Though Belgium are the team to beat in Group H, Greece will be out to build on their fine FIFA World Cup™ qualification record of recent times, while Bosnia and Herzegovina will look to consolidate their status as rising stars on the European scene. Behind them, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar have the aim of remaining in contention for as long as possible.
Gibraltar will be playing in an official World Cup qualifying campaign for the first time after being confirmed as a member of FIFA in May 2016.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
With players of the calibre of Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne in their ranks, Belgium boast a generation that does justice to their nickname of Les *Diables Rouges *(The Red Devils). Quarter-finalists at Brazil 2014, the Belgians are the clear favourites to top the pool. Their four opponents will set off with the intention of keeping pace with them, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece both eyeing a play-off place at the very least.
As they have shown in reaching the last three UEFA EURO competitions and the last two World Cups, 2004 European champions Greece have developed a happy knack of qualifying for major tournaments. At Brazil 2014 they made the most of their tried and tested blend of all-out commitment, tactical discipline and team spirit to advance to the Round of 16, a stage the Bosnians came close to gracing on their maiden world finals appearance.
The likes of Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic will have noted, however, that the difference between the best and the rest at the very highest level often comes down to the smallest of details, with experience counting a great deal. Having had a taste of the high life, the Bosnians are hungry for more, while the Greeks will be anxious to maintain their hard-won place in the elite.
Recent qualifying results have provided further proof that there are indeed no easy games anymore, as coaches, players and pundits like to point out. The days when teams such as Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar were mere pushovers for the big guns of international football are well and truly over. In the last ten years or so, the supposed minnows of European football have shown an increasing ability to give as good as they get against the stronger nations, sometimes even managing to trip them up. All these three sides need to push themselves into genuine contention for a world finals place is a touch more consistency.
Did you know?
*The perfect draw: *Having long seen Belgium as an example for Europe’s smaller countries to follow, the Estonian Football Association has spent many years trying to set up a friendly with the men in red. Yet with the draw pitching the two teams together in the same section, the Baltic nation’s quest for that elusive match-up is now over.
Thank you Lady Luck: Belgium seemed to enjoy more than their fair share of good fortune in competition draws and penalty shoot-outs during Guy Thys’ two spells in charge of the national team between 1976 and 1989 and then from 1990 to 1991. The legendary coach was seen as Les Diables Rouges’ very own lucky charm.
*3 -* the number of teams in Group H (Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cyprus) that were drawn together in the same qualifying group for UEFA EURO 2016.