The draw for the preliminary stages of the 2018 World Cup has been taken with France taking on Netherlands, Spain and Italy drawn in the same group and England finding themselves placed with Scotland.
Germany will start defending their World Cup title in a six-team UEFA pool where the Czech Republic seems the biggest barrier to advancing as group winners.
“I’m happy that we won’t play against France or Italy,” said former German international and current team official Oliver Bierhoff.
Italy, the 2006 world champions, paid the price for recent poor results by being drawn once again in qualifying with 2010 winner Spain in Saturday’s ceremony at Konstantin Palace.
“It will be very stimulating for our team,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said through a translator in St. Petersburg. “Spain is very strong.”
Spain ended Italy’s European Championship hopes in the 2008 and 2012 finals before they both embarrassingly exited the last World Cup in the group stage.
“The World Cup was a slight misadventure, the same as for us,” Conte said. “At the moment, they are constructing something new.”
Perhaps the toughest European group puts the Netherlands with France and Sweden, whose star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has perhaps his last chance to play again on football’s biggest stage.
“It’s not really easy to think after the draw, do we qualify for the next World Cup?” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “It won’t be very easy.”
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal got a more favourable draw with Switzerland their highest-ranked rival.
Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Portugal Switzerland Hungary Faroe Islands Latvia Andorra
Germany Czech Republic Northern Ireland Norway Azerbaijan San Marino
Wales Austria Serbia Republic of Ireland Moldova Georgia
Romania Denmark Poland Montenegro Armenia Kazakhstan
England Slovakia Scotland Slovenia Lithuania Malta
Spain Italy Albania Israel FYR Macedonia Liechtenstein
Belgium Bosnia-Herz Greece Estonia Cyprus
Croatia Iceland Ukraine Turkey Finland