Group A appears to be one of the most open sections to emerge from the Preliminary Draw, containing four teams – Croatia, Serbia, Belgium and Scotland – who will view top spot as an attainable objective, and two more – FYR Macedonia and Wales – who could feasibly snatch a play-off spot.
“It’s a group where every team is capable of beating everyone else, but also of losing points to everyone else,” was Belgium coach Georges Leekens’ succinct summary of the group.
Another subplot stems from the fact that the pool includes three countries from the former Yugoslavia, all known for their technical style of play, as well as two British nations. The Belgians, who arguably boast the most talented individuals, will be hoping that these ‘derbies’ result in dropped points that they can take advantage of.
Since regaining their FIFA membership in 1992, Croatia have taken part in the final stages of the FIFA World Cup™ three times out of the last four (in 1998, 2002 and 2006), only falling by the wayside in 2010. Under the guidance of Slaven Bilic, Croatia have seen a new generation of talented players brought into the fold, adding a sprinkling of youth to the experience of squad stalwarts such as Dario Srna, Ivica Olic and Mladen Petric. The team possesses a skilful midfield and an effective strikeforce, in which Brazilian-born Eduardo is a key component. Solid throughout the team, the Croatians are capable of producing some stunning upsets, such as their 3-2 win at Wembley over England during the qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2008.
Serbia played their first official international fixture as an independent country on 16 August 2006, which resulted in a 3-1 win over the Czech Republic. Since then, the Beli Orlovi have quickly risen in stature, reaching South Africa 2010 by finishing top of their qualifying group, ahead of France.
Belgium can count on some top-quality individual talents, but they have not yet managed to blend them together effectively. Les Diables Rouges have participated in 11 FIFA World Cup final tournaments, six of which came back-to-back between 1982 and 2002, but have missed the last two, despite the emergence of numerous rising stars such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.
Players to watch
For Croatia, Darijo Srna, Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar constitute a midfield that would rival any other on the planet, and they will look to provide the requisite service to Eduardo, who has yet to fully regain the form he displayed prior to the serious injury he suffered in England. Serbia’s spine features Branislav Ivanovic, Neven Subotic and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen at the back, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini in midfield, and Romelu Lukaku and Moussa Dembele up front will likely be the key players for an ambitious Belgium side. FYR Macedonia will look to talisman Goran Pandev to provide some crucial goals, while Scotland will need their captain and Manchester United midfield man Darren Fletcher to reproduce his club form if they are to have any chance of advancing. Promising Arsenal starlet Aaron Ramsey will also doubtless play a prominent role for Wales, alongside explosive wide-man Gareth Bale.
The crunch match
In what is likely to be a fiercely-contested pool, matches between the serious contenders will obviously be pivotal. However, qualification may come down to which teams are able to consistently pick up points away from home, especially from tricky trips to Macedonia and Wales.
A look back
Croatia, Belgium and Scotland have crossed swords in FIFA World Cup qualifying before, finding themselves in the same group as they battled to reach Korea/Japan 2002. Croatia and Scotland could not be separated over their two matches (1-1 and 0-0), but Croatia did manage to establish a slight advantage over Belgium (1-0 and 0-0), who beat Scotland 2-0 at home, having drawn 2-2 at Hampden Park. In the end, it was Croatia (18 points) who qualified directly, finishing above Belgium (17) and Scotland (15).
5 – The number of goals scored by Belgium against Macedonia on 7 June 1995. The Macedonians will be out to avenge that 5-0 defeat, which remains the heaviest loss in their short footballing history.
Did you know?
With three former constituent nations of the former Yugoslavia, the group is not short on local rivalry. Since joining FIFA, Croatia and Serbia have never met in their current guise. However, Croatia and Yugoslavia did meet during UEFA EURO 2000 qualifying, drawing twice.
Have your say
In this tight-looking group, who do you think will finish top?