Gareth Bale is the standout star in European qualifying Group D, with the Real Madrid wizard hoping to guide Wales to their first FIFA World Cup™ in six decades. *FIFA.com *guides you through the pool, in which the Welsh face close neighbours Republic of Ireland.
That pair take their place alongside Austria and Serbia, two sides looking to relive past World Cup glories, as well as Moldova and Georgia, who will be hoping to spring a surprise on the road to Russia.
Republic of Ireland
*A Welsh goal machine playing on foreign shores, who joined a European giant for a record fee, leads his side to the World Cup. That story has been told once before, and Dragons' fans will be hoping that history repeats itself in 2018, 60 years after then-Juventus forward John Charles starred at Sweden 1958. Wales’ modern-day poster boy is hoping to be the man to end a long wait for a spot at the global finals, with stars like Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and one of Bale’s predecessors in the No11 shirt, Ryan Giggs, all failing to lead them on to the biggest stage. Wales will be playing with confidence running high following their historic run to the UEFA EURO 2016 semi-finals in France.
Standing in the way of Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Co are some stern tests though. Most notably, a short journey across the Irish Sea will see Wales lock horns with Republic of Ireland, who they will meet for the first time in World Cup qualifying. It has been quite a wait for the Irish (though not as quite as long as their neighbours) since their memorable appearance in 2002, and they will have to return to the global finals without all-time leading scorer Robbie Keane, who announced his international retirement.
Serbia and Austria are the most experienced World Cup campaigners in Group D, with 17 finals appearances between them. Only four of those have come since 1990, however, meaning both, like Wales, are looking to roll the clock back.
Georgia and Moldova have history, with the Jvarosnebi *recording their first World Cup qualifying win against the Moldovans *in 1997. The latter will be hoping to build on a strong Brazil 2014 qualifying performance, with three wins more than doubling their total number of qualifying victories.
Did you know?
*Aaron Ramsey *was the youngest man to captain Wales, at the tender age of 20 years and 90 days, when the late Gary Speed named him skipper in 2011.
*Nine *of these fixtures have not been played in World Cup qualifying before with *four *(Austria-Georgia, Serbia-Moldova, Serbia-Georgia and Republic of Ireland-Moldova) of these meetings happening for the first time at senior level.
Only two sides, Soviet Union (in 1978) and Portugal (in 1990 and 1994), have failed to reach the senior World Cup that immediately followed their respective FIFA U-20 World Cup successes. 2015 champions Serbia will be hoping they are not the third.
*20 –* Republic of Ireland are one of only three teams, along with Luxembourg and Portugal, to compete in every single World Cup preliminary tournament. Russia 2018 will be their 20th appearance.