Warsaw, Poland – When a World Cup comes around, it captures the attention of the whole world. The top teams like Brazil, England and France are always in the mix, but there are invariably some giant-killers springing surprises, too, and they often come from Central and Eastern Europe.
Last time out the World Cup placed a spotlight on unlikely finalists Croatia. They will be back in the mix in Qatar, along with CEE neighbours Poland and Serbia.
Fixtures and format
The qualifying process started in June 2019, with 206 teams competing for 31 qualifying berths – only hosts Qatar were guaranteed a place. We now know 29 of the qualifiers, with the final three to be decided in the final round of qualifying matches next month.
The 32 qualifiers are split into eight groups of four, with each team playing each of the three other teams in its group once. The top two teams from each group will then proceed to the knockout stages. Let’s take a look at the Central and Eastern European qualifiers in a little more detail.
Weight of expectation of Croatia
Russia 2018’s surprise package was Croatia. Zlatko Dalic’s men qualified for Qatar 2022 with ease, finishing at the top of UEFA Group H despite tripping over Slovenia in their first match.
The general expectation for this group is that Croatia and Belgium will make it through to the knockout stage, but Canada could be a surprise package. Their team is young, hungry and playing in the final stages for the first time since 1986. This Canada betting site is already working out the odds, and has its home team as a 9/2 shot to spring a surprise.
Poland rolling back the years
There was jubilation following the last qualifiers as Poland beat Sweden for the first time in 30 years to secure their berth in Qatar. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny looked like a man emerging from a warzone after the game, but he had stood resolute.
He’ll need to find plenty more of the same resolve when Poland take of Group C favourites Argentina, but if they play like they did in the qualifiers, Poland will be too much for Mexico and Saudi Arabia. A first appearance in the knockout stages since the golden era of the 1970s and 80s is theirs for the taking.
Serbia the dark horse
Perhaps the region’s most intriguing prospect for Qatar 2022, however, is Serbia. They shocked the footballing world by coming through qualifying undefeated and finishing top of a tough group that contained Portugal and the Republic of Ireland.
Dusan Tadic’s class is proven – as well as leading his country he is captain of the mighty Ajax, while at 24, Luka Jović has the world at his feet and a Real Madrid contract in his pocket. Again, they’ve had a tough Group G draw alongside the mighty Brazil, and while Switzerland are favourites on paper to proceed alongside them into the round of sixteen, they have a habit of under-achieving, and Serbia are more than capable of upsetting the form book.