August is the month where most top European leagues start playing games and the upcoming UEFA Champions League teams finish qualification before a late month draw to determine who will be where in the eight groups. It also is a month where, for whatever reason, players are still permitted to be bought and sold up through the last day of the month – even after most leagues have played on multiple weekends.
There will undoubtedly be more transfers after this piece is uploaded, so the focus for now isn’t on transfers or what has transpired over league play as the seasons have kicked off. It’s not even as fun to talk about the Champions League, as Real Madrid became the first team to ever repeat as winners of the title by beating Juventus in the final back in June.
The focus this week is on the FIFA mandated international break, where clubs must release players to their national teams if called up to play in this block of games. And in Europe, North America and South America, there will be some extremely key World Cup qualifiers.
First, in CONCACAF, the United States will host Costa Rica on Friday at 6:30 Eastern time. They then will travel to Honduras on Sept. 5 in the seventh and eighth matchdays of the 10-day Hexagonal, where each of the six teams plays the other five home-and-home. The US can all but punch its ticket to Russia for next summer’s spectacle with two wins. It won’t be easy. Honduras will entertain the US in the oppressive heat of San Pedro Sula in a mid-afternoon game, and Costa Rica was the last team to beat the USA – a 4-0 mauling in San Jose that sealed the fate of coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Since then, the US is 14 matches unbeaten in 2017 under new coach Bruce Arena. Will the revenge factor be enough for the US in this spot? With Mexico all but having qualified, this game will go a long way into seeing who has the best chance to finish second, as the Ticos are three points ahead of the US heading into these fixtures; they’ll host Mexico on Sept. 5.
CONMEBOL qualifying is certainly living up to its name as the most arduous qualification tournament in perhaps all of sports. Ten countries in South America vie for four automatic spots; the fifth one goes to a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. Brazil has all but locked up their place with dominating efforts in rattling off eight straight wins since this window of games in 2016. But just six points separates second-place Colombia (24) from eighth-place Paraguay, and all of those countries in that window still believe. These two fixtures could go a long way to separate some of these countries – or it could muddle it up even more for Matchdays 17 and 18 in early October, the final steps in the marathon to Russia.
Only Venezuela and Bolivia are all but eliminated; the Colombians will be looking to pick up a tough three points against their neighbors to the east. Peru is in dire need of three points when hosting Bolivia. The other three games will have my head on a swivel. Ecuador face a tough task when travelling to Brazil, but they did win 2-0 at Argentina to open up qualifying. That’s one reason why Argentina is not automatically qualified at this point, and their trip to Uruguay is a huge game for both sides. Ditto for Chile’s home game against Paraguay. After that round of games, I’ll provide an update before the Sept. 5 fixtures in this group.
In UEFA qualifying, the spotlight is on Group A; namely, the Netherlands. Two key matches await the Dutch, who currently sit in third place. The top team qualifies, while second progresses to a playoff qualifier against another UEFA team. Sweden sit atop the group because of goal differential over France – each have 13 while Holland sit on 10 and Bulgaria on 9 points. Bulgaria hosts the Swedes Thursday while the Dutch will travel to France. On Sept. 3, Sweden and France get minnows Belarus and Luxembourg, respectively. Holland hosts Bulgaria in what is certainly an elimination game for the loser.