The European Zone produced the biggest headlines of the Russia 2018 Preliminary Draw, with plenty of intriguing match-ups along with a few nasty surprises for some of the continent’s biggest teams.
Amid the drama, though, reigning world champions Germany were handed a seemingly favourable draw. The four-time winners face Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino in Group C. “I’m glad we don’t have to play against Italy and France,” said Germany general manager Oliver Bierhoff, who assisted on the draw. “We can be happy with that. It’ll be very tough for Spain though.”
La Roja, who lifted the title at South Africa 2010, will meet 2006 champions Italy in Group G, where both will be firm favourites to progress ahead of Albania, Israel, FYR Macedonia and Liechtenstein. In the semi-finals of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, Spain only got the better of Gli Azzurri on penalties, winning 7-6 after the match had finished goalless after extra time.
Group A provides another mouth-watering prospect, with the Netherlands – third-place finishers at Brazil 2014 – set to vie for supremacy with 1998 world champions France and a Sweden side spearheaded by superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg complete the six-team pool.
Iceland could settle a score in Group I. The Scandinavians missed out on a place at last year’s World Cup after being eliminated by Croatia in the play-offs, drawing 0-0 in the first leg before losing the return fixture 2-0. Now they have the chance to exact revenge – or will Croatia come out on top once again? Ukraine and Turkey will also be hoping to book a spot at the tournament after failing missing out on the last two, while Finland – like Iceland – have their sights set on making their finals debut.
Pride will be at stake when England meet Scotland in Group F. The Scots’ most recent triumph against their southern neighbours was over 30 years ago, and with with Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta rounding off the group, the Three Lions will be quietly confident of advancing.
Football fans can look forward to a number of exciting, high-quality fixtures in the other groups too. For example, Portugal, led by FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, will take on Switzerland, while Belgium will lock horns with Bosnia and Herzegovina, who made their World Cup debut at Brazil 2014.
‘The dream starts here’ was the motto of the event in St. Petersburg, and now the 52 European sides know just who stands in the way of their own World Cup dreams.
European Zone qualifying groups
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland