The Road to Brazil! Your essential guide to the European qualifying groups for the 2014 World Cup
10:25 GMT, 7 September 2012
From Reykjavik to Ta'Qali, Glasgow to Moscow, this weekend stadiums right across Europe will see 53 nations starting out on the road to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
There are nine groups in all, with the group winners guaranteed automatic passage to South America. The eight runners-up with the best records will enter two-legged play-offs in November next year to determine the other four European qualifiers.
Here, Sportsmail takes a closer look at the nine qualifying groups.
Ones to beat: Every nation will be aiming to succeed Spain as world champions at Brazil 2014
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Croatia (9), Belgium (40), Serbia (42), Wales (45), Scotland
(47), FYR Macedonia (97)
Opening Fixtures: Croatia v FYR Macedonia (Zagreb, Friday 19:15); Wales
v Belgium (Cardiff, Friday 19:45);
Scotland v Serbia (Glasgow, Saturday 15:00)
Key fixture: Croatia
v Belgium (October 11, 2013) – The two favourites to qualify will meet in
Zagreb late in the group schedule and the match could well determine who will
progress to the finals in Brazil automatically and who will face the lottery of
the (admittedly questionable) logic of the FIFA World Rankings, Croatia start
as favourites, though nothing can be taken for granted in a tight group with a
talented young Belgian side and two Home Nations determined to end long waits
to qualify for a major tournament.
Croatia have the upper hand in that they
reliably do make finals, the latest of which was Euro 2012 when they were
within a goal of reaching the quarter-finals from a tough group also featuring
Spain and Italy. However, new coach Igor Stimac, who replaced Slaven Bilic
after the Euros, cannot afford any early slip-ups.
Dreaming of Brazil: Nikica Jelavic, of Everton, scores in national colours for Croatia
contenders: Belgium will push Croatia every inch of the way, as Marc
Wilmots and his ‘Golden Generation’ aim to end a major tournament drought
dating back to the 2002 World Cup. Belgian players are the flavour of the month
in the English Premier League at the moment, with summer arrivals Eden Hazard
and Jan Vertonghen joining established names like Vincent Kompany and Marouane
Fellani. The challenge now is to harness all this individual talent into an
Star player: Eden
Hazard – Has made an electrifying start to his Chelsea career and, should
Belgium make it, would definitely grace the World Cup stage.
Young Star: Belgium's Eden Hazard challenges Wayne Rooney in a pre-Euro 2012 friendly with England
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Italy (6), Denmark (10), Czech Republic (19), Armenia (53), Bulgaria
(89), Malta (139)
Opening Fixtures: Malta
v Armenia (Ta’Qali, Friday 19:00); Bulgaria v Italy (Sofia, Friday 19:45);
Denmark v Czech Republic (Copenhagen, Saturday 19:15)
Key Fixture: Denmark
v Italy (October 11, 2013) – As with Group A, the two group favourites are to
meet in the penultimate round of fixtures.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italy embark on the road to Brazil with mixed feelings –
pride that a team who weren’t expected to sparkle reached the final of Euro
2012, and despair that this side were then taken apart by Spain. But with the
abundant attacking talent at their disposal, there will be no excuses for them
not to make it out of this group.
Denmark held their own in the Group of Death at Euro 2012, beating a
lacklustre Netherlands and running Portugal and Germany close, so their tenth place
in the world rankings is no fluke. Morten Olsen has a strong squad to call on,
including Michael Krohn-Dehli, who did well at the Euros, and the up-and-coming
Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen.
Star Player: Mario
Balotelli – Let’s be honest, the World Cup would not be the same without him.
Thunderbolt: Mario Balotelli scores his second goal against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Germany (2), Sweden (18), Republic of Ireland (26), Austria (49),
Kazakhstan (142), Faroe Islands (154)
Opening Fixtures: Kazakhstan v Republic of Ireland
(Astana, Friday 16:00); Germany
v Faroe Islands (Hanover, Friday 19:45);
Key Fixture: Germany
v Republic of Ireland (October 11, 2013) – If the Republic of Ireland are still
in with any hope of qualifying, it’s likely they’ll have to get something from
this game in Cologne.
wins from ten in Euro 2012 qualifying, three wins from three in the Group of
Death and a great performance against Greece in the quarter-finals – it was all
going so well for Germany until Italy unleashed Mario Balotelli. Joachim Low
still has the second best team in Europe and qualification campaigns are
usually a breeze for them, so they should make it with plenty to spare. In fact, it is a sign of Germany's ceaseless ambition that Low has been talking this week about overseeing a 'revolution' in their style of play – as if they're THAT bad…
Forward thinking: Germany coach Joachim Low has a new blueprint for the future
Sweden and the Republic of Ireland will vie for the play-off spot. Sweden’s
Euro 2012 finals fizzled out with defeats to Ukraine and England, while the
Irish will be keen for another taste of the big tournament action having made
many friends in Poland and Ukraine, despite some heavy defeats.
Star Player: Mesut
Ozil – German playmaker who continued to get better and better. Was a star
performer in both Germany’s qualification campaign and group stage matches at
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Netherlands (8), Turkey (35), Hungary (37), Estonia (55), Romania
(57), Andorra (199)
Opening Fixtures: Estonia v Romania (Tallinn, Friday 19:00); Andorra
v Hungary (Andorra La Vella, Friday 19:30); Netherlands v Turkey (Amsterdam,
Key fixture: Turkey
v Netherlands (October 15, 2013) – The Dutch will hope to be through by this
final round of fixtures, but Turkey could be pushing for the play-off place.
certainly Holland, despite their atrocious Euro 2012. They should possess all
the class necessary to negotiate this group and qualify as winners with quite a
bit left. Coach Louis Van Gaal also has lots of strength in depth in all
positions within his squad.
contenders: Looks like a straight shoot-out between Turkey and Hungary for
the play-off space. The Turks aren’t anywhere near as strong as some of their
teams in the recent past, but they have a greater hope of reaching a big
tournament than Hungary, who haven’t been at a World Cup since 1986. What’s
more, Holland scored nine goals past Hungary in the qualifying for Euro 2012.
Star Player: Robin
Van Persie – Part of a Dutch side packed with attacking class, Van Persie is
likely to be scoring plenty for his country and new club Manchester United.
Goal machine: Robin Van Persie, seen here with Scott Parker of England, will be integral to Holland's hopes of qualifying
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Switzerland (20), Slovenia (24), Norway (34), Albania (84),
Iceland (118), Cyprus (135)
Opening Fixtures: Slovenia v Switzerland (Ljubljana, Friday
19:30); Albania v Cyprus (Tirana, Friday 19:30); Iceland
v Norway (Reykjavik, Friday 19:45)
Key fixture: Norway
v Switzerland (September 10, 2013) – In a very open, if frankly uninspiring,
group, all the sides will be looking to take points off each other. Two of the
favourites to qualify meet in Oslo at the business end and this could go a long
way towards deciding the winner.
really much in it, but Switzerland will be hoping to make amends for failing to
reach Euro 2012, their first absence from a tournament finals since 2004.
Ottmar Hitzfeld leads a side full of reasonably familiar names, including Captain
Tranquillo Barnetta of Schalke, Gokhan Inler of Napoli, Xherdan Shaqiri of
Bayern Munich and the best known, Arsenal’s Johan Djourou.
Swiss role: Napoli's Gokhan Inler in action against England
contenders: A toss-up between Norway, who are long overdue a finals
appearance, and Slovenia, who finished a disappointing fourth in qualifying for
Star player: Xherdan
Shaqiri – The Yugoslavian-born winger impressed with his performances for Basel
in recent years and was snapped up by Bayern Munich in the summer as they aim
to reclaim the Bundesliga title.
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Portugal (4), Russia (13), Israel (75), Luxembourg (106),
Azerbaijan (107), Northern Ireland (129)
Opening Fixtures: Russia
v Northern Ireland (Moscow, Friday 16:00); Azerbaijan v Israel (Baku, Friday 17:00); Luxembourg v Portugal (Luxembourg,
Key fixtures: Russia
v Portugal (October 12, 2012) – Early in the schedule but could decide the
direction of the group.
to be Portugal who, inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo, got out of a difficult group
at Euro 2012 and matched Spain in the quarter-finals only to see their chances
dashed in a shoot-out. They had a few difficulties in qualifying for that
tournament but shouldn’t encounter too many problems in this group, especially
considering the wealth of attacking flair at coach Paolo Bento’s disposal.
contenders: Second strongest in the group by some distance are Russia, who
will fancy their chances of getting to Brazil through the play-offs. They are,
of course, now guided by Fabio Capello, who never had many issues getting
England through the qualifying phase.
Star Player: Cristiano
Ronaldo – Who else (Assuming he sorts out his present unhappiness with life at
Penalty heartache: Cristiano Ronaldo looks on incredulous after Portugal are beaten by Spain in a Euro 2012 semi-final shoot-out
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Greece (11), Bosnia-Herzegovina (30), Slovakia (45), Latvia (94),
Lithuania (116), Liechtenstein (149)
Opening Fixtures: Liechtenstein
v Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vaduz, Friday 18:00); Lithuania v Slovakia (Vilnius,
Friday 19:15); Latvia v Greece (Riga, Friday 19:30)
Key fixture: Bosnia
v Greece (March 22, 2013) – Clash between the two group favourites mid-way through
the fixtures which could decide the group winner.
Hopes of a nation: Edin Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia as they aim to qualify for their first tournament final
certainly Greece, who went above and beyond expectations at the Euros by
getting through their group only to be handed a footballing lesson by Germany. Off
the back of this, they’ve been drawn in a group which gives them every chance
of reaching Brazil despite not really having any stellar names.
contenders: Likely to be Bosnia, who reached the same stage in the last
qualification cycle, only to be heavily beaten by Portugal. Will be determined
to make up for that disappointment by emerging from this weak group.
Star Player: Edin
Dzeko – Manchester City’s striker also
has a good international scoring record and will power Bosnia’s bid to qualify.
England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, San Marino
Click here for the full lowdown on England's opponents
Teams (FIFA World
Ranking): Spain (1), France (15), Belarus (76), Georgia (86), Finland (96)
Opening Fixtures: Georgia
v Belarus (Tbilisi, Friday 18:00); Finland v France (Helsinki, Friday 19:30)
Key fixture: France
v Spain (March 26, 2013) – Match in Paris will provide France’s biggest
opportunity of leapfrogging defending champions Spain to top spot
Spain, who have been imperious in their last three tournaments to the point
where you pity any side playing against them. With classy players right through
the side, and an excellent coach in Vicente Del Bosque, they should prove too
strong for France and the rest of the group will be a stroll.
contenders: In any other group, France would probably be tipped to finish
top but the play-off berth has to be the target. They were beaten 2-0 by Spain
in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. Still, with two fewer fixtures in this group than all the others and an expectation to gain maximum points from those against Belarus, Georgia and Finland, Didier Deschamps will expect to make the play-offs without drama. It then depends on who they meet there.
Star player: Andres Iniesta – You could choose a number of names from the Spain squad, but Iniesta was the best player at Euro 2012 and is the recently anointed European Player of the Year.
Euro Star: Andres Iniesta was crowned the best player in Europe last week