Spain and Italy paired in 2018 World Cup draw

Sat Jul 25, 2015 2:26pm EDT
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By Mike Collett

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Spain and Italy were placed in the same qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as were the Netherlands and France, but holders Germany were handed a kinder campaign with the Czech Republic their chief rivals in the draw made on Saturday.

Spain, world champions in 2010, and Italy, who won the last of their four titles in 2006, are favorites to fill the top two slots in Group G after being paired with Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.

Only the group winners will automatically advance to the finals, however, with the eight best runners-up from nine groups fighting it out in playoffs for four other berths.

Things do not look so straightforward in Group A where the Netherlands and France face tricky opponents in Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg,

Germany, who won the World Cup for the fourth time in Brazil last year, will face the Czechs, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

"I'm happy that we are not playing against Italy and France," Germany manager Oliver Bierhoff told reporters. "We can be satisfied about that."

England, whose only World Cup win came in 1966 but who have been regular qualifiers in recent years, again look well placed after being grouped with their oldest rivals Scotland in Group F, along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.

"It is a draw that has made a lot of people happy," Scotland coach Gordon Strachan said.   Continued...

Spain's Juan Mata celebrates with Fernando Torres (9) after scoring a goal during the 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match between Australia and Spain at the Baixada arena in Curitiba June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Henry Romero