Only 50 days have elapsed since Portugal’s victory in the 2016 European Championship Finals and already we stand at the beginning of a long and gruelling qualification campaign for the next World Cup, to be played in Russia in June and July of 2018. Between now and November 2017, 54 teams will be whittled down to 13 who will join qualifiers from around the world at the 21st edition of the biggest tournament in international football.
European Qualifying Format
In nine groups of six teams, each team will play the others in the group home and away. The team finishing top of the group will qualify automatically for the tournament, with the eight best-placed runners up (calculated by the number of points taken against the top five teams in the respective groups only) will be drawn against each other in two-legged play-off games.
The low-down on the groups
The Netherlands will be hurting after failing to qualify for France 2016, but face a tough ask to top the group as they find themselves up against Euro finalists France, as well as perennial qualifiers for major championships, Sweden. Bulgaria and to a lesser-extent Belarus add a competitive edge to the group, with Luxembourg completing the set.
Tuesday 6th September: Belarus V France, Bulgaria V Luxembourg, Sweden V Netherlands
Group B features newly-crowned European champions Portugal, who find themselves up against two sides who made it to the Last-16 in France, Switzerland and surprise package Hungary, who played out a thrilling 3-3 draw with the Portuguese in the group stage (nearly knocking out the eventual champions). Minnows Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra will play out a probable mini-league in the bottom half of the group.
Tuesday 6th September: Andorra V Latvia, Faroe Islands V Hungary, Switzerland V Portugal
World Champions Germany will meet familiar faces from Northern Ireland, who they defeated in the group stage in France, while the Czech Republic will look to avenge their disappointing campaign which saw them finish bottom of their group. Norway will look to go one better than the Euro 2016 qualification play-off round, in which they lost to the Hungary, while Azerbaijan will be confident of finishing ahead of San Marino.
Sunday 4th September: San Marino V Azerbaijan, Czech Rep. V N. Ireland, Norway V Germany
Potentially a ‘Group of Death’ for three teams, Wales, Austria and the Republic of Ireland, who reached the Euro 2016 finals in France, along with Serbia who failed to reach the finals after suffering docked points in their miserable Euro qualification campaign. Moldova and Georgia offer tricky away encounters for those four teams in what should be a hotly contested group.
Monday 5th September: Georgia V Austria, Serbia V R. of Ireland, Wales V Moldova
Poland and Romania are the form teams on paper in Group E, but will need to be wary of Denmark, who failed to reach France 2016 after being eliminated by near-neighbours Sweden in the play-off round. Montenegro will also offer strong competition, whilst Armenia and Kazakhstan continue efforts to establish themselves on the international stage.
Sunday 4th September: Denmark V Armenia, Kazakhstan V Poland, Romania V Montenegro
England and Slovakia renew their rivalry from Group D in France (which ended in a drab 0-0 draw) but both teams will want to quickly forget their performances in the Last-16. Slovenia and Scotland will be looking to qualify for their first World Cups Finals since 2010 and 1998 respectively, while Lithuania and Malta will probably compete to avoid finishing bottom, although will look to spring a surprise along the way.
Sunday 4th September: Lithuania V Slovenia, Slovakia V England, Malta V Scotland
Spain and Italy renew acquaintances soon after Italy’s somewhat surprising 2-0 victory in the Round of 16 in France, but both should finish finish ahead of the pack in Group G, which also includes surprise Euro 2016 performers Albania. Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein, similarly to the Albanians, can count themselves as rather unfortunate to be drawn in a group featuring two such clear favourites.
Monday 5th September: Albania V Macedonia, Israel V Italy, Spain V Liechtenstein
Belgium start life under new coach Roberto Martinez (and assistant Thierry Henry) in a group failing to feature any other France 2016 finalist. Bosnia and Greece will look to put recent failures behind them whilst Estonia and Cyprus add experience to a competitive group which also features Gibraltar.
Tuesday 6th September: Bosnia-H V Estonia, Cyprus V Belgium, Gibraltar V Greece
Another group vying for the mantle of ‘Group of Death.’ With four finalists from France featuring, along with Finland and debutants Kosovo, places in Group I will be hotly contested. Croatia will rue their elimination by Portugal after extra time in the Round of 16 in France, while Iceland will no longer be a surprise package after their Euro 2016 exploits in defeating England. Ukraine and Turkey will look to put disappointing performances in France behind them in what is perhaps the closest group of the nine to call.
Monday 5th September: Croatia V Turkey, Finland V Kosovo, Ukraine V Iceland
By: Steve Paget