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 By Nick Miller

World Cup qualifying draw for Russia 2018 yields mouthwatering matchups

With FIFA's World Cup qualifying draw now firmly in the books, Nick Miller analyses the biggest early storylines on the three-year march toward Russia.

Is an 'easy' group good for England?

The last time England were involved in a draw for an international competition, FA chairman Greg Dyke drew a finger across his throat to signify that he wasn't, to say the least, too happy with how tough it would be. Not this time, though, with England getting just about the perfect draw, against a selection of perfectly beatable teams and, to ensure everyone retains a little interest in the whole affair and doesn't completely write it off as a formality, Scotland as well.

SPI simulations for 2018 World Cup qualifying

Avg. Finish
Win. Pct
Runner-up. Pct
WC Pct
England
1.43
69.9%
20.2%
82.2%
Slovakia
2.60
14.7%
34.8%
30.3%
Slovenia
3.01
7.9%
23.1%
15.8%
Scotland
3.07
7.6%
21.9%
15.4%
Lithuania
5.10
0.0%
0.1%
0.0%
Malta
5.79
0.0%
0.0%
0.0%

To give an indication of how, on paper, straightforward this group should be, England haven't so much as ever drawn against Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia, in competitive fixtures or otherwise. And for all the talk that the trips to a few of those countries will be tricky, unless something appalling happens, it's tough to see the Three Lions doing anything but take maximum points from those games. Scotland will be a completely different matter of course, and not just because of the rivalry as Gordon Strachan builds an improving young side, but England will be strong favourites for a relatively straightforward progression.

The question then comes as to whether that's necessarily a good thing. England's recent history has been defined by straightforward qualification campaigns, followed by desperately disappointing showings at the finals once they actually get there. A common theory is that having not much opposition to speak of in the preliminaries softens England up, allowing them to coast through without ever actually having to up their game, thus leading to a succession of let-downs.

This looks to have happened again. While Roy Hodgson -- or whoever is in charge of England by the time qualification starts -- will no doubt be delighted with the relatively low standard of opposition, playing someone like Italy or France would at least have allowed them to have a more stringent test.

Roy Hodgson's England were handed a fairly straightforward path to the 2018 World Cup.

The Dutch could be in trouble

Of all the big boys, the Netherlands are arguably the most in danger. Of course, the problems caused by the brief second reign of Guus Hiddink, who stepped down after less than a year in charge at the end of June, may well have been solved by then, but this largely young team under Danny Blind is still finding its feet and could slip up.

SPI simulations for 2018 World Cup qualifying

Avg. Finish
Win. Pct
Runner-up. Pct
WC Pct
France
1.51
56.4%
36.7%
82.3%
Netherlands
1.73
40.1%
48.3%
72.0%
Sweden
3.10
3.4%
13.3%
9.2%
Bulgaria
4.34
0.01%
1.3%
0.4%
Belarus
4.42
0.03%
0.7%
0.2%
Luxembourg
5.89
0.0%
0.0%
0.0%

They face France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg; a particularly spicy collection of opponents and, Luxembourg aside, all ones they have lost to in their last meetings against them. The most recent, against France, was particularly chastening as the French sashayed to a reasonably simple 2-0 victory thanks to some charitable defending from the Dutch in a friendly last March.

Perhaps that won't mean a great deal by the autumn of 2016 when these fixtures will actually take place, but it's tough to imagine that Blind -- or whoever is in charge by then -- will have an easy task in negotiating their way through such a tricky group.

Spain vs. Italy the headline encounter

Of course, France vs. the Netherlands features two giants of the European game, but the standout individual encounter surely comes in Group G, where the 2012 European Championship final will be reprised as Spain face Italy.

Spain and Italy's replay of the 2012 European Championship final is the highlight of UEFA's qualifying groups.

Both sides are in the middle of transitions of various degrees, and it wouldn't be a surprise if both teams have different head coaches to the current pair, Vicente del Bosque and Antonio Conte. However, this will still be a clash of gargantuan proportions, and given that the rest of the group -- which features Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein -- isn't anything to get people scared about, those two games will really matter, too.

SPI simulations for 2018 World Cup qualifying

Avg. Finish
Win. Pct
Runner-up. Pct
WC Pct
Spain
1.22
80.7%
17.1%
92.1%
Italy
2.09
17.2%
63.2%
50.2%
Israel
3.58
1.1%
9.6%
3.0%
Albania
3.73
0.9%
8.6%
3.5%
FYR Macedonia
4.46
0.1%
1.5%
0.3%
Liechtenstein
5.92
0.0%
0.0%
0.0%

It's one of the benefits of this qualification format over the one currently in place for Euro 2016, wherein a big team can lose a few games and not sweat it massively, because they can finish third in a group and still qualify. In this one, you can finish second and not even get the consolation of a playoff place. This means the games in Spain and Italy will have real weight to them, and woe betide the team that loses out.

The flip side of that is that we may well have a World Cup without Spain or Italy, which in the modern era is unthinkable. The last time either didn't make the final tournament was in 1974, but it at least makes this qualification period pretty exciting.

The group of death

That said, the Dutch are not in the toughest European group. As is compulsory in these scenarios, it's necessary to nominate a "group of death," and that title goes to Group I. While the current qualification process for the European Championships is of course rather easier than it has been in previous years, only one of the teams in Group I are out of contention, with Finland languishing in their group.

SPI simulations for 2018 World Cup qualifying

Avg. Finish
Win. Pct
Runner-up. Pct
WC Pct
Croatia
1.70
56.8%
24.1%
70.0%
Iceland
2.76
16.9%
27.4%
27.5%
Ukraine
2.77
16.6%
26.8%
30.2%
Turkey
3.22
9.1%
18.9%
16.3%
Finland
4.55
0.6%
2.8%
1.2%

The rest -- Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey -- are all competitive, and will all fancy their chances of making it through this rather more taxing qualification process. Indeed, perhaps it shouldn't be called the "group of death," more the most competitive group in the draw, but that of course isn't quite so catchy, so we'll stick with the pithy and eye-grabbing title for now.

Let's just say that the rest of the teams in Pot One will be delighted that they didn't land this one. Keep your eyes on Group I for a fearsome scrap to make Russia 2018.

U.S., Mexico get off lightly in CONCACAF

In the CONCACAF section, all eyes were on who the two powers of the region to see who they would have to face. The USA drew a fairly straightforward Group C led by Trinidad and Tobago and a selection of teams to be named later. Mexico, though, could have a more difficult path through as they were paired with Honduras, who will be looking to bounce back from their desperately disappointing showing in the Gold Cup.

SPI simulations for 2018 World Cup qualifying

Avg. Finish
Avg. Pct
GROUP A
Mexico

1.3

95.2%
Honduras
2.7
46.2%
Canada
2.7
41.4%
El Salvador
3.3
17.3%
GROUP B
Costa Rica

1.5

88.4%
Panama
2.5
50.3%
Jamaica
2.5
48.6%
Haiti
3.5
12.7%
GROUP C
United States

1.1

98.9%
Trinidad & T
2.5
50.0%
Guatemala
2.5
49.9%
St Vincent & G
3.9
1.2%

But more intriguing than either regional heavyweight was the action in Group C, which includes World Cup 2014 darlings Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti and Jamaica. The Jamaicans face off against Mexico in the Gold Cup final on Sunday, while Panama and Costa Rica each fell to eventual finalists Mexico by means of dubious decisions in favour of El Tri.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

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