During the next few days a more complete picture will emerge of the nations taking part in this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. In Europe, qualification play-offs are taking place in the form of single-legged semi finals before a final next week.
There will be some high-profile casualties as only one of Italy and Portugal can reach the World Cup while Wales are attempting to reach their first finals in over 60 years.
Elsewhere, in South and Central America qualification comes to a head with Canada, USA and Uruguay all vying for a spot. And in Africa, five head-to-head ties over two legs will see some of the continent's traditional powerhouse countries miss out.
By the end of this international break, seven nations will have booked their place in this year’s World Cup through the play-offs. Three more will be confirmed when the Intercontinental play-offs and the culmination of the European path involving Ukraine take place in June.
Wales vs Austria
7.45pm Thursday 24 March, Cardiff
Not since 1958 have Wales played in a World Cup, the current crop of players hope to end that run by advancing past Austria and booking a final against either Scotland or Ukraine, whose semi-final has been postponed until the summer.
However, reaching a World Cup will represent a huge achievement for the country. Greats of the past such as Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs have never had the chance to represent Wales on the biggest of stages, and so the burning ambition is real.
It is touch and go whether Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who have both only featured fleetingly for their clubs in recent months, will be match ready for this game. While Austria will be relying on striker Marko Arnautovic to lead the line and attempt to end Wales’s 16-game unbeaten run at home.
Sweden vs Czech Republic
7.45pm Thursday 24 March, Solna
Sweden may have home advantage in this semi final but Czech Republic will be a tough opponent for Jan Andersson’s team. The visitors reached the last eight at last summer’s Euros and demonstrated their ability by progressing past the Netherlands. However, their star performer, Patrik Schick, will be absent due to a calf injury sustained last month.
What’s more, the Czech’s hopes of qualifying for the first time in 16 years has also been dented by their entire first-choice defence, including Vladimir Coufal of West Ham United, being ruled out through injury.
Therefore, Sweden, who have won their last nine matches in Solna, scoring 18 goals and conceding only four, will believe that a shoot-out against Poland, who were supposed to play Russia in their semi final but have been given a bye to the final, is attainable.
Italy vs North Macedonia
7.45pm Thursday 24 March, Palermo
Italy have only missed one World Cup since 1958 — and that was the last one when they slipped up in a play-off defeat to Sweden. Thus, putting that wrong right is at the forefront of the Italians’ minds. Of course, since that disappointment in 2018, Roberto Mancini has guided Italy to European success which reinvigorated the national team.
Fitness concerns hang over defensive duo Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini but the squad is very similar to the one that went all the way at Euro 2020. Should Italy progress then a meeting with Portugal or Turkey awaits.
The chances of North Macedonia causing an upset are low, with coach Blagoja Milevski arriving after the nation’s appearance at Euro 2020 in which they lost their three group games. However, they can call upon a historic 1-1 draw with Italy back in 2017 which played a part in Italy failing to reach the 2018 World Cup
Portugal vs Turkey
7.45pm Thursday 24 March, Porto
Cristiano Ronaldo making one final appearance at a World Cup depends on Portugal progressing past Turkey and then either Italy or North Macedonia. Fernando Santos has overseen European Championship glory during his eight-year stint but the Portugal manager has described these play-offs as the most important challenge of his time in charge.
Portugal, who dropped into the play-offs after losing their final group-stage qualifier against Serbia, aren’t aided by the absence of key centre-backs Ruben Dias, who is injured, and Pepe, who is Covid-struck. Nevertheless, playing on home turf will bring confidence that they can go through if they keep their cool.
Turkey underwhelmed at Euro 2020 after being billed pre-tournament as many people’s dark horses. And although Portugal have the better of the two nations’ head-to-head, Turkey are relishing their underdog status and are on the up – and unbeaten – since Stefan Kuntz took the reins in September.
Elsewhere around the world
All eyes of the African footballing fraternity will be trained on the two-legged meeting between Egypt and Senegal for a place at the World Cup. This is one of five ties, also involving Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria, that will determine which five African nations travel to Qatar.
Salah was left out of Liverpool’s last game against Nottingham Forest due to a foot injury, and the wait for Egypt supporters to discover whether he is fit to play will feel long. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, opted to also rest Mane for the FA Cup tie so the Senegalese captain was ready for his nation’s boom-or-bust tie.
Meanwhile, Canada, USA and Mexico all have qualification in their own hands as the final three rounds of CONCACAF group games are played this week. All three are on course for automatic qualification while Panama and Costa Rica face a tussle for the fourth-place spot which brings its own play-off.
The last two rounds of CONMEBAL qualifiers will determine who of Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru and Chile join the already qualified duo of Brazil and Argentina as South America’s four representatives in Qatar.