The 2018 World Cup may still be 21 months away (this is actually a face), and EURO 2016 may have ended less than two months ago (again, this is not really up for debate), but it’s time for UEFA’s 54 non-automatically-qualified nations to turn their attention to the first round (group stage) of qualification for Russia 2018…
Slovakia vs. England — 12 p.m. ET
The Sam Allardyce era will begin on Sunday, away to Slovakia, the no. 24 team in the world (if you live and breathe by FIFA’s rankings). If you watched the Three Lions at any point during Roy Hodgson’s managerial tenure, you’ll be blown away by how good a team with the quality that England currently possesses can be made to look with a real tactical gameplan in place.
Allardyce will first look to shore up the defense, which is full of strong individual players, by providing a bit more midfield protection through a pair of deeper-lying midfielders, as opposed to the one-man approach of Hodgson. Not to mention, 6-foot-2 striker Harry Kane, scorer of 46 goals the last two Premier League seasons and one of the national team’s best set-piece targets, won’t be taking corner kicks. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t so obvious to Hodgson.
Wayne Rooney has been retained as England captain, thus will retain his starting place. Allardyce announced his first starting lineup on Friday: Joe Hart in goal; Danny Rose, John Stones, Gary Cahill and Kyle Walker in defense; Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson deep in midfield; and Raheem Sterling, Rooney and Adam Lallana as the three attackers just behind Kane, the lone striker.
Group F should be a straightforward conquest for England — Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta join the Three Lions and Slovakia — so direct qualification has to be the expectation, even with a brand new manager. Finishing as one of the eight-best second-place sides (out of nine groups) and going the play-off route is playing with fire.
[ MORE: CONMEBOL WCQ roundup ]
Norway vs. Germany — 2:45 p.m. ET
Germany, the reigning world champions, begin defense of their crown with a tricky test in Oslo. After going out to France in the semifinals of EURO 2016, Joachim Low’s side aims to navigate a six-team Group C which also includes the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and the second-lowest ranked side in the field, San Marino (200th).
Goals figure to be at a premium on Sunday, as Germany, whose EURO campaign was largely saved by the timely form of striker Mario Gomez, continue to wrestle with the question, “Who will replace all the goals (71, to be exact) that Miroslav Klose scored over his 14-year international career?” Manuel Neuer, widely regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper, has been named Germany’s new captain after the international retirement of Bastian Schweinsteiger earlier this week.
Sunday’s full UEFA WCQ schedule
San Marino vs. Azerbaijan
Czech Republic vs. Northern Ireland
Denmark vs. Armenia
Kazakhstan vs. Poland
Romania vs. Montenegro
Lithuania vs. Slovenia
Malta vs. Scotland