Nine European nations have booked direct tickets to Russia for the FIFA World Cup next year following the conclusion of UEFA’s qualifying sector.
That gives next year’s tournament some shape as a further 13 nations from other continents across the world have already sealed their place to compete for international football’s most prestigious trophy, while Russia qualify as hosts.
We turn our focus to the European teams who have qualified for the FIFA World Cup, starting with one of the favourites to go all the way in Russia.
EURO 2016 runners-up France were forced to fight until the end in a competitive Group A; Didier Deschamps’ side were under pressure from an in-form Sweden for top spot, but a final day victory over Belarus and Swedish defeat to Holland was enough to send France straight to the World Cup.
Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud were France’s main source for a final product – both netting four times throughout qualifying – with the former starting all 10 group games.
One of the reasons why France are considered a favourite for 2018 is the frightening depth of talent they have; Ousmane Dembele, Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Kylian Mbappe started just five games between them in qualifying, while the likes of Adrien Rabiot, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Corentin Tolisso and Benjamin Mendy were hardly used.
Portugal left it late to secure direct qualification, needing a final day victory over Switzerland to finally leapfrog them into top spot in Group B. Portugal wrapped up qualifying with a near-perfect record, losing just once in the reverse fixture against Switzerland, and were one of the highest-scoring sides with 32 goals from 10 games.
Fernando Santos’ troops will quietly fancy their chances next year having experienced major tournament success at EURO 2016, wining the nation’s first-ever title. Add Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo into the mix – who notched 15 goals from nine appearances – and Portugal could be a serious dark horse in 2018.
Business as usual for the ever-present Germany, who will be appearing in their 17th straight World Cup, doing so by finishing the qualifying campaign with a perfect 10-0 record. The only difference for long-time Germany boss Joachim Lowe is that this time they enter the tournament as defending champions.
Germany’s biggest strength is their major-tournament resolve and depth; they’ve finished inside the final four-placed teams at the last four World Cups and have essentially an entire second-string team which they could use in Russia – as displayed when they took out the Confederations Cup earlier this year.
Serbia emerged from the pack in Group D to book their tickets for Russia next year, with solid home form as the basis for their qualification. Any of Serbia, Ireland, Wales or Austria had a chance at winning the group but it was Slavoljub Muslin’s side who did enough, winning the group by two points above second-place Ireland, with Aleksandar Mitrovic topping their scoring charts with six goals in nine appearances.
Poland are set to appear in their first World Cup since 2006 and there’s not enough that can be said about Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski; the 29-year-old hit a European qualifying high 16 goals in 10 appearances, and Poland will hope he can carry that prolific form into Russia next year.
The Three Lions are ready for another crack at the FIFA World Cup after winning Group F with an impeccable record: eight wins, two draws, 18 goals scored and one of the best defensive records in European qualifying – conceding just three, with two of them coming in the 2-2 draw with Scotland.
2010 World Cup winners Spain saw off competition from Italy for top spot in Group G, recording an impressive 3-0 victory over the 2006 World Champions on their way to booking tickets to Russia. Alvaro Morata, Diego Costa and Vitolo were amongst their top scorers, while Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were colossal units at the back, keeping opponents at bay as Spain conceded just three goals from 10 games.
Belgium were the joint-top scorers in European Qualifying alongside Germany, netting a whopping 43 times in 10 matches, including a 9-0 destruction of lowly Gibraltar, 8-1 hammering of Estonia and 4-0 whitewash of Playoff contenders Bosnia. They were held to just one goal scored in only one game, at home to second-placed Greece, drawing 1-1.
The fairy-tale from EURO 2016 will continue on the biggest stage in international football following Iceland’s successful World Cup Qualifying campaign. This will be the first time that the nation of 330,000 people will be represented on the World Cup stage.
Last, but certainly not least, are hosts Russia, who have the luxury of sitting back and watching on as the rest of Europe slugs it out for places at the 2018 World Cup. The disadvantage of their competitive inactivity (having only played three competitive fixtures in 2017, all of which came at the Confederations Cup) will be evened out by the rabid home support they will have behind them when the World Cup kicks off in Moscow next June.