On paper, Croatia go into Group I as clear favourites having already participated at four FIFA World Cups™ - one more than the other five sides combined. Spearheaded by stars of the calibre of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, all of whom won the UEFA Champions League in recent years, with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, Croatia were the only team in this group to play at Brazil 2014. Two other sides went close to joining them there, only to narrowly miss out in the end.
Kosovo will be playing in an official World Cup qualifying campaign for the first time after being confirmed as a member of FIFA in May 2016.
Iceland were without doubt one of the surprise packages of the last edition of European zone qualifying. After finishing as group runners-up to Switzerland they went on to meet Croatia in the play-offs. Following a goalless draw at home in the first leg, the Nordic underdogs lost 2-0 away, with goals from Mandzukic and Darijo Srna ending Iceland’s dreams of qualifying. Each team had a player sent off over the course of the tie: Olafur Skulason was shown a red card in the first leg and Mandzukic was expelled in the return fixture, meaning the Croatian attacker missed the Opening Match against hosts Brazil at last year’s finals. Iceland built on their Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign and went on a stunning run to the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter-finals in France.
When the teams meet it will be the third time they do so in World Cup qualifying. They also locked horns en route to Germany 2006, with Croatia winning 4-0 in Zagreb and 3-1 in Reykjavik. Will the northerners be able to pick up a maiden victory this time?
*Did you know?
*Alongside Iceland, Ukraine reached the play-offs for the 2014 World Cup and had one foot in Brazil after beating France 2-0 in the first leg. However, the 1998 world champions turned the tie around at the Stade de France in Paris and won the return fixture 3-0.
Iceland’s approximate population stands at just 320,000, meaning the Scandinavians would become the smallest nation ever to qualify for the biggest tournament in the world’s most popular game.
Alongside Croatia, who have appeared at four World Cups, only Turkey (twice) and Ukraine (once) have previously taken part at the finals.
*3 – *Finland finished in third place in their World Cup qualifying group for a second consecutive time prior to Brazil 2014. In the build-up to South Africa 2010, Germany and Russia took the top two spots, while Spain and France did likewise ahead of last year’s tournament. Furthermore, two of the teams in Group I have achieved third-placed finishes at a World Cup.
In 1998 Croatia reached the semi-finals after victories over Romania and Germany, among others, but lost out to hosts and eventual champions France 2-1. In the Play-off for Third Place they beat the Netherlands 2-1 to secure the bronze medal. Turkey also had a podium finish in 2002, beating co-hosts Japan and Korea Republic in the Round of 16 and third-place play-off respectively.