ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be no easy task for some of Europe’s traditional powers.
Italy, the 2006 world champion, paid the price for recent poor results by being drawn with 2010 winner Spain in the ceremony on Saturday at Konstantin Palace. Group G also features Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg.
The heavyweight group is undoubtedly A. Netherlands, France, and Sweden will compete for the one automatic place at the finals alongside Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg.
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Eight of the best second-place teams from the continent’s nine groups will get a second shot at reaching Russia through the playoffs.
Many teams would relish the start Germany has to its title defense from September 2016. The champion has a seemingly relatively straightforward Group C where the Czech Republic is the strongest rival, and other games with Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, and San Marino.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal shouldn’t be too concerned about Group B, which also features Switzerland, Hungary, the Faeroe Islands, Latvia, and Andorra.
Football’s oldest international rivalry will play out for the first time in a World Cup qualifying group, with England and Scotland together in Group F.
Adding to the intrigue for the neighbors could be the lingering effects of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, when the majority voted to stay part of Britain. They will also play Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Malta.
Heavy favorite New Zealand is in Group B with Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
The advancing teams are split into two groups for the third round, and the group winners meet in a home-and-away series for the right to meet the fifth-place team from South America in a home-and-away playoff for a berth.
The United States will open World Cup qualifying in November in a four-nation group that includes Trinidad and Tobago.
The other opponents in Group C will be either Guatemala or Antigua and Barbuda, and Aruba or St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Mexico is in Group A with Honduras, Canada or Belize, and El Salvador or Curacao.
Costa Rica is in Group B with Panama, Jamaica or Nicaragua, and Haiti or Grenada.
The top two nations in each group advance to the six-team final round, known as the Hexagonal. The top three qualify, and the fourth meets an Asian opponent in a playoff for another berth.
Among the interesting pairings in Africa’s second round were Angola vs. South Africa, the Chad-Sierra Leone winner vs. Egypt, the Comoros-Lesotho winner vs. Ghana, the Djibouti-Swaziland winner vs. Nigeria, the Liberia-Guinea-Bissau winner vs. Ivory Coast, the Somalia-Niger winner vs. Cameroon, and the Tanzania-Malawi winner vs. Algeria.