The FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifying groups for the European nations were drawn during the weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia. With the host nation automatically qualifying, it leaves 52 nations competing for 13 tickets to the World Cup.
The nine group winners go through, and the eight best second-placed nations will get paired up and play a two-leg playoff round for the remaining four spots. Reigning champions Germany got a favorable draw, whereas Sweden ended up in a tough group with Holland and France. Here’s a full list of the groups and initial thoughts about the draw.
Group A: Holland, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg.
Sweden ended up with the toughest opposition from the second seeding group in France and then Holland from the first seeding group. Holland’s struggling in the current European Championship qualifiers, but there’s no doubt they are a quality side. Bulgaria and Belarus will be tricky away games for the three big ones, whereas Luxembourg will be the punching bag. France will be the big favorite followed by Holland and Sweden.
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra.
Portugal and Switzerland are huge favorites in the group. Hungary might be able to challenge the Swiss if everything falls into place, but the most likely scenario is that the Portuguese and Swiss will be heads and shoulders above the rest. The Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra are all nations that are far below the quality of Portugal, Switzerland and even Hungary.
Cristiano Ronaldo will have a field day and don’t be surprised if he scores the most goals of anyone in the qualification round.
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino.
Reigning champions Germany got a very easy group, on paper. The Czechs could challenge a little, but they are far from what they use to be and same thing goes for Norway. Northern Ireland has a lot of grit, but lack the individual talent needed to be at the top, so Germany will take this group pretty handedly and then it’s a dogfight between the Czechs and the Norwegians.
Azerbaijan and San Marino will be happy if they even end up with a point against any of the other teams in the group besides each other.
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Ireland, Moldavia, Georgia.
This is one of the groups that will be really interesting to follow. Wales has done a great job in the past few years and are on the verge of qualifying for the European Championship next summer in France. Austria is also a good team that can cause the Welsh some trouble, and Ireland has the capability and the talent to get into the mix.
Wales will be the favorites, but it’s wide open for that second spot in the group. Austria might have a slight advantage, but Ireland and Serbia will fancy their chances. Moldavia and Georgia will put up some good fights when they play at home, but neither of them will be anywhere near the top.
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan.
Also a pretty balanced group, but Romania, Denmark and Poland will be the three nations fighting for the top two spots. Montenegro has fallen back and Armenia and Kazakhstan are teams that could end up not winning a single game. Denmark has something going and they will be feeling good about their chances of winning the group and avoid having to play a playoff matchup.
Poland is also a team that has been performing well in the current European qualifiers, including a win over Germany, so they are another nation to keep in mind for the group win.
Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta.
England should and most likely will win this group, but it won’t be easy. Slovakia will be a big threat as they are currently undefeated in the European Championship qualifiers with six straight wins, including a victory over Spain. Scotland will always put up a fight against the English, while Slovenia and Lithuania could be tricky away games. But the big fight will be between England and Slovakia for the group win.
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein.
Spain and Italy will battle for the top spot in the group and Albania could cause some troubles, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to move either Italy or Spain from the top two. It won’t be a cakewalk for Italy and Spain as all away games in this group will be difficult and not very welcoming. Albania away might be one of the worst games for a visiting side.
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus.
Belgium will be the big favorites followed by the Bosnians. Greece has fallen off the soccer map completely and Estonia and Cyprus doesn’t have enough quality to take on the top-two ranked nations in the group. Whichever nation that ends up in second place, whether it be Belgium or Bosnia and Herzegovina, will have to make sure to maximize the points so that they won’t be the one second-placed nation that gets left out from the qualification playoff round.
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland.
Another fairly balanced group where several teams have the chance to go through. Croatia and Iceland will be the favorites, as they both have impressed in the qualifiers for the European Championship. Iceland tops its group ahead of the Czech Republic, Holland and Turkey. Icelandic national team coach Lars Lagerback has done a fantastic job with the team and they work extremely well as a unit.
Croatia is a close second to Iceland, but Ukraine, Turkey and Finland all have the talent to grab significant amount of points.
The 2018 World Cup qualifications for the European nations kicks off in early September 2016.