The dust as barely settled on the final flourishes of Euro 2016, but for European nations it’s already time to look towards Russia and the 2018 World Cup. This coming weekend sees the first matches across the continent as countries large and small set their sights on a place in the finals.
There are nine groups of six teams, now that Gibraltar and Kosovo have been added, with only the group winners guaranteed a place in Russia. The best eight second-placed teams (excluding results against the bottom team in the group) will go into the play-offs for the final four spots at the World Cup, leaving a lone group runner-up to miss out altogether.
After the expanded Euros made for a more competitive qualification process (though an arguably less exciting Finals tournament), the fewer qualifying places available for the World Cup mean that while it may be tough at the top of the groups, for many the chances of making it to Russia will be over almost as soon as it’s begun.
But as the process begins, everyone starts off level and optimism abounds.
In UEFA’s “Week of Football” concept, the matches are spread over three days (or six days for double-headers) with three groups playing on each day. It all starts on Sunday with groups C, E and F getting things going. Without going into full detail on every fixture, I’ve picked out a few interesting clashes below to focus on:
Sunday 4th September
Group F – Slovakia v. England
On Sunday, the most intriguing clash sees England’s new manager make his international debut in a tricky trip to Slovakia. After the disaster that was Euro 2016, things may have changed a lot at the helm for England, but the squad is little different to that which underwhelmed and ultimately fell apart in France.
One of the teams to successfully stifle England in the summer were Slovakia, who played out a 0-0 draw in the group stages. On that day, Slovakia merely played for and got the point they required to secure qualification to the next round. The approach may well be different in this match as this is a big opportunity for Slovakia to get off to a good start against the groups seeded team.
England under Allardyce are as yet an unknown quantity. Whether there will be a slightly more direct approach remains to be seen, but his biggest task may well be repairing the brittle confidence that many of the squad appear shackled by the instant they pull on the national jersey. Record goal scorer Wayne Rooney is still there, although many feel his form of recent years shows he is past his best and not worthy of being picked again and again for his country. But he does bring a level of experience at this level that many of his teammates lack.
My Prediction: Slovakia 1-2 England
WGF Prediction: Draw
Also keep an eye on:
Group C – Czech Republic v. Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s return to a tournament finals was an unmitigated success this summer, only narrowly missing out to eventual semi-finalists Wales in the last 16, having had arguably the better of the match. Can they continue their progress in a tough opening fixture?
San Marino v. Azerbaijan
Norway v. Germany
Denmark v. Armenia
Kazakhstan v. Poland
Romania v. Montenegro
Lithuania v. Slovenia
Malta v. Scotland
Monday 5th September
Group I – Ukraine v. Iceland
The fairy-tale team of the summer face an awkward start to World Cup qualifying in what is quite a tough group. As good as Iceland were in the Euros, Ukraine were a disaster ending up with the worst record in the tournament. They are now being led by the legendary Andrii Shevchenko and will need every ounce of his inspiration to overcome the impressive Icelanders.
Romantics everywhere will hope that they fail and that the Iceland story can continue all the way to Russia in 2018. With Croatia and Turkey also in the group (plus the potentially half decent unknown quantity of Kosovo), getting a positive result in Ukraine may be important. Iceland can’t rely on their home form if they are to at least make the play-offs from this group. The matches between these four potential qualifiers are vital, making this a very tough opener.
My Prediction: Ukraine 1-1 Iceland
WGF Prediction: Ukraine by 1 goal
Also keep an eye on:
Group I – Finland v. Kosovo
A first ever competitive clash for UEFA’s newest nation sees them start on the road against a team they have realistic hopes of beating. For Kosovo, the lead up to this World Cup campaign has focused on who exactly will represent them, with Kosovan players representing several other nations throughout Europe, with some distinction in several cases.
But the higher profile Swiss-Kosovan contingen (Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and others), and the Belgian international Adnan Januzaj will not be switching allegiances to represent their ancestral home. However for defender Lum Rexhepi this match will be quite a significant one. He was born in Finland – in Turku where this match takes place – and plays in Finland for HJK Helsinki. He has also been capped internationally by Finland before Kosovo gained recognition, and he switched to them.
Georgia v. Austria
Serbia v. Ireland
Wales v. Moldova
Albania v. Macedonia
Israel v. Italy
Spain v. Liechtenstein
Croatia v. Turkey
Tuesday 6th September
Group A – Sweden v. Netherlands
European qualifying has a clear group of death this time around. Group A sees France lining up alongside the Netherlands and Sweden to battle for the one automatic qualifying place. The lesser lights of Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg face a hopeless task I fear.
While France face an easier opener in Belarus, Sweden and the Netherlands are straight into the battle against each other in what can be viewed as an already vital clash in the group if either team are to challenge France. Both teams are not without their troubles though. Sweden will be facing up to life without their star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and without him the cupboard looks distinctly bare. But the challenge for them is to become a team focused on their collective strengths rather than being reliant on, or dominated by, the skills and personality of their erstwhile leader.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, are seeking to climb out of the depths of despair. Having failed to even make the play-offs for the Euros, contriving to finish fourth in an eminently winnable group, they simply must make a good start to get their campaign going in the right direction. Results have improved since their qualifying nightmare and they may well be in a good position to take advantage of Sweden’s changing of the guard.
My Prediction: Sweden 0-2 Netherlands
WGF Prediction: Draw
Also keep an eye on:
Group H –Gibraltar v. Greece
Europe’s other World Cup debutant had an understandably difficult time of things in Euro qualifying. They did have their moments though – scoring an equaliser away at Scotland, and restricting the World champions Germany to a 4-0 win away from home. They do have the ability to make teams struggle a bit, even if the end result will surely be another defeat.
In Greece though, they face a team that managed to lose home and away to the Faroe Islands in Euro qualifying, and are at a very low ebb. Can this possible be a shock result? Surely not, but the dreamer in me would love it to be so.
Belarus v. France
Bulgaria v. Luxembourg
Andorra v. Latvia
Faroe Islands v. Hungary
Switzerland v. Portugal
Bosnia & Herzegovina v. Estonia
Cyprus v. Belgium