World Cup European Group Stage Comes to a Close

European group stage of competition has wrapped up with, some powerhouse and other surprise, teams punching their ticket to the World Cup and others heading to a playoff as the push to Qatar nears its end.


Germany rolled through the group stage as they look to compete for another World Cup trophy. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Ten teams officially secured their place in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after a thrilling group stage for the European World Cup Qualifiers. However, the dream of going to Qatar is not dead yet for many teams. Twelve teams, either the runners-up in the group stage or the two best teams in the 2020-2021 UEFA Nations League, received playoff bids to play in March. 

Group A included a close finish for the first place title between Serbia and Portugal. Portugal struck quickly in the title game spearheaded by forward Cristiano Ronaldo with a goal in the second minute from a fed pass to Renato Sanches right outside the 15-yard box. Serbia’s equalizer came in the 33rd minute: Dusan Tadic skated a rebound shot just out of the hands of the Portugal keeper Rui Patrício. In the 90th minute, newly substituted Aleksander Mitrovic knocked in a header on the far post, upsetting the home team 2–1 and securing the Group A title. Portugal qualified for the playoffs and will take on Turkey.

Spain in Group B had a wider margin between itself and the runner-up Sweden to secure its bid for Qatar. Sweden dropped a crucial game against Georgia, losing 2–0, requiring them to win the next game against Spain. Spain solidly outperformed the Swedish team, holding the ball for 68% of the match compared to Sweden’s 32%. Ávaro Morata delivered the winning goal in the 86th minute, forcing Sweden to compete against the Czech Republic in March.

In a surprising turn of events, Switzerland took home the coveted Group C title, shocking fan-favorite Italy and relegating them to the playoff bracket. Italy struggled early on, drawing against Bolivia and failing to beat Switzerland twice. They drew against Northern Ireland in their most recent game, a team they beat back in March of this year. Group C saw below-average performances from multiple teams. Over half the group finished with losing records and Switzerland claimed the title after their 4–0 win against Bulgaria. Italy now plays North Macedonia for their playoff berth in March.

France faced little to no competition in their group, defeating Kazakhstan and Bosnia and Herzegovina to steamroll their way into Qatar. France faced Finland in their final match of qualifying after an 8-0 victory against Kazakhstan. France’s Karim Benzema struck in the 65th minute, followed by Kylian Mbappe curling his shot into the far post side in the 76th minute of a closely contested game. Group D’s runner-up Ukraine won their last match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2–0. However, their numerous draws placed them short of France. Ukraine goes on to face Scotland in the next round of the playoffs.

Belgium suffered no losses on their climb to the top of Group E, although they did suffer draws against the Czech Republic and Wales. Wales held Belgium to one goal in the final qualifying match, ensuring their place as the runner-up. Belgium’s undeniable first place run comes from massive wins against Belarus and Estonia, 8–0 and 5–2, respectively. Belgium also boasted a +19 goal differential while Wales only put up a +5 difference. Wales only lost one game during qualifying against Belgium, but the contest against a dead last Belarus was much closer than expected. They will face Austria for a chance to secure their spot in Qatar.

Group F showcased Europe’s best and the worst. With a close battle between Denmark and Scotland for the top spot, it was Scotland who managed to take the match with a 2-0 win. Overall, Scotland suffered too many draws to edge over Denmark in the standings. Meanwhile, Moldova only managed to earn one point in the group stage. Denmark recorded a whopping 30 goals during the group stage and only allowed three goals against, in total finishing with 27 points. While it seemed impossible for Scotland to pass them, the 2-0 win in the final game of the qualifying not only allowed Scotland to qualify for the playoffs but guaranteed home-field advantage.

The Netherlands, Turkey and Norway seemed to be contenders for the Group G title, each racking up two ties. However, the Netherlands came out on top in their final group match against Norway. Needing to secure a win, the Netherlands managed to draw 17 fouls and put up two goals late into the second half at the 84th and the 91st-minute mark. They return to the World Cup after missing out in 2018. Turkey cruised to the runner-up spot after critical wins against the group’s bottom three teams, putting up ten goals in total. Norway just barely missed out on the playoffs as one point separated them and Turkey after being beaten by the runner-up back in March. 

Croatia managed to upset the previous World Cup hosts, Russia, in a 1–0 victory for the Group H title. The two dueled to a 0-0 stalemate, and even though Croatia outshot Russia 19–2, an own goal in the 81st minute by left-back Fydor Kudryashov during an attempt to clear a cross from the near post was the difference. Both teams were neck and neck for that top spot, dropping games to Slovakia and Slovenia. With just one point separating the qualifier and runner-up, it is up to Russia to play Poland for the chance to qualify. 

England managed to blow out the competition in Group I, recording 26 points and no losses. England conceded just three goals, two to Poland and one to Hungary. Poland became the runner-up even after losing their final game to Hungary. San Marino also competed in Group I, only scoring one goal throughout the ten games against Poland and receiving no points overall. England scored ten goals against San Marino, helping establish their lead atop the group and the tournament overall. 

Rounding out the competition, Germany dominated Group J, recording 27 points and tying with Denmark for the most points in the group stage, suffering only one loss against a surprising dark horse, North Macedonia. North Macedonia managed to take crucial games from Armenia and Iceland to rack up five wins. Their star forward Aleksandar Trajkovski had seven shots on target with four goals. North Macedonia is a relatively new team to FIFA, being introduced in 1994, and will now get the chance to prove their skills in the playoffs against Italy. 

For now, European soccer fans can take a breath until March when the qualifying comes back into play, and teams will either rise or fall to the occasion.