England thrown into battle of the Brits

World Cup 2006 Qualifying Draw: Eriksson's side must negotiate resurgent Wales and Northern Ireland on road to Germany
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The Independent Football

While Sven Goran Eriksson may now be inclined to stay on until at least the 2006 World Cup, those Football Association officials responsible for security must be tempted to seek alternative employment after yesterday's qualifying draw.

Michael Schumacher, the German Formula One driver, pitched England into a group they would expect to win on the field but replete with problems off it. The most daunting fixtures are visits to Cardiff and Belfast to play Wales and Northern Ireland, opponents England have not met since 1984 and 1987, respectively. There is also the logistically demanding journey to Azerbaijan, another trip to Poland, where there is always violence, and a game in Austria. The World Cup slogan, "A Time to Make Friends", could look most inappropriate.

On the field, both Eriksson and the FA will be most concerned about Wales. Their improvement under Mark Hughes makes them tricky opponents for England, especially if the matches are staged after Ryan Giggs has served the two-match suspension meted out to him by Uefa yesterday for elbowing Russia's Vadim Evseev in the Euro 2004 play-offs. The police will be more concerned with the problems which have surrounded matches at the Millennium Stadium and Ninian Park in recent years.

"The security side will be taken seriously as for any game," said David Davies, the FA's executive director. "It is too early to say whether we will take tickets for our away games but it is about time we played Wales and Northern Ireland again."

Mark Hughes, the Welsh manager, preferred to dwell on the positive. "Everyone will be very excited," he said. "It has been 20-odd years since we played England. Over the years many attempts have been made to get the game on but it's never happened so we're very grateful Fifa pulled it off. England are clear favourites, one of the strongest teams in the world and on a good run. It will be a great game to be involved in. You have to be wary of the passion taking over and be aware of the tactical aspect."

Hughes added that he hoped Gary Speed, and anyone else considering international retirement, would be encouraged to carry on. On the subject of Giggs he said: "We will potentially miss our main world-class player. We hope the fixtures are kind to us." The fixtures will be decided in Cardiff on 13 January.

Sven Goran Eriksson described it as an "interesting" draw and, he admitted, "a good draw for us, not perfect but not bad. I saw some of the games Wales played, against Italy for example and they did very, very well. I have to study them all of course. They are local derbies more or less. I am sure that Wales want to beat England but we want the same so we'll see."

Belfast presents a different but equally serious security challenge. The team, which has not scored against anyone in two years, against England in 23, and is without a manager, will present less of a problem though they will not lack for effort.

Poland are famed for knocking England out of the 1974 competition but they have since been paired with England in 10 qualifying matches in 14 years without winning once. The last encounter, in 1999, ended in England securing the point they needed despite David Batty's dismissal. "England have played against Poland many times in these circumstances and have done well," Eriksson added. "I am very glad that we could avoid Holland."

England have not played Austria since 1979 when they lost 4-3 in Vienna. Their manager, Hans Krankl, said: "I didn't play then but did in 1973 when we lost 7-0 at Wembley. England are the great favourites in the group. The rest are all playing for second place."

Like Poland the Austrians have struggled in recent years and ought not to present a barrier. England have never played Azerbaijan but Wales beat them home and away in European qualifying. "It was one of our best performances, it is a difficult trip," Hughes said.

Scotland were paired with Italy but otherwise given an unattractive Group Five draw with Slovenia, Norway, Belarus and Moldova. They have beaten Italy once, in a 1965 World Cup qualifier in Glasgow.

Berti Vogts, the Scotland manager, was in confident mood. "We have nothing to fear from Italy, he said. "They are the favourites of course and one of the best sides in Europe but we have played against Germany at Hampden and drawn, we have played against Holland at Hampden and won, so I don't think Italy will be looking forward to coming to Hampden themselves."

The Republic of Ireland were given the chance to gain revenge over Switzerland, who knocked them out of Euro 2004. More significantly they also drew France with Israel, Cyprus and the Faroe Islands making up Group Four.

Other matchings of interest include the pairing of Serbia and Montenegro with Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group Seven, Russia with the former Soviet satellites Estonia and Latvia in Group Three, Turkey and Greece in Group Two and the Czech Republic and the Netherlands yet again in Group One. The eight group winners qualify automatically together with the best two runners-up. The other six runners-up will play off.

For 35 Fifa nations the draw was of no interest, seven failed to enter, 28 have already been knocked out, but there were still 160 countries, plus the 10 South American ones already engaged in qualifying, focusing on events in Frankfurt's remodelled Festhalle, the local equivalent of the Albert Hall.

The audience, some of whom appeared to have access to a bar to judge from the shouts of "Schumi", had to wait an hour and a half before the denouement in a draw full of almost as many platitudes as videos. Earlier, highlights included a rapturous reception for Franz Beckenbauer, uniquely a World Cup winner as a player, a coach and a host bidder, and now president of the organising committee. Less pleasant was the embarrassment of Bum Kun Cha, a former Bundesliga player, at his stumbling German.

The South Korean was there to draw the Asian Zone which delivered a very spicy Group Two which included Uzbekistan, Iraq, Palestine and Taiwan. It was no great surprise that Taiwan were kept apart from China, nor that North and South Korea ended up in separate sections. Bizarrely, China did draw Hong Kong, now under its political control but historically an independent football entity.

The Africa section followed producing one draw to cause comment at Highbury. Group Three features Cameroon and Ivory Coast pitting Arsenal defenders Lauren and Kolo Touré against one another.

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