While many of Europe’s biggest footballing nations set the pace in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Switzerland delivered the biggest shock of the campaign so far.
Only the winners of each of the nine European Zone groups will qualify directly for the finals in Russia, while the eight best second-place finishers will contest play-off matches over two legs to determine another four World Cup participants. Although the leaders of eight of the nine pools have emerged largely as expected, Switzerland are the sole notable exception to this rule after pushing aside European champions Portugal to end the year with maximum points in Group B. The newly crowned UEFA EURO 2016 winners were dispatched 2-0 in Basel in early September, thanks to goals from Breel Embolo and Admir Mehmedi.
"I can sense a determination to take first place from Portugal," Swiss national team coach Vladimir Petkovic announced before the match – and he was proved right. With Portugal going on to win their next three games, there is still everything to play for at the top of the group, while Hungary (7 points), Faroe Islands (4), Latvia (3) and Andorra (0) will continue to battle it out for the lower places.
After the hard slog of their qualifying campaign for the last EURO, world champions Germany are now on a mission to defend their World Cup crown, winning all four of their opening four matches while scoring 16 goals and conceding none to make an impressive start in Group C. Only Belgium (21 goals) have found the target more often, while only England and Germany have kept clean sheets throughout the campaign so far.
"We can’t talk about having found a team at this stage, as a lot can still happen,” said Germany coach Joachim Low. “We have young players at the back, who have adapted magnificently to our philosophy in training. [What’s important] is that the team remain stable and navigate this World Cup qualifying campaign ruthlessly. We want to bring these young players up to a higher level." Northern Ireland (7), Azerbaijan (7), Czech Republic (5), Norway (3) and San Marino (0) are already some way off the pace and may have to content themselves with the quest for second place.
Group G is playing host to a clash of the titans, as Europe watches to see whether* *Spain (10) or Italy (10) will come out on top. Their first qualifying match in Turin ended in a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, Israel (9) have made a strong start to the campaign in the shadow of these two footballing superpowers and could yet spring a surprise. "We showed character and made the most of the situations that presented themselves," the Nivheret’s coach Elisha Levy said of their results so far. Albania (6) are still in the running for second place, while FYR Macedonia and Liechtenstein wait to register their first point.
While many may have expected a similar two-horse race between as-yet-unbeaten France (10) and the Netherlands (7) in Group A, Sweden (7) and Bulgaria (6) are still very much in contention. Paul Pogba scored the only goal of the game for *Les Bleus *in their meeting with the *Oranje *in Amsterdam in October, although their goalless draw with Bulgaria at the start of qualifying prevented them from making a perfect start on the road to Russia.
"It was a great year that could have been even better," said France coach Didier Deschamps, no doubt referring to his side’s UEFA EURO 2016 final defeat in Paris, "but the team have grown a lot, particularly during the EUROs." Sweden will be aiming for at least a spot in the play-offs after securing a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in Solna, while Belarus (2) and Luxembourg (1) have shown in each of their games that they are also capable of causing upsets.
Surprise EURO semi-finalists Wales will be unsure whether their glass is half full or half empty in Group D where, despite remaining unbeaten in qualifying so far, they have only gathered six points. Manager Chris Coleman’s side have only managed to beat Moldova in their four matches to date, while a draw with Georgia (2 points) at home was certainly not part of their plan. Elsewhere, Austria’s talented team (4) are still searching for form after a disappointing EURO campaign in the summer, while Moldova (1) only managed to score points in Georgia.
Although second-placed Serbia (8) have yet to lose a match, the current group leaders are Republic of Ireland with ten points. "What do we need to win the group?" their coach Martin O’Neill asked rhetorically. "I’d say 22 points, and we’ve got ten so far – but I’ve always said that our fate will be decided by our 2017 home games [including those against Wales, Austria and Serbia – editor’s note]."
In Group E,* *frontrunners Poland – currently unbeaten on ten points – proved that they have become a reliable force in European football, having made a successful start to their World Cup qualifying campaign after reaching the last three major tournaments. Montenegro (7) are close behind in second place and have yet to face the group leaders, while Denmark (6), who lost 3-2 in Warsaw, and Romania (5), who were beaten 3-0 by Poland, still have a chance to make their mark. While qualifying already looks a distant prospect for Armenia (3) and Kazakhstan (2), the latter made a surprising start to qualification by recovering from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2 with Robert Lewandowski and his team-mates at home.
Despite being the only team apart from Germany who have yet to concede a goal, England (10 points) have scored just six of their own so far. Their staunch defending has been rewarded with top spot in Group F, followed by Slovenia (8), who ground out a goalless draw with the Three Lions in October. With Slovakia (6), Lithuania (5) and Scotland (4) all still in the running, this particular race to Russia could yet prove to be a fascinating one. While the news that Malta are at the bottom of the group with zero points will not come as much of a surprise, they only lost 2-0 in England to add weight to the theory that there is no longer any such thing as a minnow in European football.
It will be interesting to follow England’s continuing development after the integration of several exciting young players. "I’m conscious that getting the job is one thing, but now I want to do it successfully," said Gareth Southgate, who was promoted from interim to full-time national team manager after the latest round of World Cup qualifiers. The potential in his squad was once again clear to see in their recent 2-2 friendly draw with Spain.
While Belgium’s quarter-final exit to Wales at EURO 2016 was disappointing, the Red Devils have stormed to the summit of Group H under new head coach Roberto Martinez, collecting 12 points and scoring 21 goals along the way, while conceding just one. Their two upcoming encounters with Greece (10) will no doubt be decisive, with the first of the matches set to take place in Brussels in March. Bosnia-Herzegovina (7) are also making steady progress, while Cyprus (3), Estonia (3) and debutants Gibraltar (0) have already slipped off the pace.
Group I, currently led by an unbeaten Croatia side (10 points) is similarly open, with EURO 2016 participants Ukraine (8) and Iceland (7) still well in touch with the leaders. Having caused a sensation in France last summer, the Icelanders once again demonstrated their mental strength by scoring crucial goals in the 91st and 96th minutes of their 3-2 home win over Finland (1). Turkey (5) will no doubt have hoped to collect more points by this stage, but suffered a 2-0 defeat in Iceland and still appear to be a work in progress, while newcomers Kosovo (1) showed that they can keep up with more established sides after drawing 1-1 in Finland.