Nothing to lose and everything to gain. That is what all six sides drawn into Group E of the European qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ will be thinking when the section gets under way. Though three of them have previous world finals experience and will set out as favourites in the race for qualification, they will have little margin for error against the pool’s other occupants, each of them outsiders with lofty ambitions.
*Romania, who were seeded highest when the Preliminary Draw was made in July 2015, have world finals experience under their belts, as do Denmark and Poland. Having each missed out on a place at Brazil 2014, they are all anxious to return to the spotlight in Russia. Yet with only one direct qualification slot available along with a solitary play-off berth, at least one of them is certain to fail in their attempt.
Indeed, more than one of them could be going away disappointed given the quality of opposition provided by Montenegro and Armenia, both of whom will be entertaining hopes of even winning the section. While Kazakhstan’s most realistic objective will be to gather some all too rare points, the Montenegrins and Armenians have altogether grander ambitions, fired in the case of the former by the presence of proven talents such as Stevan Jovetic and Stefan Savic and in that of the latter by the skills of Roman Berezovsky and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Another reason for the two dark horses to be optimistic of clinching a world finals debut is the absence in the pool of major European powers such as Germany, England, Spain and Italy. In a group as open as this, it is very much a case of “now or never” for these lesser lights of the European scene.
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*Gunning for revenge:* Drawn in the same group as Italy in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014, Denmark’s hopes of advancing to their fifth world finals in all and their second in a row seemed to rest on their ability to clinch a play-off slot as one of the eight best second-placed teams. Though the Danes did indeed finish section runners-up, they did so with the worst record in the nine groups, bringing their qualification aspirations to an abrupt end. Perhaps the biggest cause of that failure was a damaging 4-0 defeat to unfancied Armenia in June 2013, a setback the Scandinavians will be hoping to avenge this time around.
Memories good and bad: Having started out as members of the Asian Football Confederation, Kazakhstan made their World Cup qualifying debut in the preliminaries for France 1998. Unsuccessful on that occasion, the Kazakhs also failed to reach Korea/Japan 2002. After joining UEFA two years later, they came up short in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, in which time they scored just three victories, two of them coming against Andorra and the other at the expense of Faroe Islands. Kazakhstan can nevertheless take heart from the fact that they recorded a rare UEFA EURO qualifying win in 2007 over Serbia, neighbours of upcoming opponents Montenegro.
*3 -* Romania are one of only three nations to have contested the first three FIFA World Cups. The Tricolorii also made three consecutive world finals appearances in the 1990s before missing out on a place at the last four competitions.