Three of the six teams in Group B have already taken part at a FIFA World Cup™, but while both Portugal and Switzerland reached the most recent finals in Brazil, Hungary’s last outing at the tournament was in 1986. Andorra have been involved in qualifying since 2002, and Latvia and Faroe Islands have participated since 1992, but none of the trio have ever managed to book a place at a World Cup.
Switzerland may have gone as far as the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014, but UEFA EURO 2016 champions Portugal - who were eliminated in the group stage of the competition - are favourites to win this pool. The main reason for that is the presence of the country’s all-time top scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo. The superstar captain of the Seleção das Quinas scored eight of his team’s 24 goals en route to Brazil, and provided assists for three more.
Nevertheless, the Iberians were vulnerable at the back and conceded 11 times in 12 qualifying games, a return that eventually forced them into the play-offs, where they again had Ronaldo to thank for pulling through. If the other teams are to have a chance of booking a ticket to Russia, they will have to keep the 2008, 2013 and 2014 Ballon d’Or winner at bay and be clinical in front of goal themselves.
In that regard Switzerland will be able to use their experience from the last World Cup. In their last 16 encounter against Argentina, the Eidgenossen kept Lionel Messi and his fellow attackers in check so well that it took them until the 118th minute to break the deadlock. The departures of Diego Benaglio and Philippe Senderos, among others, have deprived the squad of important and experienced figures at the back, but the players coming through can be relied upon to take their places. The majority of the team play in Europe’s biggest leagues and face big-name opponents every week.
The same may not be true of Hungary, Latvia, Faroe Islands and Andorra, but that does not mean they should fear Ronaldo. Instead, they should look at the example set by Israel in Brazil 2014 qualifying, when they secured two draws (1-1 and 3-3) against CR7 and Co.
Did you know?
Barren spell: Since losing 3-2 to Germany FR in the Final at Switzerland 1954, Hungary have played seven times in Switzerland, winning four (all of which were friendlies). Their last triumph on Swiss soil was on 30 April 1976 in Lausanne.
Unique feat: Latvia’s greatest achievement to date on the international stage was qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004, although they have never reached the finals of a World Cup. They are the only country to have played at a European Championship but not at a global showdown.
Misfiring attack: Andorra have only ever recorded one victory in four World Cup qualifying campaigns, beating FYR Macedonia 1-0 on 13 October 2004 in the build-up to Germany 2006. However, during qualifying for the last World Cup they failed to chalk up any points or score a single goal.
4 – After participating at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 finals, Switzerland could appear at a fourth successive World Cup in Russia. They have only ever managed such a run of consecutive outings once before, featuring at the 1934, 1938, 1950 and 1954 editions. Portugal, for their part, have played at every World Cup since 2002, meaning they would stretch their streak of uninterrupted tournament appearances to five if they qualify.