The recent round of international fixtures saw the World Cup qualifying groups for European nations come to a close, with the ten group winners now confirmed of their place in Qatar next winter.
In an action-packed final batch of fixtures, European champions Italy and a star-studded Portugal side both missed out on an automatic spot after finishing second in their respective groups, the two great nations now set for the lottery of the March playoffs to decide their fate.
While those two countries, among others, illustrated the perils of qualifying, there were a select bunch who assured their place at the tournament with relative ease.
Here’s a look at the five European teams who qualified for the 2022 World Cup without losing a single match.
Gareth Southgate’s men avoided any potential Euro 2020 hangover by effectively breezing their way to the finals, edging out Poland to top Group I after picking up eight wins and just two draws in qualifying – as the only nation on this list to have played ten games.
In fact, it is now over 12 years since the Three Lions last lost a World Cup qualifier, suffering defeat to Ukraine back in 2009, with the 1994 edition the last that the nation did not participate in.
The latest qualifying campaign wasn’t without its bumps in the road, however, the European Championship finalists needing a late Harry Maguire strike to secure all three points at home to Poland, before notably slipping to a late draw away in Warsaw.
Having also being held to a 1-1 draw by Hungary in October at Wembley to delay their eventual qualification, England would have to wait until the final round of fixtures to actually clinch their place in Qatar, heading to San Marino still needing a point to qualify.
England set a new competitive record and qualify for the 2022 World Cup 😤 pic.twitter.com/qAz0xcOZxu
— GOAL (@goal) November 15, 2021
As anticipated, Southgate’s side made light work of their lowly hosts, hitting ten in a brutal display, with captain Harry Kane shaking off his recent poor club form to bag four in the opening 45 minutes and edge ever closer to Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record.
The Tottenham man will also have the chance to surpass Gary Lineker as the top-scoring Englishman in major tournaments next winter, the two men currently level with ten apiece.
The instigators of Portugal’s shock demise, Serbia clinched their place in Qatar in dramatic fashion, netting a 90th-minute winner in the Estadio da Luz to condemn Fernando Santos’ stellar squad to the play-offs.
Needing to win to leapfrog their hosts, Dragan Stojkovic’s side looked destined for heartbreak after conceding inside just two minutes, before their ever-reliable skipper Dusan Tadic restored hope by firing in midway through the first-half.
Heading into the closing stages, Fulham’s prolific talisman Alexander Mitrovic then stole the headlines and snatched the points with a late back-post header, the striker enjoying a real act of redemption after his penalty miss against Scotland had denied Serbia a spot at Euro 2020.
Aleksandar Mitrović scored an injury-time winner as Serbia leapfrogged Portugal to seal their place at the 2022 World Cup! 🇷🇸🔥 pic.twitter.com/EOod5NCYAR
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) November 14, 2021
While a richly deserved qualification after a strong campaign, their route to the World Cup wasn’t without a hefty slice of luck, the absence of goal-line technology denying Cristiano Ronaldo a stoppage-time winner when the two sides had previously met in March.
As it is, it will be Ronaldo and co who are left scrambling in the play-offs while Serbia will be preparing for another crack at a World Cup, with the eastern European nation seeking to improve upon their group stage exit in Russia in 2018.
While other top nations faltered, Nations League winners and current world champions France ensured they would be there to defend their title next winter after a relatively smooth qualifying campaign.
In truth, it had been an uninspiring start from Didier Deschamps’ men as they stumbled their way through their first few games, drawing three of their opening five matches – including twice against Ukraine.
Perhaps aided by the lack of a genuine challenger, Les Bleus managed to overcome that stuttering start to enjoy a comfortable end to qualification, twice beating Finland and putting eight past Kazakhstan in their penultimate game.
🇫🇷 Congratulations France! 👏 👏 👏
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 13, 2021
That thumping victory saw Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe net four times – the first French player to have done so in a match since Just Fontaine in 1958 – the 22-year-old seemingly having recovered from what was a difficult Euro 2020.
The forward had missed the decisive penalty as France crashed out on penalties following a thrilling 3-3 draw with Switzerland in the last-16, having also failed to score in the competition.
That tournament had seen the return of Karim Benzema to the international fold and despite initial teething problems, Deschamps looks to have found a winning formula that involves the Real Madrid skipper, with their thumping firepower likely to see them competitive again next year.
Joining France in Qatar are neighbours Belgium, with Roberto Martinez’s side unsurprisingly running out group winners after enjoying a smooth qualifying campaign, picking up six wins and two draws to finish five points clear of second-placed Wales.
Much of that success was built on a strong run of form at home, the world’s top-ranked side winning all four of their matches on home soil and netting at least three times on each occasion, notably winning 8-0 against Belarus.
While still unbeaten on the road, the Red Devils endured a more tricky time of it away from home, drawing with both the Czech Republic and Wales, while only narrowly beating Belarus.
Such results ensure there are lingering question marks over whether Belgium have what it takes to finally go all the way in Qatar, with their so-called ‘Golden Generation’ having been so close in recent years.
Under Martinez – who had been linked with a move to Barcelona prior to Xavi’s appointment – the nation reached the last four in Russia and recently reached the semi-finals of the Nations League, losing to France on both occasions.
Euro 2020 quarter-finalists Switzerland have continued their recent good form by booking a place at the World Cup at Italy’s expense, with the group’s outcome going down to the final day after a 1-1 draw between the top two in the penultimate game of the campaign.
A last-minute penalty miss by Jorginho in that clash had denied the European champions the chance to effectively seal top spot, albeit with Murat Yakin’s side still needing a favour from Northern Ireland to have any chance of securing automatic qualification.
As it proved, Ian Baraclough’s men remarkably managed to hold the Azzurri to a goalless draw in Belfast, with the Swiss eventually finishing top after a comfortable 4-0 win over Bulgaria to maintain their unbeaten run.
— European Qualifiers (@EURO2024) November 15, 2021
They had themselves slipped up at Windsor Park earlier on in the campaign after playing out a 0-0 stalemate, although they would win five of their other seven games, with their two other draws coming against Italy.
Credit for the nation’s current form must also fall on former boss Vladimir Petkovic, the 58-year-old having been in charge at the start of qualifying and been the architect of their stunning tournament showing over the summer, before stepping down after seven years in charge to join Ligue 1 side, Bordeaux.
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