Assessing the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw

Roy Hodgson will be delighted at the group England have got
Roy Hodgson will be delighted at the group England have got

The draw for the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign has thrown up some interesting European groups.

As has often been the case in recent years, England have been handed a very kind draw, with the bonus of two high-octane games against Scotland to look forward to as well.

England, Wales, Germany and Belgium will have been thrilled with their comparatively straightforward groups, but there is less reason for fans of Italy, France, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain to be optimistic.

Bizarrely, although the draw was only made at the weekend, qualifiers in far-flung corners of the globe have been taking place since March with Timorese player Chiquito do Carmo scoring the first goal in the competition during his team's 4-1 victory against Mongolia.

While it is unlikely that any of the teams that have already played in the qualifiers will be featuring in Russia in just less than three years' time, some of European football's big guns may also be struggling to make the finals.

There are nine groups in Europe with only the top team from each section guaranteed a place in Russia, with the eight best runners-up then moving into the play-offs.

As has often been the case in recent years, England have been handed a very kind draw, with the bonus of two high-octane games against Scotland to look forward to as well.

Roy Hodgson's side avoided any of the potential dangerous second seeds in the draw and should have little trouble seeing off Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, while Scotland will be confident of sealing the runners-up spot.

England and Scotland have not met in a competitive match since the Euro 2000 play-offs and the two qualifiers, which are scheduled for Friday 11th November 2016 at Wembley and Saturday 10th June 2017 at Hampden Park, will be eagerly-anticipated encounters.

Hodgson's side eased to a 3-1 friendly win in Glasgow eight months ago but the two World Cup qualifiers are expected to be far more frenetic affairs.

Defending world champions Germany, expected to do well at Euro 2016 also have every chance of finishing at the top of their World Cup qualifying group after being drawn against the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

It looks set to be a tough assignment for Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland side, who have performed so well in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. They will be hoping to challenge the Czech Republic and Norway for a runners-up spot behind Germany.

Belgium should have no trouble progressing from Group H, which also includes the far from mighty Bosnia, Greece, Estonia and Cyprus, while Croatia will fancy their chances of progressing from Group I, even though Iceland have caused a few shocks of late, while Ukraine, Turkey and Finland are all capable of challenging for top spot in what appears to be an open group.

Wales' recent form, which included a memorable victory against Belgium last month, meant they were one of the top seeds at the draw and, as a result, Chris Coleman's side have a fine opportunity to reach their first World Cup finals since 1958.

They have been drawn against Austria, Serbia, the Republic of Ireland, Moldova and Georgia which could barely have been a better outcome for Coleman's men.

However, because Wales were one of the top seeds, France and Italy were in the second bowl and Les Bleus have been placed in the same group as the Netherlands and Sweden which means at least one previous World Cup finalist will not be playing in Russia.

Italy are in the same group as Spain, a bizarre outcome as these two teams have won two of the last three World Cups.

Portugal and Switzerland should take the top two places in Group B while Romania, Denmark and Poland will do battle in Group E where Montenegro will be dangerous outsiders.

So as usual there are winners and losers in the World Cup qualifying draw, which will be put on the back-burner for now as European teams concentrate on qualifying for Euro 2016.

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