Fabio Capello will be confident that England can qualify from a group that presents neither genuinely dangerous opposition nor a handful of comfortable walkovers.
Switzerland and Bulgaria most notably should represent difficult engagements on their own territory. The former recovered from a shock loss to Luxembourg to edge out Greece and qualify automatically for the World Cup in South Africa, while the latter drew twice with the Republic of Ireland to finish a close third in a group that contained current world champions Italy. Montenegro’s low seeding is based on the fact they are a new international team and thus an unknown quantity. The early evidence is they will be seeded much higher before too long. They performed credibly in the same World Cup qualification group and, like Bulgaria, they managed two draws with the Irish. So England could have been granted much weaker opposition from the lower reaches of the draw and they may well miss the luxury of a straightforward game to pencil in for the close-season. In short, six points against them is far from a foregone conclusion.
This leaves the other team in the group, Wales. The Welsh have had their seeding propped up by victories over relative minnows, which has camouflaged a very poor record against ‘live’ opposition. John Toshack asked to be judged on the 2010 qualifying campaign when he took over in 2005 and now is really the time for him and his side to deliver on their often-stated promise. Should it all come to fruition, then Wales will feel they are in a four-way battle for second place. However, in the event that things continue as they have, there is a real prospect of them finishing dead last in the group, with ramifications that could hinder future campaigns no end. Capello will feel England can go through this eight match series unbeaten while the others will surely take points off each other, thus achieving qualification with a degree of comfort. The prospect of two local derbies will especially excite some Welsh fans but it’s hard to see beyond two England victories based on current form. Nobody ever gets the dream draw and England will not be overly worried by today’s developments.
The Republic of Ireland will quietly fancy their chances of putting ‘that’ handball behind them and qualifying for their first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Giovanni Trapattoni has built his side around solid defence and this has led to some impressive results away from Croke Park. As ‘superior’ seeds go, Slovakia and Russia signify opposition that should test them but is eminently beatable, while Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra are sides they should look to gain six points from if they are serious about qualification. If they can avoid catastrophe in one of these games then it sets them up with a genuine opportunity to win the group outright. Scotland will be targeting a dual with the Czechs to finish second in a group that contains clear favourites Spain. They must also avoid embarassment against Liechtenstein and Lithuania (a side they have lost to more than once before), but will see the Czechs’ failure to make South Africa as an impetus for victory. One feels that the two games between them will shape Scotland and new coach Craig Levein’s destiny.
Northern Ireland have a similar battle for second with successful World Cup qualifiers Serbia and previous campaign foes Slovenia as current world champions Italy are expected to qualify automatically. They also have an old score to settle with the Faroe Islands, who achieved a shock 1-1 draw in Belfast when the two sides last met in qualification for Euro 92. That they are coached by Brian Kerr, who held a similar role with the Republic from 2002 to 2004, only adds more spice to an encounter you would not normally give much thought. Estonia, who they’ve never played competitively before, completes the group. As ever, Windsor Park is going to have to be a fortress to see them make the top two, while trips to Slovenia and Serbia, not to mention Italy, will be huge tests of their character. It’s hard to see them finishing higher than fourth, but history has taught us to discount Northern Ireland at our peril.
In the rest of the draw, both Germany and Turkey will be fairly pleased with today’s outcome. They should comfortably make up the top two in a group that contains the rapidly-declining Austria and Belgium, as well as geographically awkward but winnable trips to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. France, who always seem to make hard work of qualification, will be wary of the threat of Bosnia-Herzogovina. However, the French will start as group favourites alongside another faded powerhouse, Romania, with Belarus, Albania and likely whipping boys Luxembourg. One presumes Holland should qualify as long as they can get the better of their encounters with Sweden. Stuart Baxter’s Finland, along with Hungary, Moldova and the team everyone wanted, San Marino represent two successive groups the Dutch can hardly complain about. Slaven Bilic’s Croatia, along with Greece, Israel, Latvia and Georgia should fight out an intriguing five-way battle. In Group F it is only the Maltese unlikely to make an impact. Meanwhile Portugal will want to make a more emphatic job of qualification than they did last time. Cristiano Ronaldo et al will need to be at their best to see off Denmark and Norway. A much-improved Cyprus and Iceland, two of the larger minnows, mean the group will not be comprised of entirely straightforward fixtures.
However, before we can really guage what may happen here, there’s the small matter of the World Cup. With many of the teams involved in South Africa, an assessment of how they may fare in their bid to reach Poland and the Ukraine is sure to differ from any offered now. England will feel that regardless of events this summer, they should be one of the sixteen teams involved
GROUP A: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belgium, Austria, Turkey, Germany
GROUP B: Andorra, Armenia, Macedonia, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Russia
GROUP C: Faroe Islands, Estonia, Slovenia, NORTHERN IRELAND, Serbia, Italy
GROUP D: Luxembourg, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Romania, France
GROUP E: San Marino, Moldova, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands
GROUP F: Malta, Georgia, Latvia, Israel, Greece, Croatia
GROUP G: Montenegro, WALES, Bulgaria, Switzerland, ENGLAND
GROUP H: Iceland, Cyprus, Norway, Denmark, Portugal
GROUP I: Liechtenstein, Lithuania, SCOTLAND, Czech Republic, Spain