Tag Archives: rankings

Heather Watson and Laura Robson first top-50 ranked British pair in 25 years

Rankings revival: Watson and Robson become first top-50 British pair in 25 years

By
Mike Dickson

PUBLISHED:

22:41 GMT, 7 January 2013

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UPDATED:

02:39 GMT, 8 January 2013

Heather Watson and Laura Robson continue to take British women’s tennis back to the Eighties, this time becoming the first British pair to reach the top 50 together in more than 25 years.

The new WTA rankings yesterday showed that Robson (50th) had joined No 47 Watson in the top 50 just ahead of next week’s Australian Open, thereby emulating Jo Durie and Sara Gomer, who were there, in tandem, in 1987.

If either turns out to be as good as Durie, the former world No 5, then they will not have done badly, and at 18 and 20 years old respectively there is plenty of time.

History: Laura Robson (above) and Heather Watson (below) are the first British female pair to be ranked in the top 50 together in 25 years

History: Laura Robson (above) and Heather Watson (below) are the first British female pair to be ranked in the top 50 together in 25 years

History: Watson (above) and Robson (below) are the first British female pair to be ranked in the top 50 together in 25 years

Both were named yesterday by captain Judy Murray in the GB team for the Fed Cup tie against Israel next month.

Murray also included Anne Keothavong, currently world No 142, and debutant Australia-born Johanna Konta, who qualified for Britain in May and is ranked at 153.

Konta is hoping to qualify this week for the Australian Open.
Seasoned campaigner Elena Baltacha is injured – her ranking is now 183 – but she will also travel with the team.

Freddie Flintoff ranked 594th in heavyweight world standings

Onwards and upwards! Flintoff 594th in world heavyweight standings – just 522 places below Audley

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UPDATED:

12:31 GMT, 3 December 2012

Watch out Audley, Freddie Flintoff is coming after you!

The former England cricket captain has entered the world heavyweight rankings at No 594 after winning on his professional debut against Richard Dawson on Friday.

That places him one spot immediately below Dimitar Taskov, a Macedonian with two wins and two defeats, and one above America's Kalven Jenkins, who has won one, lost one and drawn two, in the BoxRec website's respected rankings.

Winning debut: Andrew Flintoff was celebrating after beating Richard Dawson

Winning debut: Andrew Flintoff was celebrating after beating Richard Dawson

Spirit: Flintoff bounced back from an early knockdown to beat Dawson

Spirit: Flintoff bounced back from an early knockdown to beat Dawson

It also leaves the 34-year-old a slender 522 places below free-falling Audley Harrison, who intends to fight on after his 82-second humiliation against David Price on October 13.

Price, incidentally, is ranked at 12, behind notable rivals Tyson Fury (7) and David Haye (5).

Flintoff recovered from a second-round knockdown to win a points verdict over Dawson in front of 6,000 fans in Manchester last week, but will not make a decision on a ring return until next year.

Stats official: Andrew Flintoff is ranked 594th in the heavyweight standings

Stats official: Andrew Flintoff is ranked 594th in the heavyweight standings

'Every time walking between the ropes has been an effort,' he said. 'The physical aspect is one thing but the mental aspect is another thing completely.

'I take my hat off to boxers and I give every credit to the hard work they put in.

'I put myself out to a degree but if I'd have been knocked out in the first round, everyone would have said, “Oh, he's just a big cricketer”.

'On a global scale, this comes nowhere near to my cricket career. I've had a novice heavyweight fight but I've had the chance to play for England in the Ashes and been successful.'

Ricky Hatton comeback receives British baton after Carl Froch glory – Jeff Powell boxing column

Over to you, Ricky: Froch hands over British baton to returning hero Hatton

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UPDATED:

00:01 GMT, 20 November 2012

Carl Froch continues his climb towards the top five of the world pound-for-pound rankings.
Ricky Hatton will try to join him on the ladder on Saturday when he starts a comeback in which he is aiming to regain world titles.

Amir Khan will attempt to reignite his championship career with a fight in America on December 15th.
One month later Kell Brook gets his first world title shot, against Devon Alexander in the US.

British boxing is back on the offensive, launched by the performance of Froch in destroying Yusaf Mack at the weekend which ridiculed the argument that the Nottingham Cobra is not a star in the firmament of the ring.

Mack attack: Carl Froch retained his world title with an explosive third round victory in Nottingham on Saturday

Mack attack: Carl Froch retained his world title with an explosive third round victory in Nottingham on Saturday

Sitting pretty: IBF super-middleweight king Froch celebrates his defence with his partner Rachel Cordingley

Sitting pretty: IBF super-middleweight king Froch celebrates his defence with his partner Rachel Cordingley

More from Jeff Powell…

Jeff Powell: Cannon fodder will help Brits catch the big fish in the end
12/11/12

Jeff Powell: Fury on the campaign trail for a world title if Klitschko's political move disappoints Haye
05/11/12

Jeff Powell: Steward is gone but Hearns will fight for The Kronk to live on
29/10/12

Jeff Powell boxing column: So long, Ricky Fatton! Returning Hitman vows to quit boozing between bouts
22/10/12

Jeff Powell: Retired and broke, Holyfield still has hope… but it's help he really needs
15/10/12

Jeff Powell: Tyson takes time to show Hatton and Haye the way back to the top
08/10/12

Jeff Powell: Sold out arena, tough opponent… all Hatton needs now is a TV station
01/10/12

Jeff Powell boxing column: Boxers are brave but none more so than Big Corrie
24/09/12

VIEW FULL ARCHIVE

Our world super-middleweight champion is actually improving at 35 and former world light-heavyweight title holder Glenn McCrory, now a Sky Sports commentator, went so far as to compare him with the legendary likes of Stanley Ketchell.

Hatton, a year younger, returns to the ring more than three years after being flattened by Manny Pacquiao proclaiming that the fire still burns in his belly. His ferocity in training lends weight to that conviction and he has deliberately chosen a tough opponent to provide the litmus test.

Vyacheslav Senchenko, an immediate past world welterweight champion, has lost only once in 33 fights and Hatton says: ‘If I feel good against this guy I will know everything is back in working order.'

A valid Hatton comeback followed by a win for Khan and a successful world title venture to the US by Brook against Devon Alexander on January 19 would revive Britain’s share of the trans-Atlantic bragging rights.

Brook has the tougher task but victory over the technically clever but less physical Alexander is not impossible.

Whatever happens in the coming months, Froch is carrying the flag with a flourish as well as great pride.

Welcome back, Ricky: Hatton relaunches his career in the ring in Manchester this weekend

Welcome back, Ricky: Hatton relaunches his career in the ring in Manchester this weekend

VIDEO: Watch Hatton prepare for his ring return

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Pacquiao success over Marquez prompts Nevada change

The long-running controversy over the decisions given to Manny Pacquiao in his three fights with Juan Manuel Marquez thus far is reported to have co-erced the Nevada State Athletic Commission into a change of long-standing policy.

The Commission has always maintained the right to appoint all fight officials from within their own state jurisdiction.

It seems they are ready to make an exception for Pacquiao-Marquez IV. The referee is expected to be a Nevadan, and one of the judges. But the second and third scorers at ringside are likely to be an Englishman and a judge from New Jersey.

It's war... again: Pacquaio and Marquez will face off for a fourth time next month

It's war… again: Pacquaio and Marquez will face off for a fourth time next month

The assumption is that the pressure for this change has come from the Marquez camp but it may work against him.

A full house of Nevada officials in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 8 would have known that the eyes of the world were upon them and may have felt the heat to give the Mexican the benefit of any doubt, following two close wins and a draw for the PacMan.

The outsiders will view proceedings with fresh eyes and no past baggage.

Carl Froch could box into his 40s

Cobra will be deadly in his 40s as Froch considers extending phenomenal career

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UPDATED:

22:01 GMT, 16 November 2012

As Carl Froch goes into his ninth successive world title fight the motivation for him to do a number on an American with nine kids has been intensified by the prospect of dominating British boxing deep into his 40s.

Nine more years From the age of 35 The new Bernard Hopkins Not impossible says the trainer who has helped develop Froch into the indisputable pound-for-pound king of the British ring.

Rob McCracken, who also coached the UK boxing team to its glittering medal haul at the London Olympics, believes Froch has honed himself into the ultimate fighting machine. He expects him to demonstrate as much in Nottingham this evening against American challenger Yusaf Mack, who is little known here but is a tough product of the mean streets of Philadelphia.

Into battle: Carl Froch (left) takes on Yusaf Mack in Nottingham

Into battle: Carl Froch (left) takes on Yusaf Mack in Nottingham

McCracken says: ‘Carl has reached the stage where he is up there now with the best British fighters of all time. Look at who he’s fought (Jean Pascal, Jermaine Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Arthur Abraham, Mikkel Kessler, Glen Johnson, Andre Ward, Lucian Bute) one after the other. He’s beaten most of them and he’s a three-time world champion.’

Even the two losses have played their part in creating a super-middleweight now being described as ‘a beast’ in the ring. Kessler had home-town advantage in a close decision. Andre Ward, in the fight which established him as third in the world pound-for-pound rankings behind Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, reminded Froch never again to go into a fight with his mind on anything other than the hard job at hand.

‘Carl has promised me that from now on he will always be 100 per cent focused every time he gets into the ring,’ says McCracken. ‘He wasn’t right against Ward but you saw the real Cobra when he destroyed Bute to win his third world belt.’

Demolition job: Froch beat Lucian Bute to win the world title

Demolition job: Froch beat Lucian Bute to win the world title

A repeat of that performance — in front of a sell-out crowd of 10,000 and a live Sky TV audience — will make Mack pay for this pre-fight jibe: ‘Froch is just a fake Joe Calzaghe.’

Very few believe that any longer and Mike Tyson, no other, now calls Froch ‘a great fighter who I love to watch and who can beat anyone in the world if he just tightens up his defence a little.’ Ward included Tyson believes so.

As does McCracken and the possibility of proving them right is driving Froch through tonight’s encounter with Mack and on towards re-matches with Bute and Kessler which should lead to a chance of avenging that one clear loss.

And then through the 40 barrier ‘Rob wants me to do it,’ says Froch. ‘I’m the one who has to do the fighting. But why not Age is a number. I live right. No smoking, no drinking, no putting on weight. I feel great. A lot of my recent fights looked like wars but I haven’t taken too much punishment.

Made it: Froch weighs in as he bids to defend his super middleweight title

Made it: Froch weighs in as he bids to defend his super middleweight title

'I was a late starter in the pros and I’m fresh. As long as I’m loving it I’ll keep doing it. And right now I’m loving it.’ There are echoes there of Hopkins, who will be 48 when he has what is being advertised as his farewell fight in New York next March.

McCracken says: ‘Carl is a natural born fighter who keeps himself in such tremendous shape that there’s no sign yet of any limit on his time in boxing.’

Mack is about to discover as much and I expect Froch to negotiate some technically awkward early rounds, then inflict a stoppage around the eighth.

Froch-Mach is live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 8 pm tonight.

Carl Froch

Andy Murray vows to leapfrog Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in world No 1 bid

Watch out Roger and Novak, I'm coming to get you! Ambitious Murray targets world No 1 spot

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UPDATED:

12:00 GMT, 9 October 2012

Andy Murray is hoping a strong finish to the year can enable him to have a shot at the No 1 ranking in 2013.

The Scot, who won his maiden grand slam title at the US Open last month, is currently third in the world behind Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but has his sights set on top spot.

Speaking ahead of his opening match at the Shanghai Masters against German Florian Mayer on Wednesday, he told www.atpworldtour.com: 'There's a few tournaments between now and the end of the year I'd like to do well at and I always enjoy playing here.

Bid: Murray is hoping to move to the summit of the world tennis rankings

Bid: Murray is hoping to move to the summit of the world tennis rankings

'I'll try to do as well as I can between now and the end of the year.

'If I do that, there's a possibility to get to No 1 next year. 'I think getting to No 1 in the world, that's more a reward for playing very good tennis throughout the whole season at pretty much every tournament you play.

Centre of attention: Murray is competing at the Shanghai Masters this week

Centre of attention: Murray is competing at the Shanghai Masters this week

'You need to focus more on the process and not so much just No 1, No 1'.

'The next grand slam in Australia is obviously a focus that would be not that far away, but I would say it's more of a long-term goal.'

Murray, the two-time defending champion in Shanghai, is hoping his success at Flushing Meadows when he became the first British male to win a singles grand slam crown in 76 years will boost his on-court confidence.

He added: '(The title) hasn't changed me. I haven't felt so different.

'I felt a lot of relief. It was a big weight off my back at the time. So getting on the practice court, getting in the gym and stuff, has become a bit easier probably.

'I hope it gives me some more confidence when I'm on the court. That's the one thing that I hope I would have got out of it.'

England fifth in FIFA world rankings

England slip two places in FIFA world rankings… but Hodgson's men stay in top five

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UPDATED:

09:04 GMT, 3 October 2012

England have dropped from third to fifth in the FIFA world rankings.

Roy Hodgson's side hammered Moldova 5-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier but drew 1-1 with Ukraine.

Spain remain the world's top-ranked team in the latest charts.

Setback: England were held to a 1-1 draw with Ukraine last time out

Setback: England were held to a 1-1 draw with Ukraine last time out

The reigning world and European champions stay top after the World Cup qualifying fixtures last month, with Colombia and Greece breaking into the top 10.

Germany are still second, while Portugal are up to third and Argentina fourth.

Holland are sixth, Uruguay seventh and Italy eighth, with Colombia up 13 places to ninth.

Greece make up the top 10 thanks to a one-place rise.

The Republic of Ireland are 28th, while Scotland fall nine places to 56th and Wales 12 to 57.

Northern Ireland rise 12 spots to 117th, despite a 1-1 draw with Luxembourg.

Ronnie O"Sullivan drops out of World Snooker top 16

Rocket needs boost as O'Sullivan drops out of snooker top 16 for first time

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UPDATED:

11:27 GMT, 26 September 2012

The latest World Snooker rankings have confirmed that world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan has fallen out of the top 16 for the first time since he entered it.

O'Sullivan, now 36, joined the game's elite 19 years ago but, despite winning a fourth world crown in May, is now out of the leading group.

That comes as a result of his self-imposed delayed start to the season, with his stalling over signing a player's contract meaning he missed the Shanghai Masters, the Australian Open and the Wuxi Classic.

On the slide: O'Sullivan's ranking has suffered after sitting out a number of events

On the slide: O'Sullivan's ranking has suffered after sitting out a number of events

World Snooker rankings

Click here for the full standings

His participation in ranking events remains, though, as he is automatically seeded second as a result of his Crucible win.

He will play at the International Championship in China next month.

O'Sullivan now sits 17th, with Mark Selby first, Judd Trump second and John Higgins up from fifth to third after his Shanghai win over Trump.

Rory McIlroy stretches lead at top of world rankings

World No 1 McIlroy stretches lead at top of rankings as Woods moves up to No 2

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UPDATED:

10:03 GMT, 10 September 2012

Rory McIlroy's second successive victory in the FedEx Cup play-offs – and third win in four starts in America – has increased his dominance at the top of the world rankings.

But the 23-year-old Northern Irishman now has Tiger Woods as his closest challenger for the first time. /09/10/article-2200991-14EE4724000005DC-681_468x311.jpg” width=”468″ height=”311″ alt=”On top of the world: McIlroy won the BMW Championship” class=”blkBorder” />

On top of the world: McIlroy won the BMW Championship

Swede Peter Hanson, meanwhile, is up to 23rd after his win at the KLM Open in the Netherlands.

Latest leading positions in the world golf rankings:

1 Rory McIlroy 12.80pts, 2 Tiger Woods
9.63, 3 Luke Donald 9.17, 4 Lee Westwood 7.57, 5 Adam Scott 6.37, 6 Webb
Simpson 6.11, 7 Jason Dufner 6.08, 8 Bubba Watson 6.07, 9 Justin Rose
5.95, 10 Louis Oosthuizen 5.75, 11 Steve Stricker 5.72, 12 Dustin
Johnson 5.48, 13 Keegan Bradley 5.48, 14 Matt Kuchar 5.41, 15 Phil
Mickelson 5.16, 16 Zach Johnson 5.10, 17 Graeme McDowell 5.03, 18 Sergio
Garcia 4.93, 19 Brandt Snedeker 4.92, 20 Hunter Mahan 4.78.

Other leading Europeans: 23 Peter
Hanson, 25 Ian Poulter, 29 Paul Lawrie, 30 Francesco Molinari, 32 Martin
Kaymer, 35 Nicolas Colsaerts, 57 Padraig Harrington, 79 Miguel Angel
Jimenez.

World Cup Brazil 2014: Your essential guide to qualifying

The Road to Brazil! Your essential guide to the European qualifying groups for the 2014 World Cup

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UPDATED:

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

Ones to beat: Every nation will be aiming to succeed Spain as world champions at Brazil 2014

GROUP A

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 play-offs.

Favourites: Following
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

Dreaming of Brazil: Nikica Jelavic, of Everton, scores in national colours for Croatia

Play-off
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
effective team.

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

Young Star: Belgium's Eden Hazard challenges Wayne Rooney in a pre-Euro 2012 friendly with England

GROUP B

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.

Favourites:
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.

Play-off contenders:
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

Thunderbolt: Mario Balotelli scores his second goal against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final

GROUP C

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.

Favourites: Ten
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

Forward thinking: Germany coach Joachim Low has a new blueprint for the future

Play-off contenders:
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
Euro 2012.

GROUP D

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,
Friday 19:30)

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.

Favourites: Most
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.

Play-off
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

Goal machine: Robin Van Persie, seen here with Scott Parker of England, will be integral to Holland's hopes of qualifying

GROUP E

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.

Favourites: Not
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

Swiss role: Napoli's Gokhan Inler in action against England

Play-off
contenders: A toss-up between Norway, who are long overdue a finals
appearance, and Slovenia, who finished a disappointing fourth in qualifying for
Euro 2012.

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.

GROUP F

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,
Friday 19:45)

Key fixtures: Russia
v Portugal (October 12, 2012) – Early in the schedule but could decide the
direction of the group.

Favourites: Has
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.

Play-off
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
Real Madrid)

Penalty heartache: Cristiano Ronaldo looks on incredulous after Portugal are beaten by Spain in a Euro 2012 semi-final shoot-out

Penalty heartache: Cristiano Ronaldo looks on incredulous after Portugal are beaten by Spain in a Euro 2012 semi-final shoot-out

GROUP G

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

Hopes of a nation: Edin Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia as they aim to qualify for their first tournament final

Favourites: Most
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.

Play-off
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.

GROUP H

England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, San Marino

Click here for the full lowdown on England's opponents

GROUP I

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

Favourites: Obviously
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.

Play-off
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

Euro Star: Andres Iniesta was crowned the best player in Europe last week

Mark Wotte urges Scotland fans to get off Craig Levein"s back

Give him time: Wotte urges Scotland fans to get off Levein's back ahead of double-header

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UPDATED:

22:53 GMT, 6 September 2012

Mark Wotte urged Scotland to get off Craig Levein’s back and give the manager time to get things right.

Under pressure to take full points from the forthcoming qualifiers with Serbia and Macedonia, Levein has been accused of tactical caution and of adopting an inflexible approach to 14million outcast Steven Fletcher.

Speaking to Sportsmail, however, SFA performance director Wotte strongly defends his close colleague’s record, urging the Tartan Army to be realistic in their expectations.

Of the view that people expecting full points from the home double-header know nothing about Serbia or Macedonia, straight-talking Wotte says: ‘The criticism of Craig comes purely from the fact that, at the beginning of the last campaign, there were some poor results.

Under pressure: Craig Levein

Under pressure: Craig Levein

‘But any team travelling to the Czech Republic has a tough and difficult evening.

‘Maybe the style of the football was the reason for criticism, while in Lithuania we know we should have won there.

‘But a national team coach needs some time to get it right. And here we always want instant success.

‘When a national team doesn’t win, people instantly say, “ah, the manager is rubbish”. When we win, he is doing all right. People who expect six points out of six in these games do not know what they are talking about because they don’t know the quality of Serbia or Macedonia.

‘I’ve seen Macedonia play against Holland in the last campaign and they were really tough to beat and break down. Holland only won 1-0 away.

‘There is no easy opponent now — and don’t forget we are 47th in the FIFA rankings. We are not in the top 20, so we have to be realistic. If we get six points out of these two games, it’s an unbelievable success.

‘If we get four points, we should be very pleased.’

Realistic: Mark Wotte (right) has told Scotland fans to lay off Levein

Realistic: Mark Wotte (right) has told Scotland fans to lay off Levein

Assistant manager Peter Houston has already branded a haul of four points from six an acceptable result. Anything less would, however, place further pressure on Levein’s shoulders.

‘Clearly, we can’t be happy if we lose one of the two,’ added Wotte.

‘But it’s so easy to comment from the outside when people don’t know anything about Serbia and they don’t know anything about Macedonia.

‘It’s just because Scotland are playing at home that they think it has to be six points.’

Levein is expected to go with a 4-1-4-1 formation against the Serbs, with Kenny Miller playing the sole striker role. Responding to suggestions that the manager has been over-cautious in home games, however, Wotte believes he has little alternative.

Tough ask: Scotland prepare for Serbia and Macedonia

Tough ask: Scotland prepare for Serbia and Macedonia

‘Craig is so happy when he comes to see the 15-year-olds and sees us playing 4-3-3 with quick wingers and a passing game.

‘But the crux of the matter is that you pick the style of players who suit the system. If you don’t have the players available then you can’t do it.

‘Craig is a very realistic coach, not a traditional Scottish coach who wants to play 4-4-2 with two strong bodies up front. It’s not a Stoke City philosophy we employ at Scotland.’

Levein, meanwhile, called Bristol City’s Ricky Foster into the squad following the expected withdrawal of Charlie Mulgrew.