A too early preview of UEFA World Cup 2018 qualifying

While the expansion of the European Championships from 16 to 24 teams may have given us a bit of a letdown at Euro 2016 it did give us one very big positive. While some may have said that the new format diluted the competition, the expanded format showed us that Europe is more than just 14-15 really good teams. It actually has closer to 18-20 really good teams and that’s not even including the Netherlands who didn’t qualify for Euro 2016. Over the next two years all those teams will be battling it out for a grand total of 13 spots at the World Cup.

That is a good thing. As we saw at the Euros, perceived “smaller” countries like Iceland and Wales are much better than we thought and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This fall, instead of dreading international breaks we’ll be looking forward to them, as the action in Europe will certainly be exciting with so many teams vying for so few places.

For the 2018 World Cup the 52 members of UEFA (Russia is excluded as they are the hosts) are divided into nine groups. Only the nine group winners are guaranteed a place in the World Cup, with the best eight runners up advancing to the playoffs, meaning every single game takes on a greater importance.

This year’s draw was ridiculous held before Euro 2016 meaning some teams were in pots that they never should have been in, creating some very difficult groups, and some very easy ones, giving some smaller countries a great chance at booking a surprise trip to Russia. Let’s take a group by group look at this even though so many different things can and will change over the next two years.

Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxemborg 

Group A will be pretty straightforward. France and the Dutch will do battle at the top as neither of them want to go to the playoffs. France was a bit of an unknown before the Euros due to not playing a competitive game in two years, which is also why they fell in to Pot 2 for the draw. They showed us this summer that they are exactly as good as we thought they were. They also have a tremendous amount of debt so even when injuries come in they’ll be able to overcome them. They’ll likely top the group with the Dutch finishing second. Don’t expect anything from Sweden, who have been a weak side for the past five years and no longer have Zlatan to carry them.

Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra

Besides for the way they played the worst world part about Portugal winning Euro 2016 is the fact that in a normal situation they shouldn’t have even made it out of the group stage. You can argue that they aren’t one of the 16 best teams in Europe let alone 13. But then they get this group for qualifying? Are you kidding? On paper it couldn’t be easier for Portugal. But then you remember that they barely were able to get a draw against Hungary, and Switzerland always seem to get just enough done to get to the major tournaments. If Hungary is to have a chance they’ll need to be very consistent over the next two years, as the matches between Portugal, Switzerland, and Hungary will decide everything. The biggest issue this group could face is that if they beat each other up too much, they may not send a runner up to the playoffs.

Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino

I think the whole world wants to see both Irish teams in the next World Cup. With two throwaways in the group, it’ll be imperative for them to take all 12 points against Azerbaijan and San Marino. If they can get a few results against the Czech’s and German’s it’s wouldn’t be crazy, but it’s still unlikely anyone will top the Germans and Czech’s at the top of this group.

Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Maldova, Georgia

Wales should prove to the world that their run to the semifinals of the Euros was no fluke and win this group easy to go to their first World Cup since the 50’s. The second spot is a little tricky. Austria were one of the most disappointing teams this past summer, but they’re much better than that. If they play the way they can, this spot is theirs for the taking, but I wouldn’t rule out Ireland making a little noise.

Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan

Someone explain to me how Romania not only ended up in Pot 1, but then avoided all the good teams that are in Pot 2? Poland falling to pot 3 was a joke. Even though he doesn’t show up in tournaments, Robert Lewandowski can’t stop won’t stop scoring in qualifying matches, which will be enough to lead Poland to the top of the group.

Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta

You mean after getting an England vs. Wales match at Euro 2016 we now get two England vs. Scotland matches in the next year? Yes please! I can give you some mumbo jumbo about this being a tougher group then you’d think but we’ve all seen this movie before. Expect England to roll through this group with relative ease, creating enough hype that everyone forgets about Euro 2016, only for them to crash out of Russia in embarrassing fashion once again allowing everyone in the media to write their “this was the worst England team ever” stories.

Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Lichtenstein 

Again, Romania gets a spot in Pot 1 and avoided every good team while Spain and Italy have to get drawn into the same group? Don’t get me wrong, a Spain vs. Italy match with everything on the line is a great way to keep qualifying interesting, but what if something goes drastically wrong and one of them doesn’t make the World Cup?!? That would not be a good thing and it’s certainly possible as at best one of these teams has to go to the playoffs. Based on how things look right now, I think the playoff team may actually be Spain.

Group H: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus, Gibralter

This should be called the group that allows Belgium to rack up so many FIFA points that they’ll definitely be in the Top Five of the FIFA rankings and be wildly overrated by the time Russia 2018 rolls around. Bosnia and Herzegovina were among the 13 UEFA teams in 2014, then somehow couldn’t qualify for the 24 team Euros in 2016. That’s impressive. Greece has fallen off a cliff recently and it’s hard to see them getting back there either.

Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland, Kosovo

There’s no question the darlings of the Euros were Iceland and everyone wants to see them at the World Cup. That should happen as they’re probably one of the 13 best teams in Europe. But this group is tough. So unfair that Romania and Belgium get gimmes and Iceland gets stuck here. Ukraine were awful at the Euro’s but that’s still not only a good team, but a very tough place to play. Iceland did make the playoffs last time around so it’s not far fetched to say they’ll do it again, but they won’t be catching anyone by surprise. Croatia of course was good enough to win the Euros, they just ran into Portugal’s parked bus in front of the goal.

Final predictions:
Automatic qualifiers: France, Switzerland, Germany, Wales, Poland, England, Italy, Belgium, Croatia
Playoffs: Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland

About Pauly Kwestel

Pauly is a Producer for WFAN in New York and the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has been writing about the beautiful game since 2010 and can be followed on twitter @pkwestelWFAN