The World Cup draw is always an eagerly awaited event in the footballing calendar. Bizarre mascots, farcical delays and Greg Dyke’s ominous throat slitting gesture have never been far from the action. Tomorrow, fans from all over the globe will be put through it all again as the draw for Russia 2018 will be made.
England fans are a pessimistic bunch by nature, discrediting wins as luck and preparing for Armageddon after defeat. Gareth Southgate is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to appeasing his nation. On the eve of finding out his country’s fate for their World Cup group, he has plenty of reasons to be nervous.
The way the draw is done is very simple, if you discount FIFA’s unrivalled faffing around before the event takes place. There are 32 teams in total, split into four pots dependant on ranking and each group of four will have a team from each pot. Therefore, England cannot draw any Pot 2 teams. As I said, simple right?
England, probably due to the fact that they are not one of the best 8 teams in the world, find themselves in pot two. Here are the teams in pots 1, 3 and 4 that England will be desperate to avoid:
POT 1 – Russia (Hosts), Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Argentina.
At first glance, Russia and Poland seem like the only obvious teams England will want to draw. Russia are the lowest ranked team in the competition (albeit due to not playing qualifiers), however there would be question marks over how England would cope with the pressure of playing the hosts. The uninspiring 1-1 draw in Marseille between these two sides at Euro 2016 would doubtless play on English minds.
Poland are an excellent side. Robert Lewandowski was the top-scorer in UEFA qualifying with 16 goals and would ask many questions of England’s defence. Kamil Glik had a wonderful Euro 2016 and will certainly play another major role in the heart of Poland’s defence.
What of the others? England performed admirably against Brazil and Germany in recent friendlies with a couple of 0-0 draws, and will be encouraged by their defensive performances. These two sides always ‘turn up’ for tournaments however, and England will be desperate to avoid them.
France are another side who Southgate would not fancy. They have quality all over the pitch, and a spine of Lloris, Varane, Kanté, Pogba and Griezmann would frighten any team in the world. France will be devastated about losing in the final of their home Euros, and will be stronger because of it.
Belgium and Argentina are two sides who are susceptible to being shocked. Belgium’s golden generation so far have flattered to deceive and despite strolling through an easy qualifying group, will still have scars from their shock defeat to Wales last June. There are question marks over manager Roberto Martinez’s ability to organise a side defensively, and this tournament will be his first true test.
Argentina on the other hand made a mess of their qualifying campaign, scraping through on the last match-day after a Lionel Messi hat-trick sunk Ecuador. They are a team who seem overly reliant on Messi, who scored seven qualifying goals. Their second highest scorer mustered just two. If England kept Messi quiet (easier said than done), it would be anyone’s game.
That leaves Portugal, the winners of Euro 2016. Portugal are a funny side, who seem to have qualified for every major tournament in living memory via the continental play-
offs. Another team with a star-man, Cristiano Ronaldo bagged 15 goals in the qualifying campaign. England would love to get revenge on Portugal after the 2004 and 2006 penalty shootout defeats, but you never know what Portugal side may turn up.
Pot 3 – Egypt, Iceland, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Senegal, Denmark, Iran, Sweden.
Let’s get them out of the way. Do England want to draw Iceland?
They are no longer a ‘minnow’ punching above their weight. Iceland are now a genuinely strong European team who finished above Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in their qualifying group. Beatable? Definitely. Desirable to draw? No.
We will not mention last time the two sides played.
Iran are dark horses to progress from their group. This is the second consecutive finals ex-Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz has guided the team to, and they look in good shape this year. Iran conceded just five goals in a gruelling 18-match qualifying campaign, including twelve consecutive clean sheets, and are deservedly the top-ranked side in Asia. They are a team England could well slip-up against.
Costa Rica are a side who have plenty of quality amongst their ranks. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been excellent for Real Madrid and instrumental in their back-to-back Champions League victories, and his heroics to get them to within a penalty shootout of the semi-finals four years ago may well need repeating. Qualifying above good sides such as Honduras and the USA stands them in good stead for this competition. A side England would rather stay clear of.
Gareth Southgate would be content drawing any of the African sides in pot 3, especially as the three top ranked AFC sides: Algeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana failed to qualify.
Mo Salah is Egypt’s star man, who has 12 Premier League goals already this season, but they are an inexperienced team who have qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years.
Senegal possess good top-flight experience with their midfield pairing of Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté, while Tunisia conceded just four goals in their qualifying group stage. Despite this, all three sides would still pose as beatable options for England.
Sweden and Denmark are two more sides England will expect to beat. The 3 Lions have a good record against both outfits in major tournaments. Emil Forsberg and Christian Eriksen are the creators-in-chief for Sweden and Denmark respectively, and are top-class playmakers who England would have to be wary of.
Pot 4 – Serbia, Australia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Panama, Morocco, Nigeria.
Pot four throws up a few banana skins for the final remaining spot in the group. Japan are a side who regularly qualify for World Cup’s and finished above Saudi Arabia and Australia in an impressive qualifying campaign. Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are household names in the footballing world and the Japanese will prove a tricky proposition for anyone who draws them.
Serbia are the strongest side in this pot. Finishing above the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria in qualifying whilst only losing once is an excellent achievement. The quality through their ranks will make them a very dangerous side. Captain Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic have experience at the highest level and are no strangers to playing at the highest level. Serbia are a side no one will fancy.
Nigeria are no strangers to the World Cup, and have twice made the last-16 of the tournament. They are a young side, with talented attacking players such as Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi amongst their ranks. Morocco did not concede a single goal in their six group matches for qualifying, and should not be written off. The two African sides in this pot are well-organised and will prove a stiff test should England draw them.
Australia qualified in the hardest possible way, winning an inter-continental play-off against Syria in extra-time before overcoming Honduras in their final two-legged play-off. Manager Ange Postecoglou resigned from his post after leading his country to the finals, after the job had “taken its toll.” They are a side with incredible team ethic and passion, but will have to make the right managerial appointment to be a threat to England should they be drawn together.
South Korea and Saudi Arabia are regular faces at the World Cup. Both finishing second in their qualifying group, but neither possess the necessary firepower to cause any upsets at the tournament. Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is South Korea’s star man, and will have to have an outstanding tournament if his country will progress. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi bagged 16 goals in qualifying for Saudi Arabia, but with no experience outside Asia at club level, he may struggle against higher calibre opposition. These are two sides Southgate would be content drawing.
New boys Panama qualified automatically from their CONCAF group, making an excellent account of themselves. An 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica in their last match sealed qualification, and the President even declared a national holiday. With no World Cup experience and an ageing team, Panama would have to perform miracles to make it through their group.
Pot 2 teams England will avoid – Spain, Peru, Switzerland, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia.
Dream Group: Russia, England, Tunisia, Panama.
Group of Death: Germany, England, Costa Rica, Serbia.