Arjen Robben’s swashbuckling runs, that header from RVP, Ronaldo and Varela dramatically combining for the latest goal in regulation time in FIFA World Cup™ history, Belgium’s thrilling extra-time elimination of USA, those Germans wowing and winning – the European paintbrush indubitably decorated the 20th FIFA World Cup. Now it’s time for them to begin their quest to reach its 21st.
UEFA Zone qualifying includes two debuting Davids trying to swim through Goliath-infested pools, the three most expensive footballers in history, and the reigning world champions, continental champions and Europe’s northernmost team on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – none of whom are one and the same.
While UEFA EURO 2016 featured 24 teams, only 13 tickets to Russia 2018 are available on the Old Continent – nine to each of the group winners and four via the play-offs. This, football fans, is going to be interesting from the outset...
Matchday 1 fixtures *
Group A: Belarus-France, Bulgaria-Luxembourg, Sweden-Netherlands
Group B: *Andorra-Latvia, Faroe Islands-Hungary, Switzerland-Portugal
*Group C: *San Marino-Azerbaijan, Czech Republic-Northern Ireland, Norway-Germany
**Group D: Georgia-Austria, Serbia-Republic of Ireland, Wales-Moldova
Group E: Denmark-Armenia, Kazakhstan-Poland, Romania-Montenegro
Group F: Lithuania-Slovenia, Slovakia-England, Malta-Scotland
Group G: Albania-FYR Macedonia, Israel-Italy, Spain-Liechtenstein
Group H: Bosnia and Herzegovina-Estonia, Cyprus-Belgium, Gibraltar-Greece
Group I: Croatia-Turkey, Finland-Kosovo, Ukraine-Iceland
The big match *
Croatia and Turkey have engaged in several high-stakes scraps over the years, and 12 weeks after Luka Modric volleyed the former to victory in the last one, the respective bronze medallists at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002 have another. This one’s importance is indebted to their pool being arguably the most wide open, with little separating Croatia (15th), Turkey (19th), Iceland (23rd) and Ukraine (30th) on the FIFA Ranking, and Finland having put up a heroic showing in a section featuring Spain and France in Brazil 2014 qualifying. Ante Cacic has the likes of Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic at his disposal. Fatih Terim, for his part, surprisingly overlooked Arda Turan and Burak Yilmaz as he selected a squad with a maximum age of 29. It includes 19-year-old forward Enes Unal, who recently hit a first-half hat-trick for Twente after joining on loan from Manchester City. Ukraine entertain Iceland in another intriguing *Group I duel, while Finland will expect three points from the visit of newcomers Kosovo.
The other attractions *
After making it four World Cup appearances out of five at Germany 2006, Sweden have missed out on the last two. After dazzling at the last one, the Netherlands failed to even reach the recent EURO. Their new-look squads will both be out for victory given that they have France, who visit Belarus, for company in *Group A.
Coming off the conquering of their maiden major trophy, Portugal visit Switzerland in a battle of the *Group B *favourites. Hungary, who are also hoping to have a say, can afford no slip-up in the Faroe Islands.
Retirements and injuries may have shorn Germany of several big names, but they still have an abundance of talent with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, while 20-year-old Max Meyer is threatening to become the latest. They head to Oslo, where opponents Norway troublingly lost 1-0 to Belarus on Wednesday. The World Cup holders’ chief rivals for top spot in Group C, Czech Republic and Northern Ireland, convene in Prague, while San Marino host Azerbaijan in the other game.
Wales, fresh from a fine EURO and with Gareth Bale dazzling for Real Madrid, begin against Moldova in Cardiff. Austria, fresh from a forgettable showing in France, are in Georgia as Serbia entertain Republic of Ireland in a tussle of teams with genuine qualification aspirations in Group D.
A 0-0 loss in Armenia stymied Denmark’s chances of reaching EURO 2016, so now-coach Age Hareide has warned his charges against complacency as they entertain the same side. Poland and Romania will both have to do the same away to Kazakhstan and at home to Montenegro in Group E.
Sam Allardyce’s first game as England manager is away to Slovakia, whom they drew with 0-0 at EURO 2016. Although a number of big-name players have struggled for their clubs this season, Wayne Rooney has provided a couple of assists and Raheem Sterling has looked rejuvenated under Pep Guardiola. Scotland will expect a successful Group F start in Malta.
Spain should win big in their Group G curtain-raiser at home to Liechtenstein, but chief rivals Italy have an examining start in Israel. New coach Giampiero Ventura surprisingly retained Graziano Pelle in his squad and handed a maiden call-up to exciting attacker Andrea Belotti. Albania, meanwhile, will be determined to pick up maximum points at home to FYR Macedonia as they strive to keep pace with the heavyweights.
Roberto Martinez is ready to unleash Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard on Cyprus, to whom Belgium have never lost. Mehmed Bazdarevic has stressed his Bosnia and Herzegovina side cannot let the Belgians get away in Group H, and will be looking to Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic to ensure they don’t drop points at home to Estonia. Greece, too, know that if they are to make a third consecutive World Cup, they must be seeing off Gibraltar.
*Players to watch *
Joao Mario had an excellent EURO and since made a €40m move to Inter Milan. In the absence of Renato Sanches and Cristiano Ronaldo, added burden will be on the 23-year-old to create. Juventus full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner will be out to negate his threat 12 days before they clash in the Derby d’Italia.
*Did You Know? *
Lum Rexhepi, who was born in Finland, won a senior cap for Finland and plays in Finland for HJK, is expected to line up against Finland for Kosovo.
Fernando Santos, Portugal coach: *“We’re the European champions. We’ll be the European champions until 2020. The pressure is over until then. We have no extra weight on our shoulders and want to try and qualify for the World Cup as quickly as possible.”