High hopes for England in group of life

According to a simple mathematical equation, based on team’s performances over the last four years, England’s World Cup group was the easiest they could have had.

Statistically, as well as in shallow appearance, Group I is the toughest group, with Spain and France almost certain to blow away Belarus, Georgia and Finland, though those countries are capable themselves, particularly the Belarussians. But Spain and France provide a fascinating contrast; the dominant team of recent years against the biggest disappointments. But under Laurent Blanc, France have been revived, and a cursory look through their first XI suggests that they are a side who should be taken very, very seriously. Perhaps they are the only team with the technical skill to take on and beat the French, with the likes of Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra providing the solid midfield in which Mathieu Valbuena, Samir Nasri and Yoann Gourcuff can thrive, pass and show off their creativity.

Either way, there is likely to be a runner up from that group which no other team will want to face in the play offs. Which is why other group favourites will be so desperate to secure first place. Group D is technically the second strongest, with Holland taking on Turkey, Romania and Hungary, the latter two of whom they always seem to be paired with in qualifiers, as well as Estonia and Andorra to provide the goal difference boost. But in Guus Hiddink’s Turkey, a side with the likes of the upcoming Umut Bulut and Arda Turan, as well as the precocious skill of the Hamit and Halil Altintops, the Dutch will have a tough task on their hands. Romania are usually tricky opponents as well, and though third favourites for the group, will provide a tough opponent, as should Hungary.

The third strongest group is that which pits the Republic of Ireland and Sweden against Germany. On the face of it, this should be a group Germany win, and usually do, but should they slip up the Swedes and Irish have the quality to punish them. More realistically though, they are likely to compete for second place and the chance to have a crack at the play offs. Austria should not be entirely discounted, particularly if the likes of Marco Arnautinovic can be coaxed into their best form, whilst Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands should provide minimal resistance.

Group F is the next toughest, with Portugal, Russia, Israel and Northern Island, and the also rans Azerbaijan and Luxembourg. Yet no team in this group should be over confident; Luxembourg have beaten Switzerland in recent years whilst Portugal will have unhappy memories of a 1-1 draw with the Azeris. But chances are that the Portuguese will win the group, though they are adept at making qualifying difficult for themselves. If they do so, Russia will be confident of punishing them, whilst Israel lurk in the background to spring a shock. The Israelis are adept at missing out on major championships by the narrowest of margins, and the smart money would be on Russia or Portugal pipping them to second place by a point, but with Russia on the wane they may sneak into the play offs. The Northern Irish usually put up plucky resistance, but with three teams of such quality in their group, they will do well to compete.

Group E is the next strongest group statistically, though on paper perhaps not so much. Norway, Switzerland, Slovenia, Albania, Cyprus and Iceland represent one of the more even groups, without a true minnow or whipping boy. Sixth seeds Iceland will be dangerous after their impressive European under 21 championship, whilst Albania are an improving force and Cyprus always give opponents a tough game. Slovenia, Switzerland and Norway will all be confident of booking a place in Brazil, but it seems likely that it will come down to a battle between the Norwegians, vastly improved in recent times, and the Swiss, who have a talented and improving young team.

Italy could have been given many easier draws too. Denmark are another improving team, with a variety of talents; Nicklas Bendtner, Christian Eriksen and Simon Kjaer show that they have talent all over the pitch, whilst the Czech Republic were the toughest third seed on offer. Bulgaria are decent but unlikely to compete, whilst Armenia and Malta shouldn’t pose too many worries. But for Italy, they will be wary of the Danes and Czechs. If any group sees its top seed toppled in qualifying, this one looks the most likely. A three way battle could go to the wire.

Croatia will be thinking that Group A could have been a lot easier. Their main rivals will be Serbia, whose obdurate defence led by Nemanja Vidic and Neven Subotic is one of the toughest to crack in the world game, and who possess enough skill and quality in attack to ask questions of most defences. But then there is also Belgium, possibly the most exciting young team in Europe. The Belgians have a defence based on the youthful but experienced Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen in front of Simon Mignolet, a midfield with the talented Steven Defour and Eden Hazard, one of Europe’s best young talents. With Hazard’s creativity behind the youthful but powerful scoring machine that is Romelu Lukaku, Belgium could be an intriguing but difficult opponent in the coming years, and could well spring a surprise in the group. Scotland will be disappointed to have three teams vastly superior to them in their group, which renders their qualification hopes fairly dim, whilst Macedonia and Wales are possibly the toughest fifth and sixth seeds respectively.

Group G pits Greece up against Slovakia and Bosnia. Greece are in a self-perpetuating cycle at the moment. They’re not an especially good team, but being consistently drawn into fairly easy groups as a result of a high seeding following their impressive run in 2004 when they won the European Championships means that they continue to get good results against weaker teams and maintain their lofty world ranking. They will once again be confident of making it to the World Cup from this group, though Slovakia are a tough side who are capable of winning this group if Marek Hamsik is on his game. Bosnia too, are a tricky team to face, led by Edin Dzeko up front, and should make life difficult for the favourites. In Lithuania and Latvia there are two opponents who can take teams off anyone not on their game, though Leichtenstein will be little concern to their group opponents.

And so to England’s group, that group of life. Ukraine will be the toughest opponent, a notoriously difficult team to play, and England’s misfortune is that they must travel not only to there, but Montenegro and Poland too; three exceptionally tricky away ties against very good sides. If England are ponderous there is the potential to drop enough points to allow the Ukrainians or Montenegrins to beat them to top spot. Moldovo and San Marino are among the weakest teams in the draw, but having three high quality opponents is unfortunate for England, even if they avoided France.

Predicted group winners: Spain, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia, England

Predicted runners up: France (best runner up), Turkey, Sweden, Israel, Norway, Italy, Belgium, Bosnia, Montenegro