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.
“The coaching staff are happy because we’ve got a lot of teams we haven’t faced recently and there are a lot of delirious fans here because it is a fantastic fixture and I think the whole of Scotland and England will be looking forward to it.”
Wales will have high hopes of reaching the finals for the first time since 1958 having been placed, after the benefit of a rare top seeding, alongside Austria, Serbia, Ireland, Moldova and Georgia.
“We’ve really improved in the last three years and we fancy ourselves against anyone,” Wales coach Chris Coleman said.
“We’ve had a bit of fun being in pot one. It’s new for us. We’ve really enjoyed it.”
The other groups look open, with Portugal, Switzerland and Hungary in Group B, Romania, Poland and Denmark in Group E, Belgium and Bosnia in Group H and Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey in Group I.
Hosts Russia qualify automatically, meaning 14 European teams will be in the finals in three years’ time.
Editing by Ed Osmond