World Cup 2018: Ranking the contenders for the final nine spots

Italy and Croatia could make runs at the 2018 World Cup. But first they both have to qualify. (Getty)

Twenty-three nations have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Nine more spots are up for grabs. They’ll be snatched over the next week by some combination of the 20 teams still alive.

Not all combinations are possible, of course. Four of the final nine must come from Europe. Three must come from Africa. Two intercontinental playoffs will offer up the final berths. The nine remaining tickets to Russia will be allocated as follows:

1: Italy or Sweden
2: Croatia or Greece
3: Switzerland or Northern Ireland
4: Denmark or Ireland
5: Peru or New Zealand
6: Australia or Honduras
7: Tunisia or Democratic Republic of the Congo
8: Morocco or Ivory Coast
9: Senegal, South Africa, Burkina Faso or Cape Verde

A full breakdown of scenarios and playoff structures can be found here. A full schedule of the matches – at least 15, as many as 19 – that will go toward deciding the final nine spots can be found here.

But this post is dedicated to assessing the quality of the teams still in contention. There’s a wide gulf in class between the best of the 20 and the worst. The strength of the 32-team World Cup field depends on the final round of qualifiers.

So, if you’re a neutral hoping for as much entertainment at the World Cup as possible, who should you root for over the next seven days? Which of the 20 teams could actually go on a run in Russia if they qualify?

Here’s the answer to that question, in the form of a 1-20 ranking.

1. Italy — Italy is the obvious pick to top this list, and it’s the right one. But it’s not an absolute, 100-percent no-brainer. Because this isn’t 2006 Italy. It’s not 2012 or 2016 Italy. It’s not Italy. The Azzurri haven’t really had an identity under journeyman manager Gian Piero Ventura, who’ll turn 70 in January. They don’t have a trusted goalscorer. Their three stalwart defenders are 36 years old, 33 and 30. But they do have a sneakily awesome midfield, some creativity in wide areas, and, in general, more talent than all but 10 or so teams in the world.

2. Croatia — Croatia hasn’t advanced past a World Cup group stage since its first-ever appearance in 1998. But it impressed at Euro 2016, beating Spain before losing to Portugal in extra time in the knockout round. And it has plenty of talent. Shall we just list off the midfielders?

Yeah, let’s do that: Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Marko Rog (Napoli) … we could go on, but you get the point. There are unanswered questions regarding the ideal shape and makeup of the midfield, and regarding Modric’s possible decline (he’s 32), but with accomplished players in defense and attack as well, Croatia could be dangerous if it qualifies.

3. Peru — There’s a tendency to discount South American teams that aren’t overflowing with players who ply their trade in Europe. Peru might be the most egregious example. Of the 27 players called up for the playoff against New Zealand, 21 play their club soccer in the Americas. In part because of that, the Peruvians were viewed as significant underdogs in CONMEBOL.

But that doesn’t say much, if anything, about their ability. This team is very solid. It finished third at the 2015 Copa America, lost on penalties to Colombia in the Centenario quarters, and has recovered from a horrid qualifying start – four points from its first six matches – to make the playoff ahead of Chile and Paraguay. In its last 20 matches (including a Bolivia forfeit), Peru has won 12, drawn six and lost just two. It could finish 2017 unbeaten. The suspension of all-time leading goalscorer Paolo Guerrero hurts, but there’s more than enough quality here to beat the Kiwis, and to make some noise in Russia.

4. Switzerland — It’s tough to know what to make of Switzerland. It has always boasted an inflated FIFA ranking, and was seeded in Pot 1 four years ago. It has two in-their-prime stars in Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri. The rest of the squad is an intriguing, but not entirely convincing blend of aging mainstays (Stephan Lichtsteiner, Valon Behrami), mid-20s contributors (AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez on the high end, Benfica’s Haris Seferovic on the low end) and promising youngsters (Schalke’s Breel Embolo, Monchengladbach’s Nico Elvedi and Denis Zakaria, etc.). It’s the kind of team that could very easily make a World Cup quarterfinal if things break right. But it could also slump out after an uninspiring group stage.

5. Denmark — The Danes hit their stride toward the end of the qualification campaign, and are unbeaten since October 2016. Outside of Tottenham attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen and Sevilla center back Simon Kjaer, the stable of players is pretty ordinary. But there’s some young talent coming through (Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, Celta Vigo’s Pione Sisto, Ajax’s Kasper Dolberg) that would be ready to blossom in Russia.

6. Senegal — Senegal, which has only qualified for one World Cup (2002), has arguably the most talented team in Africa. The defense is anchored by Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodj. The starting central midfield is a Premier League duo, West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate and Everton’s Idrissa Gueye. But it’s the forward line that really sparkles: Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, Monaco’s Keita Balde Diao, Rennes’ Ismaila Sarr, West Ham’s Diafra Sakho, Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf, and former Lille and Fenerbahce star Moussa Sow.

7. Ivory Coast — A significant chunk of the golden generation, including the Toure brothers and Didier Drogba, has moved on, and the Ivory Coast is in a bit of a transitional phase. But there’s still a lot to like. Or, rather, there’s a lot of players to like, especially at the back and in midfield: Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, Tottenham’s Serge Aurier, AC Milan’s Franck Kessie and Nice’s Jean Michael Seri, to name a few.

There’s also talent in attack, but it’s a mishmash of stars of yore – Gervinho, Salomon Kalou – fringe starters – Wilfried Bony, Seydou Doumbia, Max Gradel – and a new wave that features former England international Wilfried Zaha and Lyon youngster Maxwel Cornet. The Ivorians haven’t quite figured out a combination that works, and have pinned weighty hopes on the 20-year-old Kessie. They’d have seven months to sort themselves out if they can beat Morocco on Saturday. But that’s no easy task.

8. Sweden — Just as the Zlatan era was ending – he retired from the national team following Euro 2016 – Sweden has made a charge toward its first World Cup since 2006. It emerged into the playoffs out of a group that featured France and Holland. RB Leipzig playmaker Emil Forsberg has led the way, but much of the squad comes from the fringes of Europe’s top four leagues, and Ibrahimovic’s former supporting cast has either moved on with him or is heading in that direction. There’ll surely be talk of the legendary striker coming out of retirement if the Swedes qualify, but he wouldn’t cure all their problems elsewhere on the pitch, especially toward the back end of it.

9. Morocco — The renaissance of Khalid Boutaib has Morocco needing only a draw against the Ivory Coast to qualify. Three months ago, the 30-year-old striker hadn’t scored a single competitive international goal. He’s now scored four in the past three qualifiers, and has given Morocco exactly what it needed up top.

Because behind and beside him, the team is strong. The midfield features former Anderlecht playmaker Mbark Boussouffa, Galatasaray’s Younes Belhanda, Feyenoord’s Karim El Ahmadi, Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech, Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal and former Watford winger Nordin Amrabat. The back line – led by Juventus’ Mehdi Benatia, fortified by Fenerbahce’s Nabil Dirar, Real Madrid’s Achraf Hakimi and Wolves’ Romain Saiss – hasn’t conceded a single goal during the final round of qualifying. If Morocco stretches that streak from five to six games, it’ll be in Russia.

10. Ireland — The entirety of Ireland’s 27-man playoff squad plays in England, but only 10 of the 27 play in the Premier League. The Irish squeaked into the playoffs, and would be one of the more dull teams at the World Cup if they can get past Denmark.

11. Northern Ireland — Manager Michael O’Neill trots out absurdly defensive teams without any shame, and for the most part, those teams have been effective. They qualified for their first-ever Euros in 2016 and advanced to the Round of 16 because they only lost 1-0 to Germany and Poland. They then finished second to Germany in their World Cup qualifying group by conceding just one goal in eight games against non-German opponents. But they would not contribute much to a World Cup in the way of excitement, nor quality.

12. Greece — The Greek defense, anchored by Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas, is awesome. The rest of the team, not so much. It’s trending in the wrong direction, and is the worst of the eight UEFA playoff participants.

13. Australia — The Australians were really unimpressive during qualifying, and needed Tim Cahill to save them in the Asian playoff against Syria. They have no depth, and really don’t look like a World Cup-caliber team. And yet … they might be favored in the intercontinental playoff.

14. Honduras — Should we even talk about what had to happen on that final day of CONCACAF qualifying for Honduras to reach this point? Nah, let’s not.

15. Tunisia — It has benefited from a weak qualifying group, but Tunisia is the top team in Africa, per the always reliable FIFA Rankings. Its players, to be fair, have shown plenty of fight over the past two months, coming back from 2-0 down to draw Congo DR and shrugging off a 1-0 deficit to beat Guinea 4-1. But they’re not on par with what they would – probably will – face at a World Cup.

16. Democratic Republic of the Congo — There are Congolese players scattered all over Europe, including England, but they don’t stack up well against the top African sides. To get to Russia, they’ll need a win and a Tunisia loss, which is unlikely.

17. New Zealand — With Oceania’s qualifying circuit full of minnows, there isn’t much relevant evidence to help assess the All Whites. Their Confederations Cup campaign ended without a point, but wasn’t a disaster. They lost all three of their most recent friendlies, to Northern Ireland, Belarus and Japan. Oh, and they conceded three goals over two legs to the Solomon Islands in the OFC playoff … probably not the greatest sign.

18. Burkina Faso — Burkina Faso made a shock run to the 2013 African Nations Cup final, and has stayed afloat in the second tier of African soccer since. It finished third at the ANC this past winter. But there’s still a pretty wide gulf between it and that top tier. It needs a win and some very specific help from South Africa to qualify.

19. South Africa — South Africa had its moment in the sun when it hosted the 2010 World Cup. In the years that followed, success has mostly eluded it. It even failed to qualify for two of the four African Nations Cups since.

20. Cape Verde — The Islanders actually wouldn’t be the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. Their population is roughly 100,000 more than that of Iceland. And they’re extreme long shots to qualify anyway.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.