine the remainder of the field, give us draw permutation fodder for the two weeks leading into the Dec. 1 event in Moscow and set us on course for a 32-team showcase in Russia this coming summer. 

Here is a day-by-day guide at what to expect and watch for as the road to Russia finally reaches its conclusion (all times Eastern).

Thursday, November 9

UEFA playoff (first leg)

Croatia vs. Greece, 2:45 p.m.

Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland, 2:45 p.m.

Greece has qualified for the last two World Cups via the playoff round, but with all due respect to Romania and Ukraine, neither posed a challenge like star-laden Croatia will, with Mario Mandzukic leading the line and Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic manning the midfield. They surprisingly haven't played one another in six years and have only met six times in their footballing history, with Greece holding a slight edge in their all-time meetings (2-1-3).

Northern Ireland was stingy at Euro 2016 in reaching the knockout stage and was stingy again in qualifying, conceding just six times in the 10 group games. Will Grigg may no longer be on fire, but Michael O'Neill's side is disciplined and organized enough to make life difficult for the opposition. It meets a Switzerland team cruelly dumped into the playoff round despite winning its first nine qualifiers, only to stumble at the last hurdle vs. Portugal and miss out on goal differential.

Friday, November 10

Intercontinental playoff (first leg)

CONCACAF 4th place (Honduras) vs. AFC 5th place (Australia), 5 p.m.

OFC 1st place (New Zealand) vs. CONMEBOL 5th place (Peru), 10:15 p.m.

Neither of these series are logistically ideal, but all four nations will have to deal with the absurd level of travel involved. Given the adjustment required after the first leg, that could favor the opening hosts. That's good news for Honduras, which is hoping to carve out a lead at home against a Socceroos side that is expected to be missing Tim Cahill, and New Zealand, which faces a Peru opponent that will be without captain and star forward Paolo Guerrero, who is banned for failing a doping test.

UEFA playoff (first leg)

Sweden vs. Italy, 2:45 p.m.

Italy stumbled toward the finish line in World Cup qualifying. You would expect the Azzurri to figure it out, not miss a World Cup for the first time since 1958 (when the competition was ironically held in Sweden) and extend its string of taking part in 14 straight World Cups to 15. The first leg in Sweden, against a side itching to return to the World Cup stage for the first time since 2006, will dictate plenty. Italy holds a 10-6-6 advantage all-time, including a 1-0 win over Sweden at Euro 2016. Sweden hasn't beaten Italy since 1998.


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South Africa vs. Senegal, 12 p.m.

Algeria vs. Nigeria, 2:30 p.m.

South Africa-Senegal is the one to watch, as the two must replay their qualifier from November 2016 after the referee at the center of it was found to be guilty for match-fixing and awarded a dubious–and game-changing–penalty South Africa's way. Senegal clinches first place in the group and a World Cup berth with a win but would leave the door open for three other sides with a loss.

Saturday, November 11

UEFA playoff (first leg)

Denmark vs. Ireland, 2:45 p.m.

Ireland stormed its way into the playoff round thanks to a win over Gareth Bale-less Wales on the last day of group play, and it'll look to make good on that new life vs. the Danes, who are led by Tottenham standout Christian Eriksen. These two hardly play one another, with Ireland holding a 5-3-5 advantage in the all-time meetings. It won the last two by a combined 7-0 scoreline, but the games came in 2002 and 2007–hardly an indicator of present fortunes. Ireland's last appearance in the World Cup qualifying playoff round resulted in Thierry Henry's "non-handball" and heartbreaking elimination at the hands of France in 2009.


Zambia vs. Cameroon, 8 a.m.

Gabon vs. Mali, 9:30 a.m.

Tunisia vs. Libya, 12:30 p.m.

DR Congo vs. Guinea, 12:30 p.m.

Ivory Coast vs. Morocco, 12:30 p.m.

All the focus should be on Tunisia-Libya and Ivory Coast-Morocco. Tunisia clinches its World Cup berth with a win or draw, though a loss would open the door for DR Congo to steal first (Tunisia leads DR Congo by three points and has a goal-differential edge of +2). Morocco nurses a one-point lead over Ivory Coast and would win its group with a win or draw, but Les Elephants would return to the World Cup stage with a home victory.

November 12

UEFA playoff (second leg)

Switzerland vs. Northern Ireland, 12 p.m.

Greece vs. Croatia, 2:45 p.m.

Everything depends on the opening legs, with Switzerland and Greece hoping to have away goals under their belt to provide an advantage and margin for error as they return home. The Swiss, who have qualified for the last three World Cups, are in line for a place in Pot 2 in the World Cup draw, should they advance.


Congo vs. Uganda, 9:30 a.m.

Ghana vs. Egypt, 10:30 a.m.

Nothing to see here, carry on. Though for Egypt, playing at Ghana is a fine tune-up for its return to the World Cup stage.

November 13

UEFA playoff (second leg)

Italy vs. Sweden, 2:45 p.m.

Sweden scored the most goals in qualifying out of any of the teams who made the playoff round, with only Portugal, Poland, Germany and Belgium scoring more during the group stage. Sure, that included drubbings of Luxembourg and Belarus, but that should put the Azzurri on notice that the Zlatan-less Swedes are to be reckoned with. Marcus Berg led the way with eight tallies. Trying to stop Berg and his teammates will be Gianluigi Buffon, who could be playing the final match of his international career, should Italy fail to qualify.

November 14

UEFA playoff (second leg)

Ireland vs. Denmark, 2:45 p.m.

Nobody throws a world football party quite like the Irish, and the scenes in Dublin are sure to be memorable for this return leg, which will secure UEFA's 14th and final place in the competition. 


Senegal vs. South Africa, 2:30 p.m.

Burkina Faso vs. Cape Verde Islands, 2:30 p.m.

All four teams in this group could remain alive on the final day, depending on what happens in the first Senegal-South Africa clash. Of course, if Senegal wins it, this day loses all of its potential drama and features a pair of dead rubbers.

November 15

Intercontinental playoff (second leg)

AFC 5th place (Australia) vs. CONCACAF 4th place (Honduras), 4 a.m.

CONMEBOL 5th place (Peru) vs. OFC 1st place (New Zealand), 9:15 p.m.

The last two tickets two Russia will be punched in places halfway around the globe from one another. Peru could end its lengthy drought and clinch its first berth since 1982 on home soil.