The razzle dazzle of the FIFA Russia 2018 World Cup Qualification draw, I could hardly contain my excitement. The dreamy graphics, couple of side shots of the locals who all look so happy to be on the telly and cue the draws after three cups of tea and a packet of bourbon biscuits. Gym beckons on Monday (wishful thinking). The nine group winners advance directly to the World Cup finals. The eight runners-up with the best record against the teams first, third, fourth and fifth in their groups proceed to play-offs to decide the remaining four European berths. I am going to look into my mystic ball and see who will qualify from these European World Cup groups.
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
This looks an interesting group on paper provided that Zlatan is still available for Sweden selection. This conceivably looks like a three horse race with Netherlands (never can tell on their morale and desire to do well), France (defensively solid but whether they have a midfield play maker to unlock a top class defense) and Sweden (workman like team with a superstar in Zlatan). Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg look the also rans but trips to Sofia and Minsk will be treated by the top three ranked teams in this pool with the respect that it deserves. Netherlands will have a point to prove after what has currently happened in this UEFA Championship qualification, no team spirit, manager has given his marching orders. I am going to go with Netherlands and France to qualify outright with Sweden to be the team that no-one will want to draw in the playoffs. Sweden conceivably could be ranked as top playoff team.
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Ronaldo could take a couple of months out during this qualification campaign and Portugal would still advance without little issue. Switzerland’s youthful side containing Xheridi will be the second team to qualify. The big question here is how good are Hungary? If Hungary get their confidence early in this group, they could spring a surprise result against the supposed top two. Faroes, Latvia and Andorra are gone before a ball is kicked.
Portugal (Group Winner), Switzerland (Second)
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Intriguing group here as Germany will be hotly tipped to advance as group winners but the second place berth is anyone’s guess. You have three teams potentially that will be vying for this spot. Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Norway – all these teams look equally matched and it will be dependent on their head to head record. Northern Ireland are playing well at the moment and if they continue to improve and build momentum will not fear any teams in this group. Norway are the dark horse, they have underperformed in recent years but their underage structures are producing several world class players and with this qualification campaign could see them impress. Czech Republic, the jury is out because if Rosicky and Cech calls it quits after this qualificaton, there does not look to be the strength in depth to replace that calibre of player.
Germany (Group Winner), Norway (second), Northern Ireland (playoff)
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Equally matched group. Four teams will look at this draw and say that they have every chance of advancing to the World Cup finals. Wales have being very impressive in this European Championship Qualification campaign beating Belgium. Bale and Ramsey have being sensational and will be the major threats for Chris Coleman’s team. Republic of Ireland team will probably be without John O’Shea and Robbie Keane (retirements) and it is questionable if the talent is there to replace those key players. Martin O’Neill conceivably could be managing back at club level. Republic will be competitive but you do question the attacking prowess of the team. Austria are an extremely workmanlike outfit. Vienna is a tough venue for anyone to go and get anything from the Austrians where the majority ply their trade in Bundesliga. Serbia are the dark horse. If their management and squad are on the same page, they have the football ability to easily top this group. Serbia could very easily be disinterested and could give up the ghost. I think with the World Cup in Russia, there will be renewed hunger in the Serbian camp to do well and quality for this final. Moldova and Georgia will be the also rans.
Serbia (Group Winner), Wales (second), Ireland (playoffs but it is heart ruling the head)
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Eastern Bloc feel to this group so plenty of air miles for Denmark in this campaign. This is a very tough group to call as the top three rank teams have plenty of positives and negatives. Romania are flattering to deceive in a weak European Championship group. They have drawn with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park so have shown good defensive qualities. The fact that Greece have capitulated in their current pool makes calling Romania’s form hard to call. Poland should be confident of advancing from this pool. On their day, the Poles can give any team a run for their money — look at the Germany European Championship win in Warsaw, showed their counter attacking style and deservedly won. Lewandowski is the star player in this pool and Poland get my vote to top this pool. Denmark are in rebuild mode, underage structures are producing promising players but sense this campaign may be too soon for the current U21 players to flourish. Romania are my hesitant second place prediction but would not be surprised if Denmark pip them to this. No playoff berth in this group considering the lack of goalscoring prowess (apart from Poland on display).
Poland (Group Winners), Denmark (second place)
Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta
Sky Sports went orgasmic after this announcement. The old rivals of Scotland and England paired together in the same pool. England will be familiar with Lithuania and Slovenia tactics given they are in the same pool for the current European Championship qualifiers. Scotland have all the traits to advance from this group, excellent man manager in Gordon Strachan and their team is hard to breakdown and possess Fletcher as a potential game winner upfront. The fact that there will be an Eastern European derby in Slovakia and Slovenia means that both these teams will lose points to Scotland and England and these two teams will advance ultimately. England could be in another state of transition. Will Hodgson still be in charge? What England players will decide to call time on their international careers?
England (Group Winners), Scotland (second place), Slovenia (Playoffs)
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein
The easiest pool to predict. Spain and Italy will advance with ease. Israel and Albania will battle it out for third spot and the others are also rans before a ball is kicked. Macedonia should be pushing for the third spot but their current results are erratic at best.
Spain (Group Winners), Italy (second), Israel (playoffs)
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
A campaign where Belgium can experiment with their tactics and squad for bigger tests in the actual World Cup finals. They are the standout team in this group. Greece and Bosnia to battle it out for second place. Both teams are indifferent at best currently but both teams should provide renewed hunger to advance to Russia.
Belgium (Group Winners), Bosnia (second based on their better form at present)
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland
Croatia look the overwhelming favorite to advance from this group. The battle for second place will be intriguing as Iceland (emerging talent), Ukraine (always tough opposition to face) and Turkey (technically gifted) will be confident of pool progression. For comedy gold, I am putting my second place team as Ukraine.
Croatia (Group Winners), Ukraine (second place)