European sides learn 2022 World Cup qualifying rivals

Madrid, Dec 7 (efe-epa).- European soccer powers and long shots alike discovered their 2022 World Cup qualifying group rivals at Monday’s draw ceremony, which was held virtually in Zurich, Switzerland.

While nations like France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium are considered virtual locks to win their groups and book berths in soccer’s biggest international showcase in Qatar after the first round, other groups lack an overwhelming favorite and could feature intense battles for the top two positions.

Fifth-ranked Portugal, whose captain, all-time great Cristiano Ronaldo, will turn 36 in February, heads up a Group A that includes 30th-ranked Serbia and the 42nd-ranked Republic of Ireland. Lowly Luxembourg (No. 98) and Azerbaijan (No. 109) figure to bring up the rear.

In Group B, sixth-ranked Spain are expected to cruise to a first-place finish, although 20th-ranked Sweden could be a formidable rival, particularly if the ageless Zlatan Ibrahimovic decides to come out of international retirement.

Greece (No. 53), Georgia (No. 89) and Kosovo (No. 117) round out a group that appears to lack depth; the Greeks, however, could pose a significant challenge if the coronavirus crisis subsides and they can compete in front of their home fans.

A newly potent Italian side (No. 10) led by head coach Roberto Mancini figures to be the class of Group C, although 16th-ranked Switzerland may have something to say about that. Northern Ireland (No. 45) and Bulgaria (No. 68) will have ambitions of reaching the second round, while 129th-ranked Lithuania will look to be a thorn in the other teams’ side.

Groups D and E feature teams that are not only the class of Europe but also the entire world: world No. 2 and defending World Cup champion France and first-ranked Belgium.

Although those powerhouses are apparent locks to claim the top spots in their respective groups, the battle for second place could be fierce.

Also drawn in Group D with France are Ukraine (No. 24), Finland (No. 54) and Bosnia and Herzegovia (No. 55). In Group E, 18-ranked Wales and the 42nd-ranked Czech Republic are both strong contenders for a spot in the second round, while 88th-ranked Belarus and 109th-ranked Estonia could spring a surprise.

Group F is arguably the most balanced group, with 12th-ranked Denmark, 23rd-ranked Austria and 48th-ranked Scotland all with realistic hopes of finishing first. Israel (No. 87), Faroe Islands (No. 107) and lowly Moldova (No. 177) are not expected to do more than play the role of spoiler.

Group G could be similarly competitive, with the Netherlands (No. 14), Turkey (No. 32) and 44th-ranked Norway, led by 20-year-old budding superstar Erling Haaland, all in the running for the top spot. Montenegro (No. 63), Latvia (No. 136) and 195th-ranked Gibraltar round out that group.

Croatia finished runner-up to France at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and are a slight favorite in Group H, but their disappointing performance in the 2020-2021 Nations League could be a sign of a team in decline.

They figure to face stiff opposition from both 33rd-ranked Slovakia and 39th-ranked Russia, while 62-ranked Slovenia could be a stumbling block for the higher-ranked teams. Cyprus and Malta, ranked No. 100 and No. 176, respectively, also were drawn in that group.

Group I figures to be a battle between fourth-ranked England and 19th-ranked Poland, who are led by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, the favorite to win this year’s The Best FIFA Men’s Player 2020 award.

Hungary (No. 40) was recently promoted to the Nations League’s top division, while Albania (No. 66), Andorra (No. 151) and San Marino (No. 210) are not expected to challenge for the top two positions.

In Group J, 13th-ranked Germany are the clear favorite even though they are still reeling from a humiliating 6-0 loss to Spain last month in the Nations League.

Romania (No. 37) is the second-best team in that group on paper, while Iceland (No. 46), who beat out Croatia to win their group during the last World Cup cycle, will try to work some more magic. North Macedonia (No. 65), Armenia (No. 99) and Liechtenstein (No. 181) also have been drawn in Group J.

Group stage (first round) action will take place between March and November of 2021.

The winners of the 10 groups will book a World Cup berth, while the 10 second-place finishers and two 2020-2021 Nations League group winners will have a chance to qualify for Qatar in a second round to be held in March 2022.

European teams have clearly dominated international soccer for more than a decade, with Italy, Spain, Germany and France winning the past four World Cups. EFE-EPA

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