Early preview- Who will go to Russia? (European Qualifying)

By Soccer Blog | Sep 3, 2015

Exactly a year from now (4 September, 2016), we’ll have our first European qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The draw for the qualification process of the tournament took place in July, with 52 teams drawn into nine groups for the European stage of qualifying. Apart from hosts Russia, who automatically qualify, there are thirteen spots up for grabs- nine group winners and four playoff winners.

Here, in a real early preview, we take a look at which nations could be making the trip to the finals in three years’ time. How many of the 13 that qualified for Brazil 2014 will be boarding the plane again?

european qualifiers at world cup 2014

Group A

Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg

France

Will hosting Euro 2016 prove advantageous for France’s WC campaign?

It did not take long for Group A to be given the unwanted tag of the “Group of Death”. Netherlands were superb at the last World Cup. France were the second seeds that everybody wanted to avoid given their class and Sweden have a number of more than decent players in their lineup, and can beat the best on their day.

Unfortunately, Group A drew both of these sides. Sweden have not quite fulfilled the heights of their golden era side that made the Semi Finals at the 1994 World Cup but have remained a tough team to beat. The mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic may not be there if he sticks to his intentions of retiring next year, but underestimate Sweden at your own peril.

Bulgaria are another side that have been on a downward spiral since their exploits at USA 1994. Belarus and Luxembourg have picked up a couple of shock results over the past few years but are generally considered to be making up the numbers in the group.

It is hard to look past Netherlands and France for the top two spots but the big question is who will qualify automatically in first place and who will have to do it the hard way through the playoffs?

The French have notoriously found qualifying for tournaments difficult in recent years but they have a new generation coming through with the likes of Varane, Matuidi, Pogba and Lloris rising to the top over recent years. The European Championships are set to be hosted by France in 2016 and doing well in that tournament could give them the platform they need to perform in this group and stride towards Russia 2018.

Group B

Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra

Ronaldo

Portugal- Too dependent on Ronaldo?

This was the group that everybody wanted to be in as the teams were drawn out. Andorra, Latvia, and Faroe Islands, with all due respect to them, are three teams that are unlikely to cause other sides much trouble. That being said, Andorra did almost take a point from their match against Wales in the opening games of the Euro 2016 qualifiers and Faroe Islands have defeated 2004 European champions Greece twice in the same qualifiers.

Hungary are a far cry from the dominant team they were when they had Ferenc Puskas leading the line during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and finished as runners up at the 1938 World Cup and the 1954 World Cup. However, they are slowly creeping up the rankings and made the pot of third seed teams this time around so they should be treated with caution.

Switzerland have only recently dropped into pot two for seeding after a sustained period in pot one. They have had a mixed start to their Euro 2016 campaign with qualification hanging in the balance for that tournament as they lie just 3 points ahead of Slovenia in 2nd place behind England.

Portugal are the top seeds and it has to be said that with Cristiano Ronaldo in their team anything is possible. They narrowly qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil thanks to an inspirational Ronaldo performance against Ukraine in a playoff and they have won 4 of their first 5 games in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

However Ronaldo is not getting any younger, and as we’ve seen in recent times (in Euro 2012 and qualifying), Portugal look lost without his presence on the field. Switzerland will certainly fancy their chances of qualifying automatically.

Group C

Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino

If this was 1996 then this group would look a lot more dangerous than it does now. Germany are the understandable clear favourites. They are the current world champions and have been in dominant form in their Euro 2016 qualifying group so far. They have also been one of the best performers in European qualifiers for major tournaments over the past couple of decades.

Germany Champions WC

Czech Republic and Norway are two sides that have seen better days. Czech Republic reached the Euro 1996 Final and Norway were major tournament regulars during the 1990s and infamously a thorn in England’s side. However, they have struggled to have any real impact on the international stage in over a decade now. That said, both sides are pushing to qualify for Euro 2016 and they could both push for the playoff spot in this group.

Northern Ireland have flirted with the possibility of qualifying for the last few major tournaments and always have a big upset in them when they play teams at Windsor Park. They will need to get home wins against Czech Republic and Norway if they want to realistically put pressure on the playoff place but it is a tough ask.

Azerbaijan looked like they might be a team in the ascendency during the 2000s but they have not progressed as many expected but having drawn with Norway 0-0 in the Euro 2016 qualifiers they have shown they have the potential to cause an upset here and there. San Marino look likely to be the whipping boys of the group, but will look to avoid scorelines like 13-0 and 11-0.

Group D

Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia

Wales were the top seeds that every team wanted and despite being in the first pot they have not been drawn in the kindest of groups. In fact, despite dominating their Euro 2016 qualification group so far this will be a group they will do well to qualify from for the 2018 World Cup.

Austria might have been a second seed team sides wouldn’t have minded drawing but they have a few secret weapons and currently lie top of their Euro 2016 qualification group so should not be underestimated.

Serbia and Republic of Ireland are two sides that have the quality in their sides to push for that top spot and automatic qualification despite struggling to hit their stride during the Euro 2016 qualifiers. It would not be surprising to see the group winners come from these two, particularly with the Serbia-under 20s enjoying such success (they won the U20 World Cup in New Zealand earlier this year by beating Brazil)

Serbia Brazil U20 Champions

Moldova and Georgia are the “minnows” in this group, but both have shown they can take points off the big teams. They will be two places that none of the other four teams will be looking forward to visiting.

To sum it up- a very competitive, open group- each of the teams will feel they have a genuine chance of going through.

Group E

Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan

This is another group where there is no real clear favourite for the top spot. Romania might be storming up the world rankings (they’re 7th at the time of writing!) but they are labouring to top place in a not-too-difficult Euro 2016 qualification group and have not qualified for the World Cup since 1998.

Romania World Ranking

Poland are arguably the favourites as the current leaders in their Euro 2016 qualification group. Robert Lewandowski has delivered the key goals and their solid defence has been key. It is likely they will battle with Romania for the top place with Denmark and Montenegro doing their best to push for a playoff place.

Armenia and Kazakhstan will provide a challenge for their rivals nations in the group in terms of travelling distance, but shouldn’t really be a problem on the football pitch. Armenia are an interesting team- in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, they beat Czech Republic 2-1 in Prague and Denmark 4-0 in Copenhagen, and drew 2-2 away in Italy. Their Euro 2016 campaign has however been very, very disappointing, but it remains to be seen if they can match up to their 2014 exploits That said, wildcard teams like these are often punters’ favourites due to the long odds offered. Indeed, Russia 2018 will undoubtedly be the biggest yet in terms of wagers laid, with bettors across the world expected to place huge amounts of money online. The 2014 World Cup saw over £1bn of wagers from the United Kingdom alone.

Group F

England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta

England will be relatively confident of finishing top in this group and their main focus will be on the passionate rivalry with Scotland- it’s the first time these two nations will be squaring off against each other a major European qualifier since the Euro 2000 playoff back in 1999.

England v Scotland 2000

Slovakia have impressed during their Euro 2016 campaign with a 100% record after six games including a victory over Spain. Can they repeat the feat for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers? It will be a tough ask but it is more likely they will be battling with Scotland for the playoff spot.

Slovenia reached the World Cup in 2010 and were in the same group as England. They’re a decent side, but will need to step up seriously if they want to qualify automatically. Lithuania and Malta should be three easy points for all other sides in the group.

Group G

Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein

Spain enjoyed global dominance not too long ago when they won back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 with victory in the 2010 World Cup sandwiched between those wins. They have not been at their best in Euro 2016 qualification but there is no doubting their quality and depth of strength.

Italy were a second seed team nobody wanted to draw, and you have to think the the automatic spot will be fought for by between the Azzurri and Spain. Will Italy pip Spain and send one of the tournament favourites into a playoff? It might very well happen given Italy’s uncanny knack of qualifying for major tournaments.

ESP ITA

Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein can only realistically hope for a 3rd place finish and below. Albania have shown signs of progress over the past couple of years and Israel are a tough opposition on their home turf. The other two sides will settle for just getting a win and avoiding finishing bottom.

Group H

Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus

Belgium were expected to cause a big impression at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with many tipping them to be dark horses. They lost out to eventual finalists Argentina in the last eight and have been over shadowed by Wales in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. This however looks like a reasonably straightforward assignment for them, given the quality in their side- Fellaini, Lukaku, Benteke, De Bruyne, Courtois, Witsel, Vermaelen, Vertonghen et al.

Belgium Bosnia

Their nearest rivals are Bosnia and Herzegovina, another side packed with talent- Nainggolan, Dzeko, Ibisevic, Besic and Pjanic, amongst others. Bosnia, it must be remembered also qualified for WC 2014. Bosnia and Belgium are in the same group for Euro 2016 qualifying, and whoever gets the better of the other there must be considered favourites here.

Greece have been on a landslide downwards since they won Euro 2004 and it will take something special for them to reach those heights again.

Estonia and Cyprus can provide a tricky test when they have all of their best players fit and up for it but it will be a surprise if they take any points of the other teams. Saying that, Greece lost twice to Faroe Islands in the Euro 2016 qualifiers so there is a potential for an upset there.

Group I

Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland

This one is probably between Iceland and Croatia. Iceland have come close to qualifying for the past couple of major tournaments and just missed out on the 2014 World Cup via a playoff, ironically to Croatia. Iceland have however made steady progress, and have beaten the Netherlands both home and away in qualifying for Euro 2016.

Iceland Netherlands

Ukraine are an unknown quantity. On their day, they can take points off the best teams in Europe, and they were the highest ranked European team not to qualify for WC 2014. Unfortunately, they lack strength in depth and a playoff place is probably their best hope.

Turkey were World Cup Semi Finalists as recently as 2002 but they haven’t quite progressed at the same rate that their fans would’ve liked them to. They still possess a number of talented players but are expected to find it tough to qualify from this group.

Out of the runners up in each of the nine groups, one will be eliminated. Also Groups H and I have only five teams, so there will be an equalisation system employed, with points picked up against the weakest team in the six nation groups not being counted for playoff purposes. That will make Groups D and E very interesting, especially the former, because they are more competitive, and the runner up there might not make it to the playoffs, like it happened to Denmark during the 2014 qualifying tournament.

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