ZURICH – While 23 places were up for grabs at UEFA EURO 2016 in France, only 13 spots are available to European teams at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. This means that even the continent’s heavyweights will need to tread carefully to secure direct qualification.
World champions Germany are one team on the right track, leading Group C by five points after scoring 16 goals without conceding. They must now travel to third-placed Azerbaijan without Manuel Neuer, who is currently recovering from a calf injury.
“Our task in Baku is far from easy,” said coach Joachim Low. “Azerbaijan beat Norway last time they played at home, so we have been warned.”
England find themselves in a similar position in Group F. Yet while they also have yet to concede a goal, they have already dropped two points in a 0-0 draw with the team currently in second, Slovenia.
Nevertheless, the nation expects a home win over Lithuania, while struggling Scotland will also be hoping to make home advantage count against Slovenia.
The recently appointed England manager Gareth Southgate is already getting to grips with the task ahead of him.
“I want new ideas and new ways of thinking,” he explained. “We have had success in every other sport in our country and we are almost a missing piece in that. That is a great driver but we know it is the hardest one to succeed in.”
Among the teams encountering greater difficulties are Spain and Italy, currently level on points at the top of Group G, and France, who currently lead Group A but will have to work hard to keep two formidable challengers – the Netherlands and Sweden – at bay.
While Spain and Italy will no doubt already be looking ahead to their head-to-head clash on 2 September, there is still plenty of work to be done first.
The Italians’ guests in Palermo this week are Albania, who have delivered several respectable performances during the current campaign, while in Gijon, Spain play host to an Israel side capable of not only causing an upset but perhaps even crashing the party altogether.
As UEFA EURO 2016 runners-up France take on bottom-of-the-table Luxembourg, who are still without a win in this campaign, they will be hoping for a slip-up from the Netherlands (away to Bulgaria) and Sweden (at home against Belarus).
Defeat in their opening match in Switzerland means European champions Portugal continue to trail Die Eidgenossen, who have yet to drop a point.
The Iberians now face a tricky task in their upcoming home match against Hungary, who could overtake their hosts with a win.
Switzerland will be on the hunt for another three points against Latvia in Geneva to make this their best-ever start to any qualifying campaign.
While last summer’s EUROs may not have played out the way Belgium wanted, Eden Hazard and his compatriots are once again demonstrating their generation’s potential on the road to Russia.
Their next encounter in Brussels is a top-of-the-table meeting with Greece, who can replace their hosts at the group summit with a win. Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina have a chance to close the gap on the leading pair with a home win over Gibraltar.
Groups D, E and I are still wide open without any clear favourites and no more than four points separating the top three teams in each pool.
The standout fixture in Group D is the Dublin meeting between frontrunners Republic of Ireland and EURO 2016 surprise package Wales, who currently sit in third.
Poland, boasting arguably their strongest team in many years, will travel to second-placed Montenegro as Group E pacesetters determined to secure a spot at Russia 2018 after failing to qualify for the last two World Cups.
Group I plays host to another top-of-the-table clash as Croatia, who have only conceded one goal so far in their 1-1 draw with Turkey, visit Zagreb to take on closest rivals Ukraine. At the same time, Iceland (in Kosovo) and Turkey (at home to Finland) will battle to close the gap to the leaders.