The Preliminary Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ set the stage for 268 matches in the European Zone over the next two years, equating to a third of the total number of qualifying matches scheduled around the globe. The Draw was relatively kind to the continent’s big guns, with the notable exception of Spain, who will need to negotiate two tricky matches with France on their road to Brazil.
Spain, who currently top the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, will need to finish above Les Bleus, world champions in 1998 and runners-up in 2006, in order to qualify directly for the final stages. Elsewhere, the path has a less perilous look about it for Italy (Group B), Germany (Group C), the Netherlands (Group D) and England (Group H).
The Draw has also provided fans with three derbies of sorts, namely Scotland-Wales (Group A), Serbia-Croatia (also Group A) and Latvia-Lithuania (Group G), as well as an intriguing clash between Poland and Ukraine (Group H), the co-hosts of UEFA EURO 2012.
The standout section
Statistically, the five-team group rarely turns out to be the toughest. Group I may prove to be the exception this time around, as not only does it contain three teams who are traditionally strong at home (Finland, Georgia and Belarus), but it also boasts two European heavyweights, Spain and France, who will have almost no margin for error if they are to qualify directly as section winners. Spain, as European and world champions, will still start off as favourites to progress, but France - after a South Africa 2010 campaign that was disappointing to say the least - appear to be right back on track under Laurent Blanc.
In their 30 previous matches, Spain have won 13 and lost 11, and there have been six draws. France have the psychological advantage of having won the teams' most recent competitive match – a 3-1 triumph in the Round of 16 at Germany 2006 – but have lost two friendly matches to La Roja since then.
The Netherlands, finalists at South Africa 2010, will not feel too aggrieved with the draw they were handed, with Turkey appearing to represent their main hurdle in Group D. Italy will need to be wary of Denmark and Czech Republic in Group B, where Bulgaria are also likely to have an important role to play. Germany are sure to fancy their chances in Group C, although Sweden and Republic of Ireland will doubtless do their utmost to spring a surprise. The same could be said for England, who, after drawing Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland and Moldova, will spend much of their campaign travelling to Eastern Europe.
The Draw opened up an array of possibilities for a number of dark horses, nowhere more so than in Group A, where Serbia, Belgium and Scotland will all fancy their chances of qualifying at the expense of top seeds Croatia. A similar situation presents itself in Group E, where Slovenia and Switzerland could conceivably finish ahead of the section's Pot 1 representatives, Norway. Group F has more of a two-horse feel about it, with Portugal and Russia seemingly a cut above the rest, although they will probably both need to pick up points in Israel and Northern Ireland. Greece, meanwhile, find themselves in a comparable position to the English, in that numerous trips eastwards – to Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania and Latvia – await them.
The crunch matches
The match between the former Yugoslav nations of Serbia and Croatia in Group A is sure to produce fireworks, while Germany's trip to Sweden will be crucial in Group C. Then, of course, there are the matches between France and Spain - only the fourth time that two former FIFA World Cup winners have done battle in European Zone qualifiers.
268 Brazil 2014 preliminary matches, almost one third of the overall tally of 824, will be contested by European teams.
The next step
Of the 53 European nations spread across eight groups of six teams and one of five, 13 will eventually qualify for Brazil 2014. The nine group winners advance automatically, while the eight best runners-up will square off in home-and-away play-offs, from which four further qualifiers will emerge. European qualifying matches will begin on 7 September and will end on 19 November 2013. In order to calculate the ranking of the eight second-placed sides, results against the bottom team in each group will be discounted.