UEFA World Cup qualifying got underway this past weekend with each European team now having played their first of 10 World Cup qualifying matches. There was plenty of action as 54 teams fight for the 13 European spots at the 2018 World Cup.
The Netherlands, who somehow missed out on Euro 2016, did themselves no favors by opening up with a 1-1 draw against a Sweden side playing their first game under a new manager and without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Luckily for them they won’t be losing too much ground as Group-favorites France were held to a goalless draw in Belarus. For France it was a very similar story to the one that plagued them at last summer’s Euros. Other than moments of magic from Antoinne Griezemann and Dimitri Payet, the team struggled to generate offensive chances and when they did, Olivier Giroud muffed them.
Coming out of nowhere to top the group is Bulgaria, who defeated Luxembourg in a wild 4-3 game that saw Luxembourg grab a 91st-minute equalizer, only for Bulgaria to grab a winner in the 92nd minute.
Switzerland delivered a loud statement on the opening day of qualifying by defeating European Champions Portugal 2-0. Portugal was playing without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo and were never able to break down a tough Swiss defense. Portugal won’t be having many problems with the other teams in this group, but this win for Switzerland can play a major role in determining who gets the automatic World Cup berth and who has to go to the playoffs.
This group played out about as straightforwardly as you could expect. Germany took care of business with a 3-0 win in Norway while the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland played out a 1-1 draw. Those two teams will be the ones to watch as they compete for the runner up playoff spot behind the Germans.
Gareth Bale scored two goals and assisted on another as Wales rolled over Moldova 4-0. With Austria picking up a 2-1 win away to Georgia, the Republic of Ireland will certainly be ruing a missed opportunity when they were held to a 2-2 draw in Serbia. The Irish started positively but saw their 1-0 lead become a 2-1 deficit quickly after halftime. Wales is the clear favorite to win the group with the Irish competing against Austria and Serbia for second place.
In previous years, six wins has been the target for teams to finish as runners up and reach the playoffs. If the Irish are going to finish as runners up, winning all their games against teams that aren’t Austria and Wales is their best chance at achieving that. While a draw against Serbia isn’t the worst result possible, it already makes the Irish’s road that much tougher.
A group that features Denmark, Poland, and Romania is going to be as wide open as it sounds. Denmark jumped out to a solid lead picking up a 1-0 win over Armenia while the other teams all drew. There’s not much to read into here as Denmark were obviously expected to beat Armenia at home but Romania’s draw hurts as a home game against Montenegro is one where you should be getting all three points. That draw could go a long way in their likely battle with Denmark for the playoff spot should Poland finish first.
Despite getting a late 1-0 win and having a new manager, England are still being plagued with the same questions. Does Wayne Rooney still belong on the team? Where should he play? Sam Allardyce granted Rooney the freedom to drift all over the field in the match against Slovakia and the results were less then stellar. On an individual level, England’s average and out-of-form players were exactly that, only getting rescued by a late injury-time goal. With Harry Kane looking ineffective once again and Marcus Rashford picking up a hat trick on his U-21 debut, it makes you wonder how long Big Sam will be able to leave Rashford off this team. Nevertheless, three points in an away match against the team most likely to battle for the top spot with you is a huge result that will go a long way for the Three Lions.
Scotland currently sit atop the group after grabbing a 5-1 win over Malta while Slovenia and Lithuania drew 2-2. If things can hold this way in October, that England-Scotland game in November will be must see TV.
The top three teams in Group G all took care of business, pretty handily as well. Spain, playing their first game under new manager Julen Lopetegui, thrashed Lichtenstein 8-0, with Diego Costa returning to Spain scoring twice. Young striker Alvaro Morata added two goals as well. Italy went to Israel and picked up a 3-1 win as they should have. Those are obviously the two teams to watch in this group as they’ll both be going all out to try and get the automatic qualifying spot. It’s incredible to think one of either Spain or Italy will either be going to the playoffs, or will be out of the World Cup altogether.
Group H shapes out with three quality teams and three minnows. The games opened with all three quality teams getting wins. Greece took a big step in getting back on track after failing to qualify for Euro 2016 with a 4-1 win, but it’s hard to get excited about that when they defeated Gibralter, a minnow so tiny they don’t even play their matches in their own country. Belgium got the Roberto Martinez era started off with a 3-0 win in Cyprus. After Bosnia and Herzegovina put on a good performance at the 2014 World Cup, many expected them to continue to rise through Europe. That didn’t last long as they somehow missed out on Euro 2016. They’ll be trying to get back on track this time around and it should be interesting to see if they can challenge Belgium at the top of this group.
This group is now just as wide open as it was before they started with every team playing out a 1-1 draw. If you’re Iceland though, you have to feel like this was a missed opportunity. They opened their schedule with one of the more difficult but important games, an away match against a Ukraine side that they’ll be competing with for a likely playoff spot. Due to sanctions against the Ukrainian fans, the game was played at an empty stadium, making a tough away match just that much easier. Iceland took an early lead but missed chances to go up by two or three nil. Eventually they conceded an equalizer and ended up hanging on for a draw after the Ukraine missed a second half penalty. A missed opportunity for sure.