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Europe’s big guns present and correct

The Spain and Italy players prepare to walk out to the pitch
© Getty Images

Once again, Europe will send an experienced and powerful-looking collection of teams to the FIFA World Cup™, with five former champions – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, who boast ten victories between them – among the 13-strong delegation set to fly to Brazil next year.

Just one of those nations, Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be making their first appearance at the festival of football.

The continent’s traditional heavyweights all booked their tickets in the end, although some had more trouble than others. France overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit in the play-offs to qualify, thereby eliminating Ukraine, who exited at the play-off stage for the fourth time.

Sweden also fell at this final hurdle, signifying that the supremely talented Zlatan Ibrahimovic will unfortunately be absent from FIFA’s flagship event.

The qualified teams
Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Switzerland.

Memorable moments
*11 October 2013: Israelis prove tough nut to crack
*Israel forced Portugal into the play-offs by conjuring up an unexpected equaliser in the dying minutes of their clash in Lisbon (1-1), taking the Lusitanians’ destiny out of their own hands. It was not the first time that the Israelis had been a thorn in Portugal’s side, having already held them to a 3-3 draw in March. Those two slip-ups may have cost the Portuguese, but they were warmly welcomed by the Russians, who ended up topping Group F.

*7 June 2013: Scots spoil Croatian party
*For the Croatians, who were lying fourth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and involved in a neck-and-neck battle with Belgium at the top of Group A, the visit of Scotland looked to be nothing more than a formality. The plucky Scots had not read the script, however, as Robert Snodgrass proceeded to score the only goal of the encounter, not only inflicting a first competitive defeat on Croatia since a 4-1 loss to England in 2008, but practically consigning them to the play-offs in the process.

*22 March 2013: Bosnians boosted by fearsome firepower
*The race to win Group G was the tightest of the entire European qualifying campaign. Following a 0-0 draw in Piraeus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece met in Zenica, acutely aware that the result would be critical to their World Cup aspirations. Safet Susic’s prolific strikeforce of Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic did the damage in a 3-1 victory which helped propel the Bosnians to the World Cup for the first time in their history.

*11 and 15 October 2013: Rooney to the rescue
*By notching the opener versus Montenegro (4-1) and Poland (2-0), Wayne Rooney paved the way to Brazil for an England side that had at one point looked like missing out on automatic qualification. With seven goals to his name, the Manchester United forward became the first Englishman to finish top scorer for the Three Lions in two consecutive World Cup qualifying campaigns.

26 March 2013: Titanic tussle in Group I
*In the only section to feature two former world champions, title-holders Spain came away from Paris with a 1-0 victory over France under their belts, Pedro grabbing the crucial goal. The result saw *La Roja
take a huge step towards qualification, while Les Bleus would have to negotiate the play-offs in order to join them.

Players to watch
Imposing Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, 20 years of age, sealed Belgium’s place at Brazil 2014 with an opportunistic brace in Croatia, the highlight of which was a half-pitch sprint that would have put some rugby wingers to shame. He is one of many rising stars in an increasingly fancied Belgian XI.

France’s 20-year-old attacking midfielder Paul Pogba has been the revelation of the season so far at Juventus. His international experience may be limited to seven caps, but his physical impact, shooting power and natural poise should leave a lasting impression on fans in Brazil.

Cristiano Ronaldo emerged victorious from his recent high-profile duel with Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, thereby ensuring that he would appear on the World Cup stage for a third time. After having exited in the semi-finals in 2006 and the Round of 16 in 2010, the Portuguese captain (108 appearances, 47 goals) will, given his current form, be confident of his side providing stiff opposition for any team next summer.

What they said
“We still need to improve defensively. That doesn’t just apply to our defenders; our midfielders and forwards also need to track back and close down our opponents,” Germany coach Joachim Low.

“We sometimes struggle during matches to maintain our desire and the right frame of mind. But when we do, we compete well. It’s not quality that we’re lacking,” France coach Didier Deschamps, on the eve of his team’s qualification via the play-offs.*

*The stats
16 – The number of total goals scored in the two qualifying matches between Germany and Sweden (4-4, 5-3).

18 – The number of times that Italy and Germany have now qualified for the final stages of the World Cup, placing them just behind Brazil (20). La *Nazionale *have four wins to Germany’s three.

Top scorers1. Robin van Persie (Netherlands), 11 goals in 688 minutes
2. Edin Dzeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina), 10 goals in 900 minutes
3. Mesut Ozil (Germany), 8 goals in 887 minutes, Vedad Ibisevic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), 8 goals in 892 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), 8 goals in 900 minutes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), 8 goals in 990 minutes.

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