Poland set to be shock seeds in December's World Cup finals draw
Poland are set to be one of the eight top seeds in December's group stage draw for the World Cup finals.
They are likely to join hosts Russia, current FIFA Ranking leaders Brazil, world champions Germany, Copa America holders Chile, Argentina and two other nations in pot 1 for the draw.
Head coach Adam Nawalka has led Poland to a six-point lead at the top of qualification Group E, dropping only two points, and they are hot favourites to top their group and book an automatic berth in Russia.
In most recent World Cup finals draws, FIFA has used its ranking system to determine which seven nations join the hosts as seeds. Poland are guaranteed to move up to a best-ever fifth in the next FIFA World Ranking, which is released on Aug. 10, and the results they need to secure qualification are likely to leave them inside the top seven in October, when FIFA is expected to decide the finals seeds.
Poland had never even been inside the top 15 of the FIFA Ranking until this year, but a run of five consecutive wins in World Cup qualifying has propelled them up the table. They were only in pot 3 for the European qualifying draw two years ago, when they were ranked 30th.
While winning matches is obviously a key factor in their ascent, not playing friendlies can be just as important. Many of the top nations will play lucrative international friendlies at every given opportunity, but even a victory against a top-ranked side is going to reduce a nation's overall average score. Playing friendlies can only harm your average ranking score, not improve it.
Opting not to play friendlies is a tactic which has served some nations exceptionally well to move up the Ranking at a critical point.
Wales are the real case study, as they didn't play a single friendly match between June 2014 and the World Cup qualifying draw pots being decided 13 months later. That, coupled with their excellent results, sent them towards the top 10 in the Ranking and meant they were one of the top seeds.
Similarly, Robert Lewandowski's Poland have played just one friendly since June 2016 and will not play another under the World Cup finals seeds are published. Compare that to nations more used to being near the top end of the ranking, with France having played five friendlies, Italy and Spain four, and Portugal and England three -- every time they play a friendly it benefits Poland's position.
Poland still have four qualifiers to play, and a disappointing 2-2 draw with Kazakhstan from last September will be devalued as only results from the previous 12 months score full ranking points. That means that barring a slump in form in the upcoming games they should remain inside the top seven, and be seeded.
Switzerland were the shock seeds for the 2014 finals, edging out Netherlands, Italy and England, and will be seeded again if they win their four remaining qualifiers, though their task is harder as they do have to go to Portugal in October.
Two nations from Portugal, Colombia, France, Belgium and Switzerland are likely to complete the list of top seeds. That means Spain, Italy and England will almost certainly be unseeded -- all other pots are regionalised rather than being seeded to ensure a spread of nations from different confederations in each group.
Dale Johnson has been an editor and journalist at ESPN for 18 years. You can follow him on Twitter @dalejohnsonESPN.