There is little doubt that reigning world champions Germany are the team to beat in Group C. The four-time FIFA World Cup™ winners will begin their title defence as the big favourites in a section in which Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Norway will all entertain hopes of being their closest pursuers.

For their part, Azerbaijan and San Marino will look to spring a surprise or two along the way, though the biggest question is whether the defending champions can continue to maintain the perfect balance between technique and tactics now that they are without their skilled ex-captain Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose, the leading goalscorer in World Cup history. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski also recently retired from the international game, leaving another gap of experience in coach Joachim Low's squad.

Teams
Germany
Czech Republic
Northern Ireland
Norway
Azerbaijan
San Marino

The story
All eyes will be on Germany and their progress since lifting the Trophy at Brazil 2014. Though Die Mannschaft have a large number of very gifted players to choose from, it remains to be seen how they will make the transition from one generation to the next following the retirements of Lahm, Klose, Podolski and Schweinsteiger.

However Germany are not without a host of established stars, among them Thomas Muller, new captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos, yet another of the country’s world class midfielders. Low will be looking to these players to take up more leadership responsibilities during their Russia 2018 qualifying campaign.

Did you know?
Neighbours face to face again: “Playing against the Czechs is always special,” said former Germany striker Oliver Bierhoff in an interview with FIFA shortly after the Preliminary Draw for Russia 2018 in St. Petersburg. Now the general manager of the German national team, Bierhoff has more reasons than most to have happy memories of previous meetings with their neighbours. He was his country’s saviour in the final of UEFA EURO 1996, coming off the bench with Germany trailing 1-0 to the Czechs and scoring two goals, the second of them a golden goal, to secure the European title.

Azerbaijan’s German connection: Germany’s coach that day at Wembley was their former international defender Berti Vogts, who would later enjoy a six-year spell in charge of the national team of Azerbaijan, situated between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It was under Vogts that the Azeris scored their first ever World Cup qualifying away win, a 2-0 defeat of Liechtenstein on 10 October 2009. Vogts faced the country of his birth four times as Azerbaijan coach, including twice during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and resigned from the post in October 2014. His replacement was ex-Croatia midfielder Robert Prosinecki, who was born in Germany and lived in Stuttgart until the age of 11.

We’ll meet again: Northern Ireland’s 4-0 defeat of San Marino on 15 October 2008 was their biggest ever win in a world-finals qualifier. The Northern Irish will have designs on similar results on the road to Russia 2018, though the Sammarinese would no doubt be content with a 0-0 draw or two. The statistics suggest they might be in with a chance of doing just that, with Northern Ireland having chalked up a record 15 goalless draws in World Cup qualifying matches.

Better luck this time, Norway: In the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, Norway finished second in their group behind eventual finalists the Netherlands, but missed out on a play-off place on account of having the worst record of all the runners-up in the European Zone. The Norwegians had reached the play-offs four years earlier but fell short of a place at Germany 2006 after losing to the Czechs, a setback they will now hope to avenge as they go in search of a place at what would be their fourth world finals after France 1938, USA 1994 and France 1998.

The stat
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Given their qualifying record, Germany have every right to feel confident ahead of the race for places at Russia 2018. Of the 84 World Cup preliminary matches they have contested prior to their latest campaign, Die Mannschaft have won 64, drawn 18 and lost just two and remain undefeated away from home. Those two reverses both came at home: a 1-0 loss to Portugal in 1985 and a 5-1 defeat at the hands of England in 2001.