Until Tuesday, there was the potential that the world’s two best players would be watching international football’s showpiece event from home.
Then Lionel Messi happened. And Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been in such sublime form throughout the World Cup qualifiers, got some help from his Portugal teammates on a rare off night, and just like that, the two booked their places for Russia 2018.
There were heroic performances all across the world, with just one round of fixtures left. Here are Seven Deadly Stats from the qualifiers…
MESSI CARRYING ARGENTINA
It seems remarkable that a country that can call upon players like Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala, among others, is so reliant on one man.
Thankfully that one man is Lionel Messi.
Argentina still have a lot to figure out if they’re going to be serious contenders for the crown next year, because even Messi can only take them so far. But for now, just reflect on exactly how far he’s taken them.
RONALDO THE TALISMAN, DESPITE OFF NIGHT
Hours before Messi’s incredible performance, his great rival fluffed his lines in a similar situation – but it didn’t matter.
This Portugal team is arguably better than the one that won Euro 2016, and they showed it on Tuesday as Bernardo Silva pulled the strings to ensure they beat Switzerland and avoided the playoffs, even though Ronaldo wasn’t at his best.
It’s largely down to him that Portugal were even in the position of knowing a win would secure their passage, however. Ronaldo put on some amazing displays during Portugal’s campaign.
POLAND NEEDED LEWANDOWSKI’S RECORD-BREAKING FORM
Before this edition of qualifying, the most any player had scored in a single European qualifying campaign for the World Cup was Predrag Mijatovic, who scored 14 times to help his nation qualify for the 1998 World Cup.
Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski both surpassed that total, with the Bayern Munich striker beating his Real Madrid counterpart by one goal to hold the record outright. And Poland needed every one of his 16 goals.
If Messi and Ronaldo can be described as having carried their teams at times, what does one say about Lewandowski’s achievements for his nation?
IS BORING THE ANSWER FOR ENGLAND?
England didn’t face the toughest opposition in their group, so the criticism they’ve received for insipid displays is definitely justified.
They have a potentially thrilling attacking trio in Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Dele Alli, but they need significant upgrades on the midfield players behind those three in order to be a genuinely exciting side. Jordan Henderson (and, to a lesser extent, Eric Dier) just isn’t going to cut it.
But perhaps there’s merit in being hard to beat. Even at their worst, England made sure they conceded as few goals as possible – again, it must be said, against not too challenging opposition – but maybe trying to contain the likes of Germany or Brazil will be slightly more feasible than going toe-to-toe with them.
PANAMA PROVIDE THE FEEL-GOOD STORY
For a while, it looked as if the fairytale of this World Cup qualifying campaign would be Syria, who played Australia even and took the regional powerhouses to extra time after two legs. But the Socceroos broke Syrian hearts with an extra-time goal, leaving football enthusiasts to look elsewhere for a story to warm their hearts.
It came from the other side of the world, as Panama are heading to the World Cup for the first time in their history.
The story has all the makings of a classic. Yes, they benefitted from a ghost goal, as their equaliser against Costa Rica clearly didn’t cross the line. And they needed the help of a truly atrocious performance from the USA, who contrived to lose to bottom side Trinidad and Tobago.
But an 88th-minute winner, the joyous scenes at the stadium and on the pitch, the president declaring the next day a holiday to let people celebrate – what more can you ask for?
THE EGYPTIAN MESSI LIVES UP TO HIS NAME
Speaking of drama, it doesn’t get much better than how Egypt secured their World Cup spot.
The weight of their own history, as Egypt had failed to qualify since 1990, with several near-misses since then, was heavy, and it seemed like that tale could be repeated again when Congo scored an equaliser on Sunday. To be fair, even if Egypt didn’t get the win, they had one qualifying fixture left – but that’s against Ghana next month, which was never going to be an easy proposition.
No matter. Up stepped Mo Salah, to score an injury-time penalty – imagine the pressure on his shoulders in the moment – and end Egypt’s long wait.
That goal was monumental, but for Salah it was almost business as usual. He’s been in superb form for his country (not to mention, his club) to ensure Egypt wouldn’t miss out on a World Cup again.
BACK TO MESSI
There are plenty of other moments and stats to choose from – Tim Cahill’s evergreen display against Syria springs to mind – but this round of qualifying was all about one man, so it’s fair to come back to him.
Argentina were poor throughout their qualifying campaign, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise had they lost to Peru. But when you have Messi, you have a chance.