A daunting mixture of familiar foes and emerging nations will bar England's way as they attempt to reach the World Cup finals in France in 1998. Last night's draw, held at the Louvre in Paris, means that Terry Venables' side must overcome Italy and Poland as well as Georgia and Moldova if they are to rediscover the art of qualifying.
Scotland arguably fared best of the home countries, having been drawn in a six-team section in which Sweden are the top seeds. The draw was also comparatively kind to the Republic of Ireland, whose main competition would appear to come from Romania. In contrast, Wales face a group which includes Belgium and the Netherlands, while Northern Ireland must test their revival against Germany and Portugal.
On paper, Group Two looks like another potential minefield for England after their shambolic failure under Graham Taylor to book a place in the last finals. In reality, it may be less problematic. Italy, who beat Bobby Robson's team in the third-place play-off in 1990 and were defeated finalists at USA '94, were pushed into second spot in their European Championship group by Croatia and are considered to be in transition.
Poland and England have been pitted against each other in three World Cup qualifying tournaments - most memorably in 1973, most recently in '89 - as well as meeting in the finals in Mexico nine years ago. The Poles have won only once in 11 meetings overall and finished a poor fourth in their European Championship section.
Georgia and Moldova both beat Wales in that competition. The Georgians, indeed, completed a double by 5-0 in Tbilisi and 1-0 in Cardiff, performances that brought Georgi Kinkladze to the attention of Manchester City. The seeding system rated Moldova as the weakest of England's opponents, although they also beat Georgia twice.
Venables, spared the ordeal of making his way through the industrial chaos of the French capital, said at Wembley: "The prospect of two games with Italy is exciting and it wouldn't be the World Cup without us playing Poland, would it? Whether I will be in charge remains to be seen. It's a tough group but I think the public now understand there aren't any soft games. Moldova and Georgia are good sides. But we're fortunate to be in a group of five rather than six teams."
Venables' opposite number it Italy, Arrigo Sacchi, described it as a "super" draw. "It means that two of the biggest sides in the entire world of football will come together and that is something fans in both countries will want to see," he said.
"We know both the games against England will be very difficult but I am sure England will feel the same as well. English football is very strong and they have some great players but we also have world-class players and are a strong side. Looking at the group, I think it's probably between us, England and maybe Poland."
Scotland's manager, Craig Brown, considered Group Four a "fair draw". He added: "We could have had stiffer opponents, though Sweden finished third in the World Cup which gives you an idea of their pedigree. Austria can be dangerous, and Belarus beat the Dutch in the European qualifying, so it could be tricky."
Jack Charlton, who has hinted that he might resign were the Republic to lose at Anfield tonight, looked ahead confidently to Group Eight. "Romania are the only team there you'd say had excellent quality, though some of their top players may be coming to the end of their careers," he said.
No such bravado from Wales' Bobby Gould or Northern Ireland's Bryan Hamilton. The Welsh have not qualified since 1958, and Gould said: "Let's just say it's very interesting, but none of those sides will relish coming to the Arms Park."
Hamilton, taking an early look at the Portuguese at Wembley, bemoaned a "terribly tough group" yet his initial reaction was to be more worried about its supposed makeweights: "At least I know something about the Germans and Portugal."
Remarkably, the draw pitted three former Yugoslav nations - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia - against each other. Bosnia are expected to stage home games in Italy, but their coach, Faruk Hadzibegic, said: "We'll play with the whole Bosnian people behind us, thinking only of victory and not of politics."
The draw featured a record 168 nations, of whom 30 will join France, the hosts, and Brazil, the holders, in the finals after 639 qualifying matches. The British teams open their campaigns next autumn, and will be more anxious than ever to avoid finishing second. Play-offs on a home- and-away basis await all but the runners-up with the best record, forcing countries in the six-team groups to play 12 internationals in 15 months.
Full non-European draw, Sporting Digest, page 25
WORLD CUP 1998: EUROPEAN QUALIFYING SECTION
GROUP ONE Denmark Greece Croatia Slovenia Bosnia
GROUP TWO Italy England Poland Georgia Moldova
GROUP THREE Norway Switzerland Finland Hungary Azerbaijan
GROUP FOUR Sweden Scotland Austria Latvia Belarus Estonia
GROUP FIVE Russia Bulgaria Israel Cyprus Luxembourg
GROUP SIX Spain Czech Republic Slovakia Yugoslavia Malta Faroe Islands
GROUP SEVEN Netherlands Belgium Turkey Wales San Marino
GROUP EIGHT Romania Rep of Ireland Lithuania Iceland Macedonia Liechtenstein
GROUP NINE Germany Portugal Northern Ireland Ukraine Albania Armenia
Fourteen countries qualify plus France as hosts. The nine group winners will be joined in the finals by the the best runner-up. The other eight group runners-up will be drawn into pairs for four play-off matches, the winners of which also qualify for the finals
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