Following the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ in St. Petersburg, players, pundits and press alike were in agreement that Group G in European zone qualifying looks set to be decided by the fixtures between two former world champions: Spain and Italy. If the past is anything to go by, the teams’ meetings will determine who will secure an automatic berth at Russia 2018, and who will be required to go through the play-offs.
*As was the case during Brazil 2014 qualifying, Spain will tussle with a former world champion as they seek to book their place at the 2018 finals. They forced France into the play-offs last time out after recording a 1-0 victory in Paris, but now four-time World Cup winners Italy (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006) are blocking their path to Russia. Both sides had disappointing tournaments in Brazil last year and were eliminated at the group stage, so will go into the new qualifying campaign eager to show their true colours.
Recent history gives La Roja plenty of reason to be optimistic, as it was against Gli Azzurri that they achieved the result that heralded the start of their most successful era. In the quarter-finals of the 2008 UEFA European Championship, Cesc Fabregas’ penalty banished the ghosts of the past and set Spain on course to win the title. Four years later, this time as reigning world champions, Spain defended their continental crown against Italy in the final.
Of the remaining four teams in Group G, only Israel have ever previously participated at a World Cup. Nevertheless, their coach admitted meekly: “It’s the most difficult draw we’ve ever had.” Albania in particular have improved in recent years, and their recent success in taking points from both Portugal and France serves as a warning against complacency to their opponents.
Did you know?
*Four different confederations: *Israel’s last outing at a World Cup came at Mexico 1970, which they qualified for as a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Indeed, Israel contested World Cup qualifying campaigns in Asia, Oceania and Africa before settling in the European zone.
Accustomed to the wooden spoon: *Liechtenstein have *competed in the last five World Cup qualifying campaigns but have only managed to avoid finishing bottom of their group once. That occasion came in the build-up to Germany 2006, when they ended up second from last after beating Luxembourg 4-0 away in 2004.
*Memorable goal-fest: *FYR Macedonia’s biggest victory to date arrived during France 1998 qualifying, when they thrashed Liechtenstein 11-1.
*3* – Spain and Italy have never previously played each other during World Cup qualifying, although they have locked horns three times at the tournament proper, meeting in the quarter-finals on each occasion. The most recent of those encounters was at USA 1994, when goals from Dino and Roberto Baggio cancelled out Jose Luis Caminero’s strike to take eventual runners-up Italy through to the semi-finals. Before then the teams crossed swords at Italy 1934. As penalty shoot-outs did not take place at the time a rematch had to be staged after the sides drew 1-1, with Italy’s Giuseppe Meazza netting the decisive goal in the second fixture.