Wales are looking to make it back-to-back major tournaments with an appearance at the Qatar 2022 World Cup next year, but they will have to navigate the play-offs to do so.
Their final group stage qualifier will determine just how tricky that path ultimately is, as their result against Belgium in Cardiff on Tuesday night will dictate whether Wales are seeded or unseeded in the play-offs.
It has already been a relatively successful campaign for Rob Page’s side, with just one defeat in seven matches coming against the team ranked No1 in men’s international football – the same opponents they face in this fixture, Belgium.
On that occasion Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku was on the scoresheet but will be missing for this clash, while Wales will be without their own talisman, Gareth Bale.
Here’s exactly what each outcome in Wales’ match means in their quest to be seeds in the play-offs – and how the play-offs themselves work.
How do the World Cup qualifying play-offs work?
The top nation from each Uefa qualifying group go through automatically – that’s 10 of the 13 European countries who will be at Qatar 2022.
For the final three spots, the play-offs will be the route – and 12 teams have the possibility to seize those spots.
The six teams who finish with the best records as group runners-up (after results vs the bottom nation in groups with six teams are removed) are seeded and they will be drawn to face one of the other six unseeded nations. The unseeded countries are comprised of the remaining four group runners-up, plus the best two countries from the Nations League who aren’t already qualified or in the playoffs.
This will be a one-off knock-out match with the seeds at home.
Each of those six fixtures are semi-finals for each qualifying ‘path’. The victors progress to the final, where the winners of semi-final No1 will play the winners of semi-final No2, three versus four and five against six – the matches are numbered in the order they were drawn. Each of the three winners of the play-off finals will then progress to the World Cup finals in Qatar next year.
Who is already guaranteed to be seeded?
Portugal, Scotland, Italy and Russia – in that order – finshed with the best second-place records in the group stage. They are definitely four of the six seeds.
Who is still in the running?
The final two spots are currently occupied by Sweden and Poland, who have both already completed their qualifying matches. Wales and Turkey are just outside the top six with a game remaining – but it could also be Czech Republic, Norway or Netherlands who finish second in those groups depending on how the last matches go. Finland are mathematically still in with a chance of being seeds, but they need to beat France by at least six goals to start the convoluted combination of events required for them to jump the queue, so are unlikely to feature in the final reckoning.
If Wales win…
Very straightforward: If they beat Belgium, they will be seeded.
If Wales lose…
Also straightforward: If Belgium do the double over Wales, then Wales will be unseeded. Even if Czech Republic thrash Estonia to leapfrog Wales and finish second, Wales still get one of the two Nations League berths for a qualifying play-off spot.
If Wales draw…
Here’s where it’s more tricky. A point for Wales should be enough to earn a seeded spot, unless a combination of results from Group G prevents them.
First off, Turkey would have to win away to Montenegro by at least four goals.
Then if that happens and Wales draw, the Netherlands vs Norway match is crucial: a win or draw for Netherlands and Wales would be unseeded, with Turkey play-off seeds and Netherlands through automatically.
If Norway win by four or more, Wales are also unseeded – Turkey go through automatically and Norway are in the play-offs, with Netherlands out altogether. But a Norway win by one, two or three goals (as long as it isn’t 6-3 or higher with a 0-0 Wales draw or correspondingly higher), and Wales stay seeded.
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