Pundits are picking Panama as the nation most likely to face New Zealand in a potential one-game shootout to decide who takes the last of 32 berths at the FIFA World Cup finals in Qatar.
With only three rounds of games left in the North & Central America & the Caribbean qualifying series, analysis of remaining fixtures suggests Panama (ranked 63rd in world rankings) are favourites to finish fourth in the eight-team CONCACAF group.
Next most likely is Costa Rica (49th ranking) while current group runners-up United States (12th) could stumble into the play-off spot as they face a tough final schedule, needing five points from their three games to be assured of automatic qualification – and facing three teams all with a chance to qualify.
Of course, New Zealand is no sure thing to qualify as the winners of the Oceania qualifying tournament, though TAB bookmakers rate them $3 favourites to qualify for the Qatar finals.
However, if the All Whites can hold their nerve at the qualifying tournament in March, here are the current standings of their potential opponents:
Current FIFA international rankings are Canada (40), United States (12), Mexico (14), Panama (63), Costa Rica (49), El Salvador (69), Jamaica (57), and Honduras (76).
In the remaining schedule, to be played during the March international window, Mexico have the easiest run in and are expected to qualify with group leaders Canada who are eight points clear of the play-off spot.
If they beat the United States at home in the next game, the Mexicans can all but book their travel to Qatar.
Of those most likely to be in contention for the intercontinental play-off spot, here are their remaining games:
Panama – Honduras, United States, Canada
Costa Rica – Canada, El Salvador, United States
United States – Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
What the analysts predict
Here’s a useful breakdown of the remaining games – and the different qualifying scenarios – from Tactical Manager TV:
Here’s what the All Whites face in their World Cup finals pathway:
Oceania Qualifying Tournament
The winner of an eight-team tournament in Qatar will determine which Oceania nation will go through to the next stage of the World Cup qualifying process.
Problem is that FIFA’s international window runs only from March 21-29. This means the All Whites may have to play their first two group games without professional players such as Chris Wood and Sarpeet Singh whose clubs have important fixtures and are not obliged to make them available.
The tournament has two groups of four teams. After a round-robin of games, the top two teams in the groups will then play sudden-death semi-finals followed by a final.
New Zealand are drawn in Group B with New Caledonia (ranked 153), Fiji (161) and Papua New Guinea (164).
Group A contains Solomon Islands (141), Tahiti (159), Vanuatu (163) and the winner of a qualifying play-off between Tonga (199) and Cook Islands (unranked).
All dates/times are New Zealand Time
Friday March 18 (3am): Cook Islands v Solomon Islands
Friday March 18 (6am): Tahii v Vanuatu
Monday March 21 (3am): Cook Islands v Tahiti
Monday March 21 (6am): Solomon Islands v Vanuatu
Friday March 25 (6am): Vanuatu v Cook Islands
Friday March 25 (6am): Solomon Islands v Tahiti
Saturday March 19 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Zealand (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Saturday March 19 (6am): New Caledonia v Fiji
Tuesday March 22 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Caledonia
Tuesday March 22 (6am): New Zealand v Fiji (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Friday March 25 (6am): New Zealand v New Caledonia (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Friday March 25 (6am): Fiji v Papua New Guinea
Monday March 28: Winner Group A v runners-up Group B; winner Group B v runners-up Group A
March 31: Final*
*It is anticipated that FIFA will agree to the final being played one day outside of their March international window.
June 14/15, 2022
If New Zealand can win the Oceania qualifying tournament, the All Whites will face a winner-takes-all showdown with whichever nation has finished fourth in the North & Central American and Caribbean qualifiers.
The match will be staged in Qatar on June 14 or 15 (NZT).
FIFA World Cup finals
Thirty-two nations will gather in Qatar to contest the World Cup finals.
The story so far
Since taking over as national coach in 2019, head coach Danny Hay has been restricted to friendly matches to help develop his World Cup squad.
Hay’s team has moved up the FIFA international rankings to 110, from 121st spot despite limited opportunities.
Here’s Hay’s record:
FIFA international ranking as at November 19, 2021, shown in brackets
v Republic of Ireland (47), lost 1-3, in Dublin.
v Lithuania (136), lost 0-1, in Vilnius.
v Curacao (80), won 2-1, in Manama.
v Bahrain (90), won 1-0, in Manama.
v Algeria A (not a full international fixture), won 2-1, in Dubai.
v The Gambia (151), won 2-0, in Dubai.
v Jordan (90), lost 1-3 in Abu Dhabi, UAE.