World Cup Qualifying
The European section of World Cup qualifying gets under way this weekend, with 52 nations beginning a journey that they hope will end with a place in the finals in Russia in two years’ time.
Here is a run-down of all nine groups ahead of the 14-month campaign.
Group A could be one of the most competitive at the top end, with the Netherlands and France likely to battle it out for the single automatic qualification spot. The Euro 2016 runners-up should have the edge and end the campaign in first place, with Danny Blind’s men the favourites to beat Sweden, Bulgaria and Belarus and advance to the play-offs in second. Luxembourg won one and drew three games in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and would consider a similar points return a major success.
European champions Portugal have a relatively young crop of players and will be quietly confident of reaching the latter stages of the World Cup in 2018. They will almost certainly take top spot in Group B, while Switzerland should have enough about them to secure second place ahead of Hungary, who were one of the surprise packages in France this summer. Latvia, Andorra and the Faroe Islands look set to finish some way behind the top three.
World Cup holders Germany will be targeting a 100 per cent record in a very winnable segment. Euro 2016 was Northern Ireland’s first international tournament appearance in 30 years but they will find it more difficult to qualify for Russia, with Czech Republic seemingly better-placed to progress to the play-offs. Norway could spring a surprise or two, but Azerbaijan and San Marino will surely make up the bottom two of Group C.
Wales’ rise in recent years has been incredible, and they will fancy their chances of topping Group D and reaching their first World Cup since 1958. Austria will push them close for first place, though, while Serbia and the Republic of Ireland will also be eyeing a top-two spot in what is one of the most difficult groups to call. Moldova and Georgia will not advance but could assume the role of kingmakers when they take on the four main contenders.
Group E is also without a clear favourite, although it is probably worth backing Poland to qualify automatically. Romania were rather disappointing at Euro 2016 but have the defensive discipline and solidity to grind out results against their opponents here, while Denmark will be looking to bounce back from their failure to reach the aforementioned 24-team continental tournament in France. Montenegro and Armenia are capable of pulling off a few shocks, but Kazakhstan will struggle to make much of an impact.
Sam Allardyce and England have a rather straightforward path to Russia, with all five of their Group F opponents unlikely to finish above them. Slovakia, who drew with the Three Lions at the European Championship, will have designs on second spot, although Slovenia and Scotland should also be able to compete for a place in the play-offs. Lithuania and Malta will simply be focusing on picking up as many points as they can.
One of Spain or Italy will have to win a two-legged play-off tie to reach the 2018 World Cup, with the two heavyweights drawn together in Group G. The duo should finish some way ahead of the chasing pack, which comprises Albania – who made their international tournament debut at the Euros in the summer – Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry are the unlikely managerial pair tasked with helping a talented Belgium generation to finally realise their potential in Russia. Greece, meanwhile, will want to bounce back from their desperately poor Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, while Bosnia and Herzegovina are aiming to make it to a second consecutive World Cup. Gibraltar could be the whipping boys of Group H, and Estonia and Cyprus will probably go head-to- head for fourth place.
Croatia were magnificent in the group stage of Euro 2016 before being knocked out by eventual champions Portugal in the first knockout round; Ante Cacic remains in charge, and the Vatreni should take top spot in Group I. Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey will all be vying for second, while it is difficult to know what to expect of Kosovo, who only became a FIFA member in May. Finland have never qualified for a World Cup and are unlikely to end that record this time around.